Cyrus Schayegh, Columbia University
In July 29, 1951, three months after the beginning of Mohammed Mosaddeq's premiership in Iran, the New York Times (NYT) published a long article on Iranian nationalism and the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) entitled "Moral for Iran: Lion or Mouse?". The writer, T.H. Vail Motter, explained that the causes of the present "accumulation of resentments, ancient and modern, plain, fancy and fanciful (...) turn(ing) upon a single target - oil" of the Iranians are to be found in their perception of repeated violations of their sovereignty, last during World War Two by the Allied occupation for which "in Iranian eyes, the price was exorbitant and the victory was one of words (...) so long as the most vital factor in the post-war economy remained foreign." Admitting that "[I]t will not do (...) to overlook the universal sense of injustice Iranians feel at what they regard as the contradictions between the West's words and its deeds," Motter immediately added that "the Iranian Government's specific case against the British oil company is by all means altogether unreasonable", because Iran's "lack of adequate technical manpower" renders nationalized oil-production futile.
"[W]hy then does Iran muddy her case by seeking an overnight solution to a problem as complex as that of her oil?" - "The answer once again is that the mood of the people whipped up by a combination of interested forces ranging from Moslem leaders to Communist stooges who know well to exploit popular resentment against foreigners, is not analytical but emotional. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that Iran has chosen to assert its nationalism oblivious to the all-important difference between the assertion and the effective exercise of sovereignty - the difference between fantasy and fact." This "mystical approach to sovereignty" kindled by "surcharged emotions" is of course very childish; and in the Western nations which have learned the lessons of "the calamitous consequences of exaggerated nationalism" and which are "now turning (...) toward the larger concepts of collective security", such "extreme nationalism is regarded as the adolescence of nations from which they grow to adulthood." In this context, "[F]or much of the new nationalistic spirit in the Near East, the United States deserves honorable credit. Wilson's doctrine of self-determination was a potent stimulus and inspiration to the new entities, independent or mandated, into which Versailles crumbled the old Ottoman Empire." During World War Two, "American policy was to strengthen Iran", and "in the crisis over Azerbaijan in 1945-46, American policy was consistent again with the Wilsonian doctrine of self-determination." In toto, "Iran's case for sovereignty is thus seen to be firmly supported by the deeds as well as the words of the Western world and especially of the United States."
Should Iran continue to ignore well-meant American words, the results could be dangerous. "If Iran exhausts itself in roaring and proves impotent to bear the burdens it claims, its weaknesses will invite outside strength (...) perhaps the Soviet Union, not troubled by pangs of conscience." The author concludes the article by maintaining that "[T]here are forces in Iran able and ready to adopt necessary means of reform, self-imposed and self-administered, with foreign advice." However, those forces are not constituted by the "present Iranian leadership (which) believes that mere assertion of the national will somehow not only demonstrate national strength but also create it", a problematic belief ridiculed in a caricature. Smiling in childish pride while looking upwards at the blazing "torch of liberty, Iranian style" in his hand, Mosaddeq does not care that he is wading through seas of oil, provoking total catastrophe. The reformists are more likely to be led by the young Muhammad Reza Shah who has been described as pro-democratic, progressive, and pro-American specially during his visit to the USA in late 1949.
Vail Motter's article reflects the gist of the NYT's coverage of Iran during Mosaddeq's Premier-ministership 1951-1953 which constitutes this paper's object of examination: Iran's insufficient level of technological expertise which in combination with its irrational national and religious psyche was bound to provoke a Communist coup, versus the rational US-American society and political system based on sound economics and technological progress.
Based on the thesis that the image of a foreign society is created in relation to the image of one's own society at a specific moment, and not merely to general cognitive patterns, this case study claims that the above-mentioned implicit characterization of Iran vis-à-vis the USA both drew on pre-existing general aspects of Orientalism and gave it a new specific drive characterized by references to the US-American self-image at the beginning of the Cold War. This emerging synthesis thus fine-tuned the Orientalist juxtaposition "Oriental irrationality" versus "Western rationality" by inferring that the latter's perfect embodiment is found in the US-American society. In its (and its government's) self-image, a politically free system and economical-technical progress elevated it above others and formed the implicit backdrop for the NYT's description of Iran. In the eyes of the newspaper's readers, these connected view of oneself vis-à-vis the others was credible due to the specific, intense awareness of recent history and present-day politics. After all, the USA had just vanquished German National Socialism and Japanese imperialism in the most brutal war of human history, and now was seen as defending its moral-political vision and economical interests again by leading the so-called free nations in a global struggle against Russian communism, definitely emerging as the new dominant super-power intervening also in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. If this updated version of a central tenet of Orientalism thus proposed a distinctively American form of modern rational society as the cure for Oriental irrationalities and underdevelopment, its Cold War context put a special emphasis on 'economico-technological progress' as a prerequisite for political stability and a rational collective identity. This position would soon find an echo in the advise given to developing 'Third World' nations by American social scientific 'development theory', and of course was already part and parcel of US policy towards the emerging 'Third World', including Iran.
While we thus agree with Edward Said's dictum that Orientalism is "a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with "our" world", we maintain that it needs to be examined in case studies of specific culturo-political junctures. It is precisely this task at which we aim with the present text, which hopefully will contribute to a better understanding of the specifities of 'Orientalism' at definite historical moments, and help to uncover some historical roots of American press coverage of the Middle East in the years after 1953.
