Republics of Myth, a new book by CIS scholars, offers insight into the US-Iran conflict

Republics of Myth, a new book by CIS scholars, offers insight into the US-Iran conflict

Why does the rift between the US and Iran persist? Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the US-Iran Conflict, sheds new light on this longstanding conflict.

April 19, 2022 | Center for International Studies
Republics of Myth book

3Q: John Tirman on the nuclear negotiations with Iran:

Q. You say that the US and Iran operate from national narratives that clash with each other. What does that mean for the nuclear negotiations?
A.  As we’ve seen for more than a year now, the negotiations have been very bumptious. And, of course, the nuclear deal of 2015 was undermined by Trump.  Mistrust that emerges from the narratives—that America is imperialistic, and Iran is a savage state hellbent on terrorism—is one key reason why negotiations are so difficult.   A nuclear deal may still be possible, in part because of prompting from our European allies and in part because the financial incentives for Iran are so enormous. 

Q. Whichever way the talks go, what do you make of future US-Iran relations?
A.  It was striking to me that Obama did little to improve relations even after the remarkable achievement of the nuclear agreement. One could say the same of Khamenei and Rouhani. I expect we’re looking at something similar now. A more conservative government is in power in Tehran, one that is very much invested in the Iranian narrative that resists foreign influence. Biden is unlikely to try to change the relationship given how strong the American narrative is in U.S. political culture and reinforced by Israel and the Gulf monarchies. Even with a nuclear accord, for example, many US sanctions on Iran will remain in force.

Q.  In Republics of Myth, you often refer to violence between the US and Iran even though they’ve never been at war.  In what ways does violence shape the relationship?
Both national narratives are replete with violence and indeed the glorification of violence. The cultural historian Richard Slotkin describes our master narrative, the frontier myth, as one in which violence is regenerative. The Iranian myth of Imam Hussein sanctifies martyrdom. Both embrace righteous violence, and we’ve seen that play out time and again over the last 40 years—the Khobar Towers bombing, the shootdown of the Iranian civilian airplane, the Revolutionary Guards killing hundreds of US soldiers in Iraq, the assassination of General Soleimani, and so on. Violence reinforced the national narrative and boxes in policy leaders who hope to break from the old ways. But the old ways are strong, deeply ingrained in culture, and politically potent.

News Release
April 19, 2022
Center for International Studies

Iran and the United States have been at odds for forty years, locked in a cold war that has run the gamut from harsh rhetoric to hostage-taking, from crippling sanctions to targeted killings.

In Republics of Myth, Hussein Banai, Malcolm Byrne, and John Tirman argue that a major contributing factor to this tenacious enmity is how each nation views itself. The two nations have differing interests and grievances about each other, but their often-deadly confrontation derives from the very different national narratives that shape their politics, actions, and vision of their own destiny in the world.

The dominant American narrative is the myth of the frontier—that the US can tame it, tame its inhabitants, and nurture democracy as well. Iran, conversely, can claim two dominant myths: the first, an unbroken (but not for lack of trying) lineage back to Cyrus the Great, and the second, the betrayal of Imam Hussein, the Prophet's grandson. Both Iranian myths feature a detestable outsider as an enemy of the Iranian state and source of the nation's ills and misfortune. The two countries have clashed so severely in part, the authors argue, because their national narratives constantly drive them to do so. Drawing on newly declassified documents and discussions with policymakers, the authors analyze an array of missed opportunities over several decades to improve the US-Iran relationship.

From the coup d'état that overthrew Iran's legitimate premier Mohammad Mosaddeq to the hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq War, the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, post-9/11 antagonisms, and other points of conflict, each episode illustrates anew the weight of historical narratives on present circumstances.

Finally, Barack Obama's diplomacy and Donald Trump's determination to undo the 2015 nuclear accord are explored—both examples of the enduring power of America's frontier narrative. Introducing new insights and knowledge in a highly readable narrative, Republics of Myth makes a major contribution to understanding this vital conflict.

About the authors:

Hussein Banai, a research of affiliate of CIS, is assistant professor of international studies at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University Bloomington.

Malcom Byrne, a research of affiliate of CIS, is deputy director and director of research for the non-governmental National Security Archive, based at George Washington University. 

John Tirman is executive director and a principal research scientist at the MIT Center for International Studies.

The Center for International Studies (CIS) supports interna­tional research and education at MIT. It is the home of MIT’s Security Studies Program; the MIT International Science & Technology Initiative, its pioneering global education program; the Program on Emerging Technologies; and seminars and research on migration, South Asia politics, the Middle East, cybersecurity, nuclear weapons, and East Asia. The Center has traditionally been aligned with the social sciences while also working with MIT’s premier science and engineering scholars. CIS produces research that creatively addresses global issues while helping to educate the next generation of global citizens.