Orientalism and Iran: Why We View Iran the Way We Do
Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said, had it correct in his 1978 assertion that the reason why the West deals with the Middle East in the manner it does is due to the idea of Orientalism-the fundamental idea of the “other.” Nearly 41 years later, the assertion rings true as the West continues to struggle with how to best cover and interact with the region. And nowhere else is the struggle more apparent than with the coverage of Iran.
In the wake of the nuclear deal and the ongoing Yemeni civil war, Western media has proven itself quick to label the actor as “aggressive” and a “terrorist.” But the issue is that the Levantinian nation is neither of those things nor is it anti-imperialist. The reality is that Iran is just another Middle Eastern country trying to put itself back together and move forward after being flipped upside down and left to fend for itself.
For years, Iran has been at the center of immense interest from the United States and its allies, given the sheer size of the nation, its position on the Middle Eastern power totem pole and more. Western involvement and interest in the Levantine country can best be traced back to the years of the Pahlavis, specifically when oil was discovered.
Early in the 20th century, mass amounts of oil were discovered in the region, raising interest among oil-dependent countries. With the formation of OPEC in 1940, oil became the sole business in Iran, drawing the largest amount of income. For years, the United States was its biggest client, funneling hundreds of thousands there every year. Because of this reliance, Iran could depend on the United States to back them in negotiations and confrontations with countries around it. But the dependence backfired in 1951 when Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah, nationalized the holdings of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In direct response, the British and the American governments imposed sanctions on the nation, leading to an international boycott of oil from them, and arranged a coup d’etat that ended nearly 54 years of continuous rulings by the Pahlavi family and nearly 2,500 years of monarchy. The result was the Iranian Revolution, which was the installation of the Islamic republic with Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the helm.
Following the revolution and in the subsequent years, Iran, understandably, became increasingly anti-Western. The sentiment stemmed from the violent revolution that was fully created and propagated by the United States. As a result, the country took a firm stance in stamping out any chance of Western involvement in countries around it. Iran worsened its public perception as it began backing controversial terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. With a strict anti-Israel stance, Iran has all but alienated itself from the United States. With the creation and expansion of nuclear capabilities, Iran suddenly reignited its feud with the United States, ushering in more sanctions. Because of this, the public perception of the nation has completely soured, leading to calls of it being a “terrorist nation” and a “danger to those around it.” But the reality is that Iran is just trying to rebuild itself after years of strife and bloody warfare.
In recent years, Iran has proved itself to be a valuable ally and a strategic partner by modernizing itself in more ways than one. In an effort to decrease its dependence on oil, Iran is attempting to become an industrial powerhouse. Given that it has a large population and a $400 billion economy that is projected to grow another 7%, becoming a powerhouse in the region won’t be hard for them. Home to some of the most prestigious universities in the region like Sharif University of Technology, nanotechnology has become the hotspot for students. Recent work in the world of online monetary exchange has paid off as Iran prepares to reveal their version of Bitcoin, backed by the government.
As it continues to modernize and move forward among its neighbors, Iran is beginning to prove that it no longer fits the persona that the West has forced it to assume. Iran is not anti-West nor is it an example of state-funded terrorism. What Iran is, when stripped down, is the victim of orientalism and the product of slow reconstruction. The idea of the other, the orient and the occident, is what drove the United States to carry through with the coup d’etat that overthrew Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Orientalism is what caused the creation of an Islamic republic, complete with the Ayatollah. Orientalism is why the West continues to paint this largely falsified version of the country as one that funds terrorism and hates America and everything that the West stands for. Iran is just another example of a Middle Eastern country forced to pick itself up and rearrange itself after almost total destruction.