National narratives and the US-Iran conflict

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  • Spring ∕  Summer 2022
National narratives and the US-Iran conflict

In memory of John Tirman who passed away suddenly on Friday, August 19, 2022. Read the obituary and tributes concerning our beloved colleague and friend.

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, a new book published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, 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. Featured here is an excerpt written by John Tirman. 

SPRING/SUMMER 22 :: précis Faculty Feature :: John Tirman
Republics of Myth book
June 27, 2022

Every nation and nation-state has a narrative, a story that defines what the nation is—its origins and history, characteristics, claims to legitimacy, values, mission, and destiny.  These defining stories are an essential component of nationalism, sometimes contrived by a state needing to establish its bona fides, sometimes more gradual and organically grown. They typically convey a sense of belonging, pride, and unity.  In all cases, narratives are “socially constructed,” often filled with fictitious claims, populist in tone, and readily manipulated by elites to gain some political advantage.

Both the United States and Iran have well-formed national narratives, very different from each other and with several internal inconsistencies. Each has a powerful grip on national consciousness, discourse, and political behavior—not a comprehensive grip, not always a decisive grip, but remarkably strong and durable. Even in this age of a multiplicity of voices via new media, which are global in scope and richly multicultural, the longstanding national narratives continue to define much of our countries’ deliberations, policy making, and practice in the domestic and world arena. They are cohering ideologies and moral guides to action, for better or for worse, and serve as a bedrock of identity and self-realization.

Nationalism can also rise within empires and monarchy.

National narratives and nationalism itself grew often from the dissolution of kingdoms and other forms of personalized political authority. These “imagined communities,” in Benedict Anderson’s reckoning, were made possible by vernacular printed communications, the printed language serving as a common bond as well as a revolutionary social and political invention. Nationalism can also rise within empires and monarchy, as Iran itself shows; the conveyed sense of national unity and identity braced the crown and its legitimacy, with the monarch representing nationhood rather than deriving authority from his own divinity or power. In other instances, monarchy was gradually giving way to popular sovereignty, and nationalism was an engine of that change, as was the case in Britain’s Glorious Revolution. Anderson’s focus on nationalism’s appearance in colonies and post-colonial states is notable in the American case because colonies possessed defined territories, a common (imperial) language, and institutions of governance—all essential to state building and to the emergence of liberatory nationalism.

A nation typically has territory and a state; it also has cultural characteristics common to the many who see themselves as belonging to that nation. In addition to language, such characteristics may include religion, traditions of everyday life, ceremonies and rituals, and a shared history. It may or may not have a single “ethnicity,” although this is frequently contested in everyday politics: in the United States, African-Americans and some other groups are targets of bigotry that include denying their place in the American nation; in Iran, the Baha’i and some other groups face similar discrimination by the Persian majority. The divisiveness over ethnicity—“purity,” in effect—besets any definition of nationhood.  National narratives, however, tend to gloss such difference and speak of the nation as a unified body, no matter how badly ruptured, as was the case of slavery and Jim Crow in the United States. With ethnicity also comes language, and the unifying power of language is at the core of nationhood. The use of Spanish in America, is, as a result, one of the most tendentious aspects of public debates over immigration and belonging. 

The mundane rituals and social practices must be enlivened and ennobled by a national narrative.

All of these cultural symbols and practices make up the features of particular nations, but nationalism—the adulation of a particular nation—also requires a story. The mundane rituals and social practices must be enlivened and ennobled by a national narrative, customarily a mix of the mythological and an elaborated set of historical assertions. This story serves many purposes. It describes the uniqueness of the nation, its particular characteristics that explain a certain greatness. All members of the nation share in that greatness. “The task of nationalists is to rediscover the unique cultural genius of the nation and restore to a people its authentic cultural identity,” observed Anthony D Smith, a leading scholar of nationalism. “This emphasis upon national individuality helps to explain why nationalisms are so often accompanied and fueled by the labors of intellectuals intent on tracing the ‘roots’ and ‘character’ of the nation through such disciplines as history, archeology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and folklore.”  The objectives for nationalists, he noted, is “to achieve the fullest expression of all three national ideals,” that is, of autonomy, unity, and identity.  

