How ‘national narratives’ shaped US-Iran relations
The authors of “Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the US-Iran Conflict” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022) said they had two principal objectives in writing this book: the first, as the title indicates, is to examine U.S.-Iran relations in the context of their respective national narratives; the second was to “construct a single narrative of the U.S.-Iran relationship.”
These are ambitious goals, which turn out to be less complementary than one might imagine on first glance.
The authors bring a lot of firepower and experience to the task. Hussein Banai, John Tirman, and Malcolm Byrne collaborated with others on an earlier book, “Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1979-1988” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). That book was an experiment in what they called critical oral history, in which participants in a major historical event later sit down with the documentary record and discuss what they knew, what they thought they knew, and what they think they know in retrospect. The results are sometimes dramatic and revelatory. Their new book was able to draw on the results of several such oral history conferences.
It also had the benefit of the National Security Archives collection of declassified documents, which is itself a unique and extensive non-governmental repository of foreign policy materials. There are a few newly uncovered revelations in the generous and somewhat chatty footnotes. Some notes go on for nearly a page and add significantly to the book’s primary arguments. There are no startling revelations that change or amend the historical record, but the notes and index (more than 60 pages) provide a useful review of the existing literature.
Trying to define the national narratives of the United States and Iran is a daunting task. Even non-specialists in the literature of nationalism, like me, have an abiding sense of the beliefs (or myths, as the title of this book would prefer) that undergird the societies that we inhabit or study. I have watched a lot of Westerns, and the concept of taming a frontier or defeating savages is not new to me. Yet, as someone who has spent a professional lifetime engaged in U.S.-Iran relations, that metaphor somehow does not capture all the twists and turns that have marked the past 43 years since the Iranian revolution.
The authors treat the “national narrative” theme with great sophistication. They sketch out a descriptive landscape for both the United States and Iran that is not dogmatic and that leaves plenty of room for individual perspectives. Most important, they do not try to force all the historical facts into a rigid framework. Instead they content themselves with occasional suggestions of how the facts may fit into such a schematic. I suspect that every reader will agree with them in some cases and not in others.
But at the end, I was left wondering at the value of this exercise. The authors make no grandiose claims about their analysis, but there is the strong implication that the lens of national narratives will improve our vision.
The concept of national narratives is too broad and amorphous to provide any analytical rigor. It is a fact that much of the history of miscommunication and lost opportunities between the United States and Iran over the past four decades has been due to the existence of contending views within each nation, one party always ready to sabotage or inhibit the efforts of their homegrown rivals or counterparts. One could argue that their point of contention was a differing view over national narratives, not a universal reverting to the mean.
National narratives would correctly predict that most efforts at reconciliation would fail, but it does not explain the emergence of a Khatami in Iran, or an Obama in the United States. Even if a courageous reformist movement in Tehran and the efforts of a hyper-realist problem solver in Washington are written off as outliers, they are nevertheless some of the most significant and interesting developments in this entire history. The fact that they failed is less important than the fact that they happened at all, and national narratives have little to say about them.
It is perfectly valid to argue, as the authors do, that the clash of national narratives between the United States and Iran has exacerbated political differences and inhibited reconciliation over and over again. It can help explain why the taking of American hostages by Iran has persisted as a blot on the American political psyche for several generations, but it is inadequate to predict or explain the action itself, which was arguably at odds with Iranian legal, social, and religious norms. In short, the concept of national narratives in my view should be regarded more as a background feature of political interaction, rather than an analytical tool.
The second objective, to create a single narrative, is probably the most useful aspect of this book. This is not the first such attempt. Barbara Slavin’s “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation” created such a narrative in 2007, and Trita Parsi’s three volumes on U.S.-Iran relations added greatly to the story. The authors draw on these and many other sources to lay out what is probably the most comprehensive presentation of the ups and down of the U.S.-Iran relationship to date.
The authors recognize the difficulty of presenting a single authoritative account of complex interactions involving not only Iran and the United States, but also many other states in the Middle East and beyond. There are also hidden controversies at every turn, many of which are still being debated in academic and policy circles. The authors strike a middle ground in their account, presenting plausible interpretations without emphasizing the contested views of, say, the 1953 coup that restored the shah to the throne and ousted Prime Minister Musaddeq, or the 2009 elections in Iran which led to a virtual revolution within a revolution and the greatest threat to date to the Islamic government.
Their account of this complicated history is thorough, but, as they noted at the outset, a complete version would have required far more interviews and research, demanding years of work and probably more than one hefty volume. This book, written primarily for specialists, is informative and well documented but will not put to rest the many controversies that continue to swirl around this particular piece of history.
I cannot leave this subject without identifying one factual flaw. On page 302, discussing the negotiations surrounding the Iran nuclear deal, the authors write about “the so-called ‘breakout time’ – that is, the time needed to produce one nuclear bomb. . . .” The term “breakout time” in the negotiations was the time necessary to acquire enough fissile material to build a bomb, understanding that actually constructing a deliverable bomb could take much longer, perhaps several more years. It is a common error, but this very expert group of researchers and their editors should have known better.
“Republics of Myth” joins a growing body of historical and analytical literature dealing with the epic confrontation between Iran and the United States. Its unique perspective is a welcome addition.