The rise of Mosaddeq and Harriman's visit: the American West meets the Orient
On March 7, 1951, almost two months before the inauguration of Mosaddeq as new Premier, the Iranian Premier Ali Razmara was killed by a member of the Feda'yian-e Eslam. On the day after, the NYT editor, citing Under Secretary Webb, described Razmara as having been "devoted to the independence of his country and (...) to accomplishment of the urgently needed social and economic reforms on which that independence may, in the long run, depend", adding that "[I]n fact, his Government was regarded as perhaps the last-chance regime to carry out the vast reform program favored by the shah to transform Iran from a backward and still feudal country into a modern state and society as the best defense against communism." "[F]rom that point of view (...) he was also regarded as the best support of America's long-range policy in the Middle East seeking the same goals." The article of March 8 contended that his program had been hindered by tribal leaders, wealthy landlords, office holders, and political opponents. However, in the March 8 edition, it was made clear that Razmara "was shot to death (...) by a religious fanatic". In a broader context, the assassination was seen as "the climax of weeks of political agitation in which nationalistic Iranians showed growing resentment against the Premier because he opposed Nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company." The "stirr(ing) up of the passions of an awakening people (...)" was based on a "sense of grievance, rooted on poverty and fed by Soviet propaganda." And while the Russians might not be "ready or not willing" to wage war on Iran now, the Iranians were already "so terrified of offending their giant neighbor that they have given in to some of Russia's incessant demands. They live in the shadow of fear (...)." Putting the event in context of contemporary politics, this regicide thus was analyzed as the newest example of many recent "acts of political madness (...) which continue to shock and arouse the civilized world which can never tolerate government by assassination" , and clearly "aimed against "foreigners", particularly the British." In conclusion, the NYT believed Iran to be in a dangerously volatile situation. "Iran is a land where everything can happen", and the Shah was seen as the only hope left. However, this "modern young man" was prophesied a difficult future. Not only "[P]ainfully anxious to bring his country into the twentieth century", but also "caught, like all rulers of under-developed lands, between the strong undertow pulling backward and currents racing ahead too fast", he was seen as deserving and needing much greater help from the USA than granted hitherto.
In American eyes, Iran was thus dependent on the shah as the only guarantor for such reasonable policies as socioeconomic reforms, devotion to independence in the framework of the 'free world', and as a result effective defense against communism, holding at bay both traditional-minded conservatives and fanatic extremists who wanted to rush forward at too fast a pace. This emphasis on economic growth (plus military aid) and a concomitant opposition to a completely open political scene for fear of communism had already characterized the Truman Doctrine concerning Greece and Turkey since 1947.
Some two months after the assassination of Razmara, at the end of April 1951, Mosaddeq became Prime Minister. Describing him as the "leader of the extremist National Front" which "has won popular favor mainly by opposing and agitating against everything, but first of all against British influence and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company" (AIOC), the NYT also granted that he and the National Front members of the Majles were "probably the only ones who have been honestly elected." Focusing on Mosaddeq's personality and on the Iranian political scene in general, the NYT implicitly and at times explicitly contrasted them with the more reasonable American Western world, and thereby set the mode of thought for the next two years.
Clark emphasized Mosaddeq's general anti-foreign attitude, and described him as "one of Iran's most redoubtable demagogues" who is "despite a lifetime of political activity (...) an enigmatic figure." Highlighting the new Premier's "considerable histrionic talent", the reporter interpreted his theatrical, manipulative, exaggerated acting as a ways to cover his real egoistic intentions. "Dr. Mosaddeq would often break into tears in the middle of his tirades before the Majles and occasionally he would faint dead away. His reputation in the bazaar and the countryside is that of a great idealist. Since becoming Premier, however, Dr. Mosaddeq has become completely reticent. He still weeps and faints, but he is not talking any more than he has to (...). Those who has expected the Mosaddeq cabinet to represent a clear break with the past were surprised to discover familiar faces on the Government bench. (...) It was a mixture as before, the same old game of musical chairs that Dr. Mosaddeq had so often denounced." Very strangely, this part ended with the note that Mosaddeq's entire career was devoted to "positive negativism." It is not clear whether the writer and the editors wanted to refer to Mosaddeq's foreign policy concept of "negative equilibrium" and 'just' got the term wrong, or whether this nonsensical-sounding concept was intentionally planted into the article in order to cast the new Iranian Premier Minister in an even stranger light. Also of interest are the comments on Mosaddeq's law and politics studies in Europe. Having studied already in Paris, he at a later point "studies at the universities of Liège, Belgium, and Neuchatel, Switzerland. Observers here wonder how a man with such a background could in his ripe years have drafted a jurists' nightmare like the oil nationalization law."
The implicit assumption that the mirror-image of this Iranian Oriental legal nightmare was rational American law-making is paralleled by two editorials commenting on the general political situation entitled "Recklessness in Iran" and "Emotion vs. Common Sense". While "[I]t is not hard to be sympathetic toward some of the emotional basis for the Iranian action", these actions (i.e. the nationalization of the AIOC) were not only "an overt violation of a formal international agreement" which will not help the "Iranian Government to gain stature" but also downright self-defeating because "[A]t this stage, confiscation and nationalization in Iran must mean the handing over of further "exploitation" to inadequate capital and inferior skills." Therefore, "Iran will suffer quite as much as the Britons, if not more. This suffering can be accepted as a patriotic gesture, if the Iranians wish, but it will delay the material progress that the country so badly needs." How can one explain such a suicidal policy? "[I]n an orgy of nationalist feeling always near the boiling point (...), the Iranians have flung discretion to the winds for the satisfaction of getting rid of the "foreigners". It is another case of throwing out the baby with the bath water, for no consideration (...) sobers the almost pathetic delirium of the patriots to whom "ownership" of their chief revenue-producer means national riches and independence."