Those nationalists, moreover, must be able to exert political as well as cultural power to shape and sustain a national narrative. In complex societies, such as America and Iran, more than one narrative can be detected. The history of black people in America or that of indigenous tribes are very different stories from the dominant, white European settler account. The master narrative, which accumulates mountains of details to nourish its main themes, can encompass some difficult truths and contradictions in the national tale. Racism in America, and the Civil War itself, are alkalinized by placing art like Huckleberry Finn and “Gone with the Wind” in a nationalist canon, or making the lives of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr, indisputably heroic. The normative trauma of slavery becomes, in this telling, a story ultimately about American “values” prevailing and healing. The American narrative palette, you see, is wide and diverse. 

So, too, in Iran. One icon of Iran’s national self-regard is the Cyrus cylinder, an artifact of the reign of Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BCE, and held to be among the first declarations of human rights—specifically, a right of return of displaced peoples and the right to worship freely (both claims, however, are disputed by scholars). Undoubtedly a remarkable document, its placement in the Iranian national narrative is unabashed. Yet it was discovered only in 1879 and, more importantly, had no continuous political or cultural resonance in Iran, as did, in contrast, the Magna Carta’s influence on English political evolution. The last shah used the cylinder to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of Cyrus’ reign, and much was made of its supposed human-rights originality. The Islamic Republic also exalted the cylinder and displayed it (on loan from the British Museum) in 2010. The wound of Iran’s deplorable human rights record, indefensible under any of its regimes, is somehow partly repaired or obscured by the presence of the cylinder. 

One might say that the narrative is the story, ideology is the exegesis, and nationalism is the sentiment or moral fuel.

Political exigencies and political actors inevitably influence national narratives and the way they are used. Nationalism, and by implication, national narratives, include ideological statements, understandings, prescriptions, and warnings—ways to interpret the world as agents of destiny. Ideology in this sense is not merely a particular lens used to grasp the meaning of life and the world around us, but a guide to action, a prompt to fulfill the mission or purpose of one’s nation. (It would be the rare national narrative that depicts the nation as passive.)  One might say that the narrative is the story, ideology is the exegesis, and nationalism is the sentiment or moral fuel. They are not the same and they will not always appear in the same way: one can take a narrative, even one with fabulous features, interpret its ideas in different ways, and be moved by different parts of the story at different times. As is discussed later, the high regard given to the pioneer in the American narrative can be taken as idolizing the covered-wagon settlers battling Indians to civilize the frontier; one could also, alternatively, promote as paragon a pioneer in science or exploration or art.  Even within the former, the pioneer could evoke feelings of national pride for subduing the savages or for exploiting the land—for adventurousness or husbandry.  The political actors seizing the narrative device of the courageous pioneer typically use it to enliven an ideology of rugged individualism in the service of a certain kind of nation building. 

While national narratives and nationalism are made up of bits and pieces of cultural things, their purpose is almost always political—defining and legitimating a politically powerful class, using symbols but not being merely symbolic.  Defining political power and those who legitimately can exercise it also means creating boundaries and markers for political action.  The Greek myths, for example, were in part folklore and religion, and a legitimation of a certain group of invaders whose system of monarchical or elite rule was integrated through mythology into a universal template of (divine) justice. 

The US-Iran confrontation, as argued later, is rooted in conflicting narratives, and it also has a narrative of its own—a national-security narrative about the two nations’ relationship.  Because narratives have historically contingent origins, events such as the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq by the CIA in 1953 and the 1979 US embassy hostage taking resonate prominently.  It is not sentimentally charged nationalism that is clashing, although nationalist feelings are roused, but very different interpretations of events—a story—which is told and retold and fit into broader, richer tales that pose the other as an existential enemy.

