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Getting Iran Wrong

Illustration: Winai Tepsuttinun / shutterstock

Ishaan Tharoor warns against the frequent and misleading stereotyping that shapes a lot of commentary on Iran, including the recent Stavridis article on Iranian “imperial ambitions” that I criticized earlier this week:

“Iran is an ancient civilization with a rich culture that definitely has roots in its old history,” Iranian-American journalist Negar Mortazavi tells WorldViews. “But to stereotype modern Iran and Iranians based on what happened thousands of years ago is wrong.”

Mortazavi argues that you would never see such simplistic, overreaching appraisals of American allies: “Do we view today’s Europe through the affairs of the Vikings? No. Do we look at Saudi Arabia through the lens of its old Islamic Empire when it was taking over the world? No.”

One of several things that’s wrong with trying to understand Iran–or any other country–in this way is that it is bound to obscure many parts of contemporary reality from view and to distort whatever is still visible to such an extent that it is sure to be false. It is no coincidence that the people that tend to indulge in these sorts of arguments most often also happen to be very hawkish on Iran, since they have every incentive to try to use Iran’s ancient history and crude stereotypes about Iranians for the purpose of threat inflation and sowing distrust.

Hawks may be hoping to alarm Western audiences by invoking Iran’s different imperial pasts, but the funny thing is that they are unintentionally highlighting the many significant differences between Iran’s foreign policy over the last two centuries and that of the Achaemenids or Sasanians. When someone is reduced to talking about the imperial designs of Xerxes or Khusrau I, he is trying to distract from the reality that modern Iran has not been trying to conquer foreign lands in a long time.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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