This state of mind of course stands in contrast to the British behaviour. "Britain is engaged in trying by every reasonable means to demonstrate that the bogy of "imperialism" has become strictly mythological, and is therefore most reluctant to apply any instruments of undue pressure. London is trying very hard to keep this whole question strictly in diplomatic channels. Teheran has taken it out of those channels." But - "[I]n the present temper of the Iranian politicians who have gained control, such a reasonable course is very doubtful." A typical analysis concluded that "[T]he British have always been willing to negotiate and long ago they offered to send a high-level Government mission to Tehran to talk things over. However, the difficulty has been that Premier Mossadegh asked complete and unconditional surrender in advance, which was not the British idea of negotiation." It thus was clear that "[T]here is a right and wrong in this case."
This interpretation of the Iranian psyche and politics as innate irrationality juxtaposed to Western fairness and reason found its clearest expression in the interpretation of the encounter between Harriman and Mosaddeq in mid-July 1951 in Tehran.
The assignment of special assistant to the United States president Averell Harriman was to help the British and the Iranians to take up negotiations again, after talks between a high-ranking AIOC delegation headed by its president, Basil Jackson, and the Iranians had stalled in mid-June 1951. The Americans sent the delegation because in their eyes, doing nothing respectively waiting for a weakening of Mosaddeq's position (as the British did) was inconceivable regarding the strategic importance of Iran on the south of the Soviet border. The British evidently did not like Harriman's intervention in Tehran who chided them for failing to keep abreast of the nationalist mood. "He was learning the sentiments of articulate Iranians, who animously opposed the return of the AIOC under any guise." Harriman's visit to Tehran and to London finally led to the dispatch of a British delegation under Lord Privy Seal Richard Stokes to Tehran, which in his view - back to Tehran because the two sides wanted him to be present during the talks - was acting too aggressively. The British-Iranian talks led to a dead-end again. However, "emphasiz(ing) what had been accomplished: the breaking-down of Iranian intransigence," Harriman still believed in the feasibility of renewed negotiations, and thus implicitly in the Iranians' political and psychological ability to conduct them.
Interestingly, the NYT's comments on the Iranian and British position during Harriman's visit were generally more pro-British than Harriman's assessment that Mosaddeq was stubborn but definitely ready for further negotiations, the British position far from being well-informed and their conduct and propositions not really conductive for a better understanding with the Iranians.
This championing of the British and the assurances about the uninterested 'honest broker' role of the USA between Iran and the United Kingdom were amplified by negative reports on the Iranian which prepared the ground for the eventual description of the manichaean-like encounter between Harriman and Mosaddeq. Shortly before the visit, Michael Clark, the NYT's Tehran reporter, had already played upon this theme of 'the unreasonable East'. After mentioning Mosaddeq's promises for reforms before coming power, he wrote that he "has not initiated a single reform, with the exception of a revision of the electoral law." But this should not surprise the Western observer, because "inconsistencies of this sort are common in Iran. They embarrass no one. Iranians speak with their hearts. They do not encumber their thinking with intellectual considerations. Dr. Mossadegh, despite his political acumen, is no exception to the rule." The USA had tried its best to cool down such emotions: "the anxiety of the United States for a just and peaceful settlement (...) has already been amply manifested in the appeals of the President to Premier Mossadegh and the tireless efforts of (US) Ambassador (to Tehran) Grady to inject reason into the highly charged emotional atmosphere of Teheran."
When Harriman finally arrived, his mission initially seemed to make a difference: "Mr. Mossadegh's prompt and cordial welcome to the President's initiative [transmitted by Harriman] gives round for hope that he may have some second thoughts before the situation moves beyond control." However, in the following two weeks, Harriman's voice of reason seemed to have remained ineffective. The July 19 editorial entitled "Cold Facts on Oil" ended with the words: "The cold fact is that Iran is isolating herself and committing a species of economic national suicide. (...) what Iran must understand is that every practical consideration is against her and that we live in an eminently practical world." On July 24, we read that "Harriman (...) seems to have taken a breath of realism along with him. He must have made it clear that the Iranians have everything to lose by pursuing previous tactics and much to gain by being reasonable and just" - a view reflected by an article entitled "Iran Listens" (presumably to the American voice of ratio ) which was published during a temporary easing of tensions in the talks. And on July 31, the editorial informed the readers that "Harriman brought the resources of a persuasive, earnest, sincere and knowledgeable diplomacy, with no axe to grind, while Mr. Levy" (the oil expert on the team) "could supply the cold realism." The same theme was also addressed in two caricatures. In the first, Harriman cools with a fan inscribed 'mediation efforts' a hotheaded 'Iran' gesticulating wildly with her hands in the heat of the discussion with 'J.B.' (John Bull - Britain), while in the second, Harriman writes to Truman that the Iranian Premier is "try(ing) what it feels like to commit economic suicide" - Mossadeq is stubbornly gripping the rope on which he hangs, although it means certain death.
