21st Century Orientalism in Iran and the United States

Seeing the movie Persepolis in the sixth grade was one of the first truly globalizing moments of my life. Up until that point Iran, and the entire Middle East really, was in my narrow perception simply a land of conflict and intense religiosity. Being conditioned by both considerable privilege and the media of a post 9/11 world I built definitions of “American” and “Arab/Muslim” that were simplistic and wrong. Persepolis was my first glimpse at a non-western perspective of the west, Iran, and Islam, and they started to seem a lot more like us. What was particularly disturbing however, was the picture of us, the U.S., that was revealed. This wasn’t the champion of democracy I’d been shown before, this was my first glimpse of the United States as an aggressive imperial power. Years later, viewing this film as a primary source in comparison with other scholarly lectures and articles such as those of Hamid Algar and Soroush, the unfortunate truth somes into sharply focus; the west, and the US in particular, has abused the Iranian people and has profited from their oppression, both politically and economically.


In 1953 the CIA in cooperation with the British, orchestrated a coup against the democratically elected Mossadeq government in order to protect western oil interests from nationalization as well as reinstate the Shah who was sympathetic to western interests. Both goals were accomplished, with Mohammad Reza Shah in control of the country and 40% of Iran’s oil consortium going to the U.S. The CIA and the Israeli Mossad went on to help train and support the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK as well as other brutal and violent organizations meant to suppress the descent and political agency of the Iranian people. It’s clear that in the case of Iran the common and self assumed identity of the west as the bastion of liberty and democracy breaks down. The United States and other imperial powers actively supported a tyrant and attempted to deny the self determination of a nation. In particular I found in Hamid Algar’s lecture “Iran and Shi’ism” an apt summation of the situation:

“We may say that had it not been for the continued interference in Iranian affairs first by Russia then by Great Britain, and most recently by the United States and Israel, Iran today, instead of looking back on a quarter century of struggle and a year of revolution in which at least fifty thousand people were slaughtered, might well have been able to look back on more than half a century of constitutional and parliamentary rule” (Algar, 25)

With the return to power of Mohammad Reza Shah, the United States alienated the Iranian people and condemned them to decades of inept, oppressive, and often violent rule. This subversion of democracy seems distinctly “un-American”. To the critical eye it is undeniable that “The deeply-held American values of freedom, self determination, and human rights of others have become subordinated to national interests” (Sheikhneshin, 93). And yet to this day, the question of whether or not Iran can be trusted is central to many of our foreign policy debates – particularly following the recent Nuclear Deal pioneered by Secretary of State John Kerry. American politicians and media alike continue to cast an oppressive theocratic Iran in contrast to an enlightened and liberated west. In 2002, President Bush even went so far as to include Iran in an “Axis of Evil”, rhetoric that continues to color American perceptions of Iran to this day. This, is orientalism in practice on a national scale.

In retrospect, my experience with Persepolis was a realization that my definitions of American and Iranian, West and East, secular and religious, all existed as stark opponents of one another – and as such these definitions were wildly insufficient. Using difference as the primary method of defining one’s identity can quickly and easily lead to fear of the different and ignores the possibility of complexity and cultural exchange. This fear, as Soroush puts it, is caused by “…the lack of a strong cultural digestive system and also the misconception that each culture is an indivisible monolith, accepting one part of which equals accepting the whole” (Soroush, 164). Both Iran and the US take part in this misconception, with chants of “death to America” on one hand, and threats of sanctions and bombs on the other.

And so the question remains: why is this orientalism so effective, and how does it effect our perceptions? In short, the orient occident comparison serves national interests and helps to support nationalist ideas. As Edward Said states in the introduction to his book Orientalism, “The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony…” (Said 5). In the case of Iran and the U.S. this relationship was characterized at first by an outright dominance and more recently by a cultural and ideological contrast. This dynamic of assumed dominance, while upset by the 1979 revolution remains to this day. When a leading republican candidate for the presidency seriously propose shutting down mosques and issuing special ID’s to muslim citizens (whether as a vote-getter or as serious policy) it is more crucial than ever that we forestall such blindness and hatred by expanding our perspectives.


  1. Graham, Robert. Iran, the Illusion of Power. New York: St. Marin’s Press, 1978.
  2. Hamid Algar, “Iran and Shi`ism,” in Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, four lectures by Hamid Algar (Oneonta, NY: Islamic Publications International, 2001 [rev. ed.]), 13- 46.
  3. Keddi, Nikki Ragozin. Roots of Revolution. An Interpretive History of Modern Iran. New Haven: Yale U. P., 1981.
  4. Persepolis. Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. France: The Kennedy/Marshall Company, 2007. Film.
  5. Said, Edward W. “Introduction.” Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978. 1-28.   Print.
  6. John Obert Voll, “European Domination and Islamic Response,” in Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994)
  7. Sheikhneshin, Arsalan Ghorbani. 2009. “Iran and the US: Current Situation and Future Prospects”. Journal of International and Area Studies 16 (1). Institute of International Affairs, Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University: 93–113. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43107186.
  8. Weiss, Cathy M. “Why Iran Must Remain a US Enemy.” – Al Jazeera English. N.p., 10 May 2015. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.
  9. “Text of President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address.” Washington Post. January 29, 2002. Accessed November 3, 2015.
  10. Cassidy, John. “Donald Trump and America’s Muslims – The New Yorker.”The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 19 Nov. 2015. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.
  11. . Merica, Dan, and Jason Hanna. “In Declassified Document, CIA Acknowledges Role in 1953 Iran Coup – CNNPolitics.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 19 Aug. 2013. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.
This entry was posted in Student Post and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.