Iranophobia: The Panic of the Hegemons

By Chernus, Ira | Tikkun, November/December 2010 | Go to article overview

Iranophobia: The Panic of the Hegemons

Chernus, Ira, Tikkun

Iranophobia (noun): an excessive, irrational fear of Iran, almost always expressed as fear of a nuclear-armed Iran.

ISRAEL'S IRANOPHOBIA MAY IN PART BE TRACED BACK TO DOMESTIC TENSIONS between secular Ashkenazi (European-rooted) and the Orthodox and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern and North African-rooted) communities, according to Haggai Ram, an Israeli expert on Iran. As the Ashkenazim have gradually lost their power and privilege, he argues, they've been stricken with a "moral panic" and have looked for a scapegoat to blame.

Back in 1979, elite Ashkenazi voices condemned the Iranian revolution for the same reasons they condemned and feared the Orthodox and Mizrahim: for promoting traditional religious and cultural values that the Ashkenazim saw as barriers to the advance ofWestern modernity. They saw in Iran's present a vision of Israel's future. They still do; hence their fear.

That may well be part of the story. But there must be more to it, because Iranophobia is just as intense, perhaps even more intense, among the Mizrahim and the Orthodox as among the Ashkenazim.

We face the same paradox in the United States, where Iranophobia is also rampant. Polls show between 56 percent and 66 percent of the public supporting military action to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon. In some liberal circles, the attack on Iranian theocracy echoes fears of America's own religious Right, which may well heighten Iranophobia. But in the United States as in Israel, much of the hawkish fearmongering comes from the Right, including the religious Right. How can the moral panic theory explain that? Moreover, the same kinds of fears now directed toward theocratic Iran were aimed, just a few years ago, at the secular government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

So the problem goes beyond moral panic. For U.S. elites, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran symbolizes the more frightening prospect of Iran challenging U.S. hegemony in the greater Middle East. Questions of moral panic pale in comparison to competition for power and oil. In Israel, too, the warnings about an Iranian bomb sound like fears of losing Israel's nuclear hegemony in the region.

Nevertheless, the kind of discourse analysis that Ram offers is very useful. In politics, language always matters. Control of discourse is a central element in any kind of power. And the elites are not merely cynical manipulators of public opinion. They and the masses are tied together by a common bond of political discourse, as George Lakoffhas taught us.

What cultural frame might explain the scope and intensity of America's Iranophobia? We can get some important clues from Israel, if we put that nation's Iranophobia in the broader context of assumptions shared across the Israeli cultural spectrum. Ram offers occasional glimpses of this broader context; for American readers this may be the most valuable contribution of his book.

The Need for a Threatening Enemy


"To convince Israelis that peace could be made with the Arabs it was, at the same time, also 'necessary' to construct the image of threat from elsewhere," he writes. "Israel needs an existential threat."

The Iranian revolution, coming right on the heels of the Begin-Sadat agreement, gave Israel "a golden opportunity" to fulfill that need. In the years that followed, Iran's leaders offered plenty of words that could serve to substantiate Israel's culturally necessary image of foreign threat.

Another key element in Iranophobia is the assumption that Israel has done nothing to provoke such menacing language. In fact, according to Ram, "this rhetoric is part of along-standing Iranian and Israeli exchange of threats and counter-threats." But that truth is largely ignored in Israeli public discourse. Instead, he writes, the Iranian threat is ascribed to an "unprovoked hatred that 'Islam' nurtures against Jews in general and the Jewish state in particular," which is why Ahmadinejad is so often linked to Hitler. …

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