May be most remarkable however is the ending of the already mentioned July 24 editorial, where Iran suddenly comes to stand for 'the East' in general: "If the light we saw glimmering in the East yesterday is the light of reason, it will be a great thing for all concerned, and especially for Iranians." This spark of reason in the East, kindled by the personal intervention of an American Westerner for the common good, was exactly what the NYT had hoped for since "we are all so anxious to see a reasonable and honorable solution of the oil dispute."
Nationalisms and Islam: the irrational nature of Oriental collective identities
On April 7 and 9, 1951, i.e. before Mosaddeq became Premier Minister, two articles relating to the rise of nationalism in Iran were published in the NYT. They reflect two different approaches concerning this issue, of which the former would eventually gain the upper hand. It cited "official sources" to the effect that "[A] twofold consequence of the Near Eastern nationalism" (of which Iran is the prime example) "(...) has been the diversion of the peoples' concern from what the free governments regard as the common menace, Communist aggression, and, second, a form of "neutralism" based on a "plague on both your houses" attitude" which is evidently as unacceptable as the first 'consequence'. Two days later, the NYT cited George C. McGhee, Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, who had been to Iran after the Murder of Razmara and who "throughout 1951, whenever the (British) Foreign Office thought it had obtained American agreement on a particular policy toward Iran, (...) would intervene, suggesting a different approach, more favorable toward Iran." In his view, "the nationalist spirit that had led the Iranian Parliament to approve Government possession of the country's oil fields, would serve also to defeat Communist aggression in that area", continuing that "[W]ithout exception, the vast majority of people in the Near East and South Asia abhor the Communist doctrine." However, this second article was buried on page 16 of the newspaper edition, and actually a report of a news conference given full six days before, on April 3, in Washington. It was one of the earliest signs by which the NYT made it quite clear to which of the two approaches it inclined. There was no critique of McGhee in the article, but there was no sign of agreement either. The editorials about Iran which now began to appear did not use McGhee's terminology but rather spoke of nationalistic fanaticism.
This latter approach was exemplified by Clark's July 8 article. He totally de-legitimized this in American eyes puzzling phenomenon by describing it as being mainly the result of the manipulation of a few power-hungry and fanatical individuals. "[F]rom the start, the oil nationalization program has been in the first instance a political operation having power as its goal. (...) But rarely has a policy be advocated and pursued with more careless disregard of economic and social consequences. There has been, it is true, a wave of genuine emotion and nationalistic fervor, but nothing in the nature of responsible advice or guidance." Mosaddeq himself was described as a "consummate politician and demagogue with an unquenchable thirst for power and for a niche in history. It is conceivable, indeed probable, that he has got his own destiny and that of his country hopelessly confounded in mind." Clarks' assertion that the Premier's "promises to the masses (...) keeps that power in his frail, bony fingers" created the image of a sorcerer bewitching his people: "[T]o attain his political ends he (Mosaddeq) has brought his country to the edge of the cliff, and even now his command to the Iranian people is: "Forward!" Such is the nihilistic streak in the Persian character that people are responding with a strange sort of joy." While all reports followed Clark's characterizations of Iranian nationalism as extreme, emotional, fanatical, or violent, not all subscribed to his understanding of nationalism as exclusively caused by the leaders' manipulation of the people for their own personal interests - although according to many comments, the element of politicians being interested in 'whipping up the mood of the people' helped to create the phenomenon, too.
A second interpretation of nationalism can be discovered in the article analyzed in the introduction which analyzed nationalism as a massive response to the abuse of Iran by foreign nations which peaked in the injustices done to her during the Second World War. In addition, the remark that this "widespread popularity (was) reflected in the unanimous votes of the Majles" was opposed to the view that it is simply an act of manipulation. The same article also mentioned a third explanation (although with the comment that it alone cannot explain the phenomenon): "[I]n the West, which has suffered from the calamitous consequences of exaggerated nationalism, the nations are now turning, as to a last hope, toward the larger concepts of collective security and eventual world federation", continuing that "[A]mong adherents of such concepts, extreme nationalism is regarded as the adolescence of nations from which they grow to adulthood." This description of the "new nationalistic spirit in the Near East" - in the sense of "Iran's case ha(ving) much in common with that of other nations in the Near East, like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq" - as political adolescence illustrated the Western view that there is only one trajectory of social/national development, namely that pioneered by the free West now led by the USA. Less developed nations will follow it in its footsteps, proceeding through exactly the same stages. They thus necessarily have to emulate also the stage of 'extremist' nationalism.
In a fourth variation on the theme, P. Toynbee stressed the "fundamentally cultural aspect of modern Iranian nationalism." He perceived a tight link between culture and Shi'ism in Iran, and de-emphasized the pre-Islamic Iranian past or "nation-statehood" which "is a very recent and very artificial importation (...) in the Near East." Her also made a clear distinction between the "hypocritical pseudo-nationalism of Tehran" - i.e. of the politicians who "use it as a facile weapon against the British and against each other", and "the genuine nationalism of the provinces and the countryside" - a nationalism very tightly connected to tradition and to Islam.