These stories and sentiments nourish national self-consciousness—identity, norms, goals—while also serving to preserve power relations internally.  One can see a good amount of subterfuge inherent in national narratives. “Nationalist ideology suffers from pervasive false consciousness,” Ernest Gellner asserted in “Nations and Nationalism”. “Its myths invert reality: it claims to defend folk culture while in fact it is forging high culture; it claims to protect an old folk society while in fact helping to build up an anonymous mass society.” It holds itself “as a manifest and self-evident principle . . . violated only by some perverse blindness.” And, perhaps most important, “it preaches and defends cultural diversity, when in fact it imposes homogeneity both inside and, to a lesser degree, between political units.”   This fundamental deception—myth making, corruption of history, and imagined community—is rarely if ever haphazard or randomly contrived.  Though it may be woven by many hands and appear in many forms, it is constructed in such a way to embrace popular sentiments of all social and economic strata in the service of national prominence and, typically, a privileged class.

Nationalism is an inflamed condition of national consciousness.

The popularity and acceptance of the narrative derives from many sources—pride in one’s people and place, the sense of specialness it conveys, a defense against obscurity or meaninglessness.  As we shall see, the American and Iranian national narratives serve different purposes for each nation.  But the myths, legends, historical episodes, cultural artifacts, and blandishments that comprise narratives all are fueled by sentiment—an essential glue to bind the nation together.  Sentiment at the core of nationalism and as a fruit of the national narrative is not necessarily inspiring or heartwarming.  It can be a relentless shadow of pessimism.  As the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin explained, “Nationalism is an inflamed condition of national consciousness,” he wrote in his 1972 essay, “The Bent Twig”:

It usually seems to be caused by wounds, some form of collective humiliation. It may be that this happened in German lands because they had remained on the edges of the great renaissance of Western Europe . . . To be the object of contempt or patronizing tolerance on the part of proud neighbors is one of the most traumatic experiences that individuals or societies can suffer. The response, as often as not, is pathological exaggeration of one’s real or imagined virtues, and resentment and hostility toward the proud, the happy, the successful.

Berlin explored in a number of books and essays the rise of German nationalism, an outgrowth of Romanticism and a reaction to French universalism, beginning in the eighteenth century. That is, the philosophes’ insistence on reducing all social and political thought and action to a common standard (whether derived by rationalist or empiricist means) deprived specific nations of their unique cultures and character.  The first theorist of nationalism, in Berlin’s reckoning, was Johann Gottfried Herder, the late eighteenth century German philosopher, who “rejected the absolute criteria of progress then fashionable in Paris: no culture is a mere means towards another; every human achievement, every human society is to be judged by its own internal standards . . . Cosmopolitanism is the shedding of all that makes one most human, most oneself.”  This acclaim for the unique value of local or national cultures is the stuff of nationalism and national narratives alike as they became the dominant political thrust in Europe a century later and in Africa and Asia two centuries later. “Germans must be Germans and not third-rate Frenchmen; life lies in remaining steeped in one's own language, tradition, local feeling; uniformity is death. The tree of (science-dominated) knowledge kills the tree of life.” 

Did the national narratives—and the emergent national-security narrative—shape political behavior, or did political actors merely use national narratives to justify their actions?

The power of national myths, social and cultural practices, and language in shaping a narrative that is politically animated by patriotic fervor became obvious in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  But not all aspects of a national narrative are as salient as others at any given time.  Why was the U.S.-Iran confrontation so much more belligerent after 1979 than before?  Did the national narratives—and the emergent national-security narrative—shape political behavior, or did political actors merely use national narratives to justify their actions?  “Only some narratives,” wrote Ronald Krebs, “become dominant, an accepted ‘common sense’ about the world, and thus set the boundaries of what actors can legitimately articulate in public, what they can collectively (though not individually) imagine, and what is politically possible.” Dominant narratives, he continued, “privilege a range of policies and impede the legitimation of others, and fundamental change in national security policy—in its basic orientation, as opposed to the effort expended or the means employed—hinges on change in the dominant narrative.”

The national narratives that animate nationalism are, in sum, socially constructed over time, tend to serve the interests of specific elites, are populist in tone and lit by sentiment, and honor particular cultural myths and social practices.  How narratives affect political behavior and international relations, particularly alongside or juxtaposed against state interests or global norms, is our pivotal question.  The United States and Iran, especially in their relationship to each other, provide some insights.


Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the U.S.-Iran Conflict, by Hussein Banai, Malcolm Byrne, and John Tirman, and published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.