Iran’s allies: Western conspiracism, centrism and self-doubt - analysis

Iran’s policies and the way it seeks to message English audiences is calculated. This can be seen by comparing the way it speaks to regimes such as China, Russia with how it talks to westerners.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, February 15, 2018 (photo credit: DANISH SIDDIQUI/ REUTERS)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, February 15, 2018
Since the June 13 attack on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, Iran has benefited not from its own sharp diplomacy and media, but from a combination of Western “explanations” to fuel its own excuses for the unprecedented attack. It seeks to play into three central themes that have dominated discussion since the incident: Conspiracies, legacies of Western-centric commentary and a tendency for self-doubt and self-critique in the US.
First, Iran said one thing and did another. It went almost unreported in any Western media that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani left for two summits in Central Asia just hours after the tanker crisis unfolded. He didn’t feel the crisis was important or that it would harm his trip as he set off to speak in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and then in Dushanbe in Tajikistan on Saturday.
He told the assembled countries, including Russia and China, that the US poses a threat to global stability. None of the almost 30 countries attending, including many of the most populous in the world such as India and China, appeared to care about the tanker incident.
This seems unusual, since attacks on tankers in international waters – where 30% of the world’s seaborne oil travels – is not an everyday occurrence. For a variety of reasons, these specific countries didn’t think the incident was particularly alarming.
One reason: They knew Western countries won’t do anything, and particularly the United States. They’ve heard Washington’s threats before and they also can read the free media in Western countries and know there is no stomach in the US for another conflict.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was also in Central Asia the day after the attack. He had already put out tweets, in English, to please Western audiences. He spun two conspiracies. First, that the attacks were “suspicious.”
When zarif meets with Qatar, Russia, China and Turkey he speaks normally, like a diplomat. But when he tweets for a Western audience he speaks like he is talking to teenagers and a room full of conspiracy cranks. “The B-Team’s boy who cries wolf is crying once again,” he wrote on June 5. “The Mossad is fabricating intelligence about Iran’s involvement in sabotage in Fujairah. I’ve warned about ‘accidents’ and false flags,” he wrote. “We’ve been here before, haven’t we?”
Zarif knows how to message because he studied in the US and he has a team on social media who monitor how the US and other audiences in English are responding. For instance, within hours of the attack on the tankers, the “Gulf of Tonkin” incident was already trending.
This refers to an attack on US Navy ships off the coast of Vietnam in 1964. Sometimes Zarif blames “Netanyahu” for US pressure on Iran, sometimes other conspiracies. The goal is to play into a variety of different views that are common on social media and to add fuel. This involves dog whistles to antisemitism in the US, including past claims on US social media that “US Jews fuel America’s wars” and that “Netanyahu is behind it.” Another strategy is to pin the war mongering on either “neo-conservatives” or on US National Security Advisor John Bolton. Stop the “false flags,” says the Tehran Times.
WHILE CONSPIRACIES in the West aid Iran’s attempts to obfuscate, they are combined with a tendency towards Western-centrism as well. The reason that Rouhani’s meetings in Central Asia went almost unreported is because Western countries and the US tend to ignore what goes on if it isn’t directly linked to themselves. A meeting of China, India, Turkey, Iran and Russia is quite important. But there’s no American angle to it.
Iran is keenly aware that Orientalism and the legacy of colonialism, as well as the lasting effects of support for the Shah of Iran and the 1953 removal of Mohammad Mosaddegh, hang over interpretations of Iran. Iran is simultaneously portrayed as both exotic, a bit threatening and crazy, and a victim of historic abuses. For instance the narrative after the tanker attack that Iran’s “hard-liners” might have been responsible is an explanation that is only used for Iran. No other country in the world is said to have “hard-liners” that would attack oil tankers somehow without the knowledge of the leadership of the country.
When Russian warplanes harass American ships and warplanes, no one pretends that “hard-liners” in Moscow sent them. There isn’t some parallel structure in Russia, Turkey, China, or any other important state like Iran. Tehran benefits from this “hard-liners” narrative, which it plays up in negotiations. The boogeyman of “hard-liners” is an Orientalist fantasy, that somehow lurking inside Iran’s incredibly complex and historical bureaucracy, there is some parallel state of bad cops, and that if only the West will placate them with chests of gold or something, they will be nice.
This is actually what happened during the Iran Deal. Pallets of cash were actually delivered to Iran, as if it was some 19th century potentate being bought off by the British Empire. The “hard-liners” narrative also fuels interpretations about Iran that inevitably lead to bad policymaking. Western analysts repeat without question claims that if the US does X or Y then the “hard-liners will be empowered.” Sanctions empower them. Threats empower them. US President Donald Trump empowers them. Support for Israel empowers them. And if they don’t get what they want, there could be war.
Iran is very keen to play up the threat of “war.” It knows that the US is concerned about its legacy in Iraq and that in general, the American public is reticent to engage in another war. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that, “the American people have no appetite for a war with Iran.” An article on Bloomberg notes: “The goal for now is not diplomacy with Iran but avoiding war.”
Iran can read the editorial pages of US newspapers and US polls. And it knows that European countries, dealing with their own internal social problems, certainly do not want a conflict and would never take part in one without total US pressure and leadership. After all, Iran has conducted operations in Europe and assassinations, and its allies like Hezbollah openly stockpiled dangerous substances.
A FINAL ally of Iran’s policy is self-doubt in the West. After the US provided video evidence of Iran’s alleged attack on the oil tankers, there was a lot of hand wringing over Trump’s policies: If only Trump hadn’t lied in the past; can he be believed now?
A free media has the positive attribute of being able to express doubt and criticism of government policies. A few headlines suffice to reveal the doubt. “Attacking Iran would unleash chaos,” one headline says at The National Interest. “US policy toward Iran is all stick and now carrot,” CNN argues. Trump’s “consistent criticism of Iran pushes US to point of conflict,” says The Washington Post. Across the political spectrum in the US, Iran can read that US Presidential candidates oppose war and that some have accused the administration of war mongering.
Iran’s policies and the way it seeks to message English-speaking audiences is calculated, and this can be seen by comparing the way it speaks to and treats regimes such as China, Russia, India and Turkey and how it talks to Westerners. For instance, even though Iran and Turkey were on different sides of the Syrian conflict and even though there were some tensions and heated exchanges in the past with Ankara, these exchanges didn’t take the form of Iran tweeting in Turkish about “false flags” and conspiracies. Tehran treats Ankara like an adult; when it wants to condemn Turkey’s actions, it does so.
It doesn’t say “we’ve been here before, haven’t we.” Only with Western countries does the tone change in Tehran, and this is because of a careful reading of opposition politics and an attempt to play into local politics. On a broader level, this is one challenge that democracies face when dealing with authoritarian regimes. Authoritarians understand that to get what they want in foreign policy, they don’t just have to deal with a democratically elected government, they can simply fuel criticism at home and hope that the policy changes when the government changes. In the wake of the tanker incident, Iran keenly understood that this was one method to browbeat Washington.