Despite the differences in the analyses concerning the causes of Iranian nationalism, almost all articles agreed that it had a very weak technological-economical basis, and that it therefore was not realistic, but rather a futile operation. The examples of such commentaries were to be found especially in the first months before and after Mosaddeq's appointment as Premier. A typical commentary reported that "[T]he Iranians lack the technical skill, commercial knowledge and capital to operate the industry themselves", another conceded that Iran could obtain technicians from abroad, but does not succeed to do so due to lack of "efficient and adequate political administration." This view was translated into a caricature which depicts a bearded, neglected person wearing dingy clothes and a sort of a turban who stands behind a locked oil barrel to which a label reading 'technical know-how' is attached. The caricature is entitled '[I]f I only had the key'.
Toward 1952, the articles began to concentrate on the (prophesied) disastrous economic results of the oil nationalization, with a few articles conveying a less gloomy picture. One caricature connected the view of Mosaddeq's Iran being technically unable to produce oil after the nationalization with the resulting threats to internal order: a frightened Mosaddeq stands in front of rows of jars in which one sees creepy, dangerous creatures. Two of them - entitled 'chaos' and 'unemployment' - are about to attack the Premier. At last but too late, Mosaddeq seems to have come to his senses and understands how irrationally he has acted. The most interesting detail of the caricature is its title: 'Oily Baba' - very probably a pun on 'Ali Baba'. Here again, Iran is not just Iran any more, but turns into the representative of a diffuse 'Orient'. By combining the textual pun ('Oily Baba' - 'Ali Baba') with the pictorial statement on Mosaddeq's stupidity, this caricature interweaves the timeless, exotic character of 'the Orient' with the contemporary, real, but still strange 'East' as experienced by the American West.
Clark's reports from Tehran toward the end of 1951 emphasized the destabilizing results of technical incompetence on the economics and politics in more eloquent terms than anybody else in the NYT. "Dr. Mossadegh who preached an immensely popular crusade against the British dragon, has won and the dragon is slain. All efforts to breathe new live into the fabulous beast so that the crusade might continue have been in vain. Reality has reasserted itself and with it the whole retinue of prosaic, workaday but critical problems, with which Dr. Mossadegh is poorly equipped to cope. (...) There is no provision in the budget in Iran's seven-year economic development plan, which used to get oil royalties. Even now the plan is virtually washed out. The proposed budget removes all hope of reform economic development and offers no solution to the grave economic problems facing the country. (...) Observers estimate that the Government will be able to meet its commitments perhaps until the end of January. What happens after that is anybody's guess. But Dr. Mossadegh and his associates are bound to be overtaken by the consequences by their reckless oil nationalization drive."
Interestingly, even in one of the rare articles somewhat sympathetic to Mosaddeq, the text was accompanied by a caricature which conveys a clearly pessimistic image. In the caricature, we see a sweating little Mosaddeq (inscribed 'Iran') dressed in stereotypical 'Oriental' cloth, who watches in panic how the thug-like ghost ('Terror and Ruin') his rubbing of the oil-can ('Oil Nationalization') has just released is about to slay him with a huge club in his (left - Communist?) hand. The piece is entitled 'Rubbed the wrong way'. The stereotypical trope of the oil can is yet another example in which a specific statement - Iranians lack any sense of reality - is generalized and turned into a statement on the irresponsible nature of the 'Oriental' psyche in general. A similar caricature shows Mosaddeq lying on the top of a diving board, shivering and cowardly looking downwards into the 'Persian Pool'. He is not aware of the two thugs (one entitled 'communism') climbing the stairs to the top behind him, and thus earns the ironic title 'Tough at the Top'.
Although the lack of technical expertise was indeed a major problem for the Iranians, it was misrepresented in the NYT. For one, the newspaper did not care to seriously ask whether foreign help - if allowed by the USA and Britain - could help to solve this problem. Moreover, it combined the theme of 'lack of technical know-how' with a culturally stereotyped image of the Iranian as the exotic (Ali Baba, Aladdin) but also ignorant and thus ultimately inferior representative of the 'Easterner' in general. This conflation of a specific issue ('Oriental' technological retardedness) with a much larger theme (general inferiority of the 'East' vis-à-vis the American 'West') seems to draw on a the long-standing idea. Developed since the eighteenth century, and reflected not only in American press but also diplomatic circles, it claimed that the West's superiority vis-à-vis the rest of the world is based upon its technological and scientific knowledge. "Science and technology were often conflated as criteria for comparison, rather than treated as distinct endeavors, as they had tended to be in earlier centuries." Shining through in the caricatures dealing with the technical incompetence of the Iranians, this view is reflected also in articles which tended to imbue American technological competence with a measure of moral and rational superiority. P. Toynbee's comments on Harriman's oil advisor in the Tehran talks 1951 can serve as an example here: "I have heard a reported conversation between Walter J. Levy, W. Averell Harriman's extremely competent oil adviser, and a group of Iranians. It illustrates the hopeless incompatibility of outlook and temperament which has confronted so many of us when arguing with Iranians in Tehran."
The crisis between Iran and Great Britain was paralleled by a similar situation in Egypt in the early 1950s, which caused several comparisons in the NYT, and claims that they were triggered by similar forces of fanatic nationalism.
A set of caricatures demonstrates this point. Most focused exclusively on the anti-British character of Iranian and Egyptian politics, subverting it with the claim that it was void of any capacity to act rationally. In a caricature published in mid-August 1951, the British John Bull, rejected by 'Iran', goes on to Egypt, only to meet with similar resistance there, too (his reaction: "Darn, even here.") This caricature ('Art from the Near East') concentrates on the determination and anger of 'Iran' and 'Egypt' which are depicted in some kind of ancient (pre-Islamic Iranian and Pharaonic) regalia. The impression changes in three other caricatures. 'Persia' and 'Egypt', leaning out of the windows of an 'Oriental' house, pour a bucket of water over an Englishman and attack him with a slingshot. They evidently have laid an ambush to their enemy, but are too coward or childish to meet him face to face. Another caricature reiterates the theme of Iran and Egypt as malicious irresponsible children. Also here, stupidity and misbehavior cry out for punishment, and there is a huge gap in terms of character, knowledge, and behaviour separating the savant first world teacher from its ignorant Oriental disciples. 'Mossadegh' and 'Nahas', two pupils, have turned the class room into a place of chaos and anarchy. The boys are "asking for it" (subtitle), and the annoyed teacher 'Britannia' ponders: "Should we use the cane on naughty boys or stop their jam?" In another caricature, 'Egypt' again copies the stupid example of 'Iran', namely kicking around the bone belonging to the fierce bull-dog living in the dog-hut inscribed 'Britain', violating the principle that the dog owns his bone, i.e. that no one is entitled to abuse another's property unpunished.
Another set of caricatures and articles was concerned with a more general issue: the connection in between Oriental (here Iranian) extremist forms of nationalism and fanatic Islam, which seems to form part of the historical roots of the American press coverage of the Middle East in later decades. 'Fanatic nationalism' and 'Moslem fanaticism' are both seen as (self)-destructive forces, again deviant from the tempered, liberal, rational American/Anglo-Saxon model of nationalism. In two caricatures, the former is depicted as driving nations into delirium, away from the 'society of free nations' and into a chasm of no return, the latter presented as a huge tornado, leaving chaos and destruction in its trail, and chasing away 'Peace (Oriental Style)'. In early 1951, an editorial talking of "the nationalists, Moslem fanatics and Communists who have led the campaign for expropriation of the oil industry" also described the two (in combination with communism) as separate but connected forces. At the end of July 1952, two reports exemplified the view that fanatical nationalism and religion overlap. One speaks of "the Middle Eastern brand of nationalism which is often mixed up with religious fanaticism" , and the other of Mosaddeq "command(ing) the support of the fanatically anti-Western Mullahs (Moslem priests) who control most of the Iranian masses."
After the attempt on the life of Fatemi in mid-Februar 1952, the NYT wrote: "the new crime demonstrates again that the Middle East, and in fact a large part of Moslem world, have become the prey of irrational forces which threaten to drive those vital regions to despotism or anarchy. The Moslem world, dormant for centuries, is astir again and groping for a new order that will lead it out of misery, poverty and stagnation. In that effort it deserves the sympathy and the aid of the Western Powers, which in the past have not been above taking advantage of it, but which in return gave whatever concepts of liberty and democratic self-government that world possesses. These very concepts have now been turned against the Western Powers themselves in attempt to abolish the last vestiges of a fading colonialism. But the fanaticism, extremism and violence that accompany the Moslem awakening show that not all Moslem nations have mastered the other essentials on which liberty and democracy depend - namely, tolerance, self-control, compromise and order under law. Today Premier Mossadegh is the prisoner of his own slogans and of the terrorism he made his ally, (...) hand in hand with the nationalistic and religious terrorists work the subversive Communist elements which seek to soften up the Moslem world for late conquest."
Representing the view that the new phenomenon of nationalism and contemporary political Islam are similar, this report is remarkable for the easiness with which the author applied conclusions drawn from a specific situation in one Muslim country (Iran) to the whole Muslim world, seemingly gripped by one and the same problem. It also echoed another theme: the characterization of the Moslem world as 'dormant' for centuries, and salvaged by its contact with the 'free' modern West lead by the USA, i.e. with its values like liberty and democratic self-government. This assessment reflected the widely-held view mentioned above that the West has pioneered the sole path to modernity, to be followed by its disciples, the underdeveloped nations, because there exists no other way out of their miserable condition.
With specific relation to Shi'ite Islam, some authors maintained that it is even more extremist than Sunni Islam. In one instance, a writer commented on the ways how "Ayatollah Kashani brought into play "Shiah", Islam's fundamentally oriental and peculiarly Iranian antagonism to the principles and essential purposes of the predominant civilization of our times rooted in an occidental approach to life." Here, Oriental Islam ceases to be a religion with an original message, and is defined purely as an anti-idea against superior Western modernity: "'theirs' (becomes) exclusively a function of 'ours'." Much more into detail went P. Toynbee in his article on the culturo-religious fundament of Iranian nationalism. "In the deep heart of the country (...), the vigorous but superficial Westernization carried out by Reza Shah Pahlavi during the Twenties and Thirties of this century was never accepted and has always been resented. Iranians are Shi'ah Moslems, a branch of Islam which is more fanatical and more exacting than the dominant Sunnis of Egypt and the Arab world. And these simpler people outside the town are by no means convinced, from what they have seen of it, that Western culture is superior to their own traditions. (...) Their indignation is not against a foreign exploiter who has threatened the integrity of the Iranian state; it is against a group of impious barbarians who have no respect for the Koran."
The Soviet threat
Warnings about the dangers of a Communist takeover were a permanent element of the NYT coverage of Mosaddeq's Iran. Already in spring 1951, it noted: "[S]elf-assertion is not independence; if the Iranians allow themselves to drift into the Russian orbit, they will learn, like other satellites, what dependence on a foreign Power really means." "[T]he continuation of the Anglo-Iranian contract offers no threat to the freedom of Iran. The threat is immediately on the border."
These often repeated opinion reflects the fact that in American eyes, the ultimate problem of the oil nationalization crisis was not a domestic Iranian economic and political crisis per se, but its possible exploitation by the Soviet Union. The two aspects (a regional economic and political crisis and international affairs) were tightly intertwined in the American government's view, and the NYT followed this line of analysis. One of the best examples thereof can be found in an article published in May 1951, where the two motives are put right next to each other: "Political and economic chaos in Iran. This would be certain to follow, officials here believe, if the Iranians carried through their presently expressed intention of trying to run the oil industry themselves. They lack both the technical personnel and the necessary shipping, and it is doubtful if they could pick up either anywhere else in the world. The loss of income would probably plunge Tehran into bankruptcy and violent civil strife. This would almost certainly be followed by one of the familiar "Democratic People's Republic" under direct Soviet domination." Whereas some people like McGhee claimed that "[W]ithout exception, the vast majority of the people of the Near East and South Asia abhor the Communist doctrine" , the vast majority of the reporters would have agreed with P. Toynbee's comment about rich Iranians assurances that their country will never become communist: "[T]his absurd confidence ludicrously underestimates the intelligence of the Communists. They appear everywhere in the guise of extreme and fanatical nationalists, and many of their cover organizations have such skillfully misleading titles as "The Brotherhood of the Koran"." Toynbee's explanation of the reasons for the alleged attraction of the communist Tudeh party would not have been accepted by all, but is seems to be worth mentioning because it is in line with his view that Iranian nationalism is essentially a cultural phenomenon: "[I]f Iran goes Communist, it will not be for love of Russia or through any reasoned faith in communism as an economic or political system. It will be out of desperation and a perverse belief that the Tudeh party is the true guardian of the country's cultural heritage." This kind of warnings was current in the NYT until the very end, and peaked regularly during internal political crises, as July 1952.
Towards the bitter end: the Iranian Orient as eternal drama
In January 1952, elections for the Majles began in Iran, and Mosaddeq was determined to make them the first real one in Iran's modern history. However, he underestimated the strength of the landlords and the army in manipulating the elections in smaller urban areas in the provinces, and in April 1952, after 80 of the 134 Majles seats had been filled, he suspended the voting. Although he did not misuse this situation and the special powers he got from the Parliament in July 1952 (extended in January 1953), these steps of course opened the door for harsh protest in Iran and also abroad, accusing Mosaddeq of dictatorship and an insatiable appetite for more and more power.
"Having run his country to the verge of bankruptcy, Premier Mossadegh is now trying to take it further along the road to ruin by demanding dictatorial powers for six months, on pleas that he needs these powers to pull Iran out of the crisis into which he has plunged it. What he proposes is in effect a legalized coup d'état that smacks of Hitler's techniques. Mr. Mossadegh's failure follows the second great failure of his regime (which) (...) was his inability to elect a puppet Parliament despite the nationalistic fanaticism he has tried to unleash and the aid of terroristic organizations." Not succeeding, "Mr. Mossadegh suspended the elections, assembled a rump Parliament (...) and submitted to it a single-article bill providing for an abdication for six months and the transfer of powers to the Premier. This is the legal device by which Hitler also acquired absolute power." The NYT had now definitely reached a point of no return. The comparison with Hitler was the most damaging thing imaginable, specially in a time where Nazi Germany had been defeated merely seven years ago.
Parallely, comments about the irrational behaviour and character of Iranian nationalism reached new peaks. Besides remarks about "national suicide" and "nationalistic fanaticm", 'analyses' included sentences such as "[I]t is hard for persons who try to be rational to understand the extent of personal and group irresponsibility that has engulfed Iran in disaster. Vigorous nationalism is a familiar factor in the political world and it can be constructive. But when nationalism is turned into a sort of mass-suicide complex it leaves the world of political health and gets into the field of morbid psychology". The editorial ends with the words: "There are elements in this macabre spectacle that suggest a dance of death. Certainly law, order, decency and reason are being wiped out. This is not "nationalism". It is madness", with elements "that can only be explained as pathological." The image of Iran 1952 as a nation in need of collective psychiatric treatment was compounded by the sudden increase of comments suggesting that Mosaddeq had connections to or even leadership over "terrorists." Used to delegitimize Mosaddeq, the term 'terroristic' quickly caught on and was widely applied - as in "terroristic organizations" , "professional terrorists" , "government of terrorism" - or in connection with 'fascism' and 'communism'.
The NYT's hardened position was reflected in another caricature published in early August 1952 in which the painter Mosaddeq turns away from his portrait of the grim-looking, long-eared English John Bull to a new portrait: the devil in person - Uncle Sam. The simple message here seems to be that those attacking the USA as the devil in person are probably satanic themselves. The NYT followed this line in its comments on the unsuccessful attempt to replace Mosaddeq with Qavam. On July 18, it reported that "[T]he resignation of Premier Mossadegh of Iran at this stage will be no loss to his country. He his reported to have stepped out because the Shah refused to give him the concurrent posts of War Minister and Premier and at the same time confirm his demand for six months of dictatorial powers. These reports do credit to the Shah." The editorials commenting on the quick turns of fortune were entitled "New Hope for Iran" (Qavam's Prime-ministership), "A Grave Turn in Iran" (the first signs of Mosaddeq's comeback), and finally "Disaster in Iran".
In mid-August 1953, Mosaddeq's image in the NYT had not improved a iota since last summer's events. Especially the plebiscite at the beginning of August 1953 did not cause the NYT to change its mind. The plebiscite itself was surely an anti-parliamentarian act. Abrahamian commented it in the following words: "[W]hen the opposition in the Lower House plucked up enough courage to resist (his reform programs), the National Front deputies resigned en masse, reducing the assembly below the quorum, and , in effect, dissolving the Seventeenth Majles. To legitimize the dissolution, Mossadeq - supported by the Tudeh - called for a national referendum in July 1953. (...) Mosaddeq, the constitutional lawyer who had meticulously quoted the fundamental laws against the shah, was now bypassing the same laws and resorting to the theory of the general will. The liberal aristocrat who had in the past appealed predominantly to the middle class was mobilizing the lower classes." For the NYT, the referendum, its conduct, and the fact that the Tudeh openly supported the plebiscite was additional proof that Mosaddeq was not more than a dictator, "a power-hungry, personally ambitious, ruthless demagogue who is trampling upon the liberties of his own people."
Mosaddeq's fall was highly appraised by the newspaper. Its interpretation of the event reflect some central elements of the previous two years' interpretation of 'Oriental' Iran. Under the title "Reversal in Iran", the NYT week-end edition published an account of the events leading to the fall of the Premier, without mentioning the involvement of the CIA. Being "the most troubled spot in the troubled Moslem world", Iran's deterioration "was suddenly and dramatically stopped (...) last week. In five turbulent days the country passed through a violent revolution. Events followed one another so swiftly that it was almost impossible to determine the sequence. The Shah (King) fled in exile; riotous mobs in Teheran proclaimed the end of the monarchy; rival gangs battled in the streets; the army stepped in; Premier Mossadegh, virtual dictator of the land, cowered in his palace as the mob besieged it; a new government took over; Mossadegh, shorn of his power, surrendered; and the Shah returned in triumph." Iranian politics as drama: the editorial of August 20 entitled "Iranian Kaleidoscope" made the association openly, beginning with the sentences "[I]ran is poor in many ways but she is singularly rich in drama. The figures come and go on her stage, as they play their tragic roles. Exile, imprisonment, and death are the themes, and the audience - Western democrats and Russian Communists - are not more than interested spectators", and ending with the following words: "[T]here will be other scenes and other acts in this tragedy and we must wait for them."
The putsch thus became the dense dramatic climax of two years of incomprehensible scenes of political turmoil, the similarly unpredictable and exciting final act in a feverish Oriental drama. Being represented as a final act, the coup d'état seemed to close in a miraculous, sudden, stupefying way a dramatic circle opened in early 1951, as an editorial's title of March 1951 suggested: "The Land Where Anything Can Happen". However, the NYT believed that the drama will continue, that it will just enter the next of innumerable, essentially repetitive and identical loops. Orientalism thus finds a new expression in this metaphor of the Oriental ways as a dramatic theatrical act. The actors (Iran/the 'East') and the spectators (Communists and the democratic 'West') are separated. Interestingly, if compared to the Orient's irrationality, the distinctions between the democratic West and the communist Soviet Union fade away, and a common rational character becomes visible. For this double audience, the play is incomprehensible: it knows neither rules nor a plot, it has no history, only tragic themes ("exile, imprisonment, and death") caught in an eternal vicious circle and played by "the figures (who) come and go on her stage." It is only a comment on the Iranian national psyche which helps the reader to grasp why Iranian politics is so dramatic, tragic and unpredictable, why the radically different Western audience will never be able to understand it. "[T]he lot of the average Iranian could not be worse; he has nothing to lose. He is a man of infinite patience, of great charm and gentleness, but he is also - as we have been seeing - a volatile character, highly emotional when sufficiently aroused."
The USA's full entry into World War Two in 1941 ended a twenty-odd year period of abstention from foreign involvement, and the post-1945 onset of the Cold War definitely transformed the USA into the dominant super power with commitments emerging on a global scale. Although the center of the developing Cold War was Central Europe, the USA enacted its containment policy against the Soviet Union also in Greece and in the so-called Northern Tier states of the Middle East - Turkey and Iran, in the case of the first two countries in 1947 as an answer to British requests to assume greater responsibility. As a consequence of this new preeminent role of the USA, the American press dramatically stepped up its information on foreign affairs, and the average American was "diligently reading the newspapers to keep up on world events that a decade and a half before he (...) would have assiduously ignored."
As an example of this rise of interest in foreign affairs, this paper has examined the New York Times' coverage of Iran between 1951 and 1953, and demonstrated how the image of one's own society - especially at an important historical juncture as that of the advent of the Cold War - helped to shape the image of another society. In this case, the image of Iran and the Orient as irrational and irresponsible was shaped in juxtaposition to the image of the USA as a morally superior, rational, and economically booming society. The NYT thereby adapted the Orientalist trope "Oriental irrationality versus Western rationality" to the view that the latter's embodiment is to be found in the USA, and tended to stress technological-economical causes both as an explanation for the existence of the differences between the Eastern Iran and the Western USA and as their solution. In some instances, such as in the explanations of collective phenomena like nationalism or political Islam, this new version of a duality between Orient and Occident helped to establish patterns which were to strike roots and influence the American press coverage of the Middle East for decades to come.
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Published: Monday, October 04, 2004
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