In my last article for Dawn, I donned my evil balaclava and examined how people felt about Iraq, using readers’ responses to my Axis of Evil questionnaire. The tongue-in-cheek questionnaire was produced as the 10th anniversary of Bush’s speech on the evil three – Iraq, Iran and North Korea draws near. As explained in my last piece, the examination is of the first 100 responses.
Today, I look at people’s perceptions of Iran. In recent days Iran has escalated tensions with the US – after capturing a dreaded drone, it is now demanding an end to spy-planes. Iran was never tackled in the same way as Iraq was, but with a 17-year long US trade embargo on Iran and no real diplomatic relations for 30 years – the two countries are clearly not friends. Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Clinton labeled Iran as “awful” in a speech about internet freedoms. My own country, Great Britain, has broken diplomat relations with Iran in recent weeks and speculation is flying wildly about an exchange between Iran and Israel. But do we think Iran is “Evil”?
Over a quarter of respondents mentioned religious conservatism in their perception of Iran – and for many it was the only thing mentioned. A small number of people felt that Iran was a model Islamic state, and there was certainly admiration for its “belligerent attitude towards the non-Islamic world” – which one respondent said whilst feared, was also a reason for “glee amongst other Islamic nations”. Five per cent felt Iran was reformist or progressive in its stance and one responded that Iran had an “appreciable population of moderate Muslims”. Others felt the overly religious state was oppressive and radical, and one respondent said Iran was “a country held hostage by a clique of clergy”. Six per cent said the theology of the country had “failed”.
Proud and confused
An overwhelming number of respondents expressed admiration in the way Iran stands up to American and the West. “It dares to be different” was a common theme. Those that didn’t admire it acknowledged that Iran was “known for its hard stance against the US”. Its independence in the face of sanctions was admired equally. Yet often the same respondents were heavily critical of the Iranian regime and leadership, generally feeling that Iran was in the “wrong hands” (15 per cent highlighted this) and many felt Iranians, whilst being smart and liberal at heart, were oppressed (12 per cent). Only one person mentioned that it wasn’t a good place to be for a woman (no one mentioned that it was a good place for a woman!). A good example of a mixed answer to how Iran was viewed is provided by this reader: Iran is “orthodox but still progressive in some weird way, troublesome, mischievous, lack of political freedom”. Others simply wrote “mixed”.
It could be that the confusion of views within some answers demonstrated that respondents were better informed about Iran than Iraq, and understood that all countries are multi-faceted and complex.
Defined by others
One key finding was that the perception of Iran appears to be largely framed by its relationship with other countries. I mentioned in my last post that there really was no need to pose a separate question about perceptions of the USA – as the answers to the Iraq questionnaire demonstrated well how people felt about America. The Iran questionnaire is no different. And where I was staggered at how perceptions of Iraq were formed from a narrow window of a seven-year occupation, it is curious just how Iran’s relationship with the US has shaped our perception of this nation. I think Iran and the US are both to blame for this – but I wonder how useful negative nation branding (i.e. what we are “not”) is for the healthy development of both nations.
It wasn’t all about the USA. Iran was compared to China for its independent spirit; to India for its ancient civilisation; to Saudi – for being a religious country that was “better than Saudi”; and to Turkey – for having the potential to become like it. Four people wrote favourably about Iran’s relations with India and one person mentioned that Iran did not do enough for Palestinians. Seven per cent perceived Iran as being a “hater of Israel”. One person cheerfully wrote that if Imran Khan liked Iran it can’t be that bad, which made me smile!
Iraq also played a part in defining Iran. Surprisingly not one single respondent mentioned the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war, which cost one million Iranian lives (with many more still dying from long-term effects of Saddam’s chemical weapons). One respondent said that “the US and Iran are on the same wavelength on Iraq”. But every other mention of Iraq was in the context of the unpopular US occupation of Iraq as providing further fodder for Iran’s anti-American stance. One person said they perceived Iran as similar to Iraq, “minus the American infiltration”. I’m sure veterans of the Iran-Iraq war might have something to say about that. It is a shame that no Iranians or Iraqis were amongst respondents (for a breakdown see my last post).
Iran’s culture and people
One difference between Iraq and Iran was that double the number of people mentioned that Iran had an ancient and rich history and culture (10 per cent). The landscape, climate, even their movie industry were all mentioned. Seven per cent highlighted the warmth of the Iranian people – one even claimed that Iranians were “better looking” than natives of other lands!
Who answered the questions?
This attention to culture, complexity of response, and viewing Iran in the context of other countries – such as India (where 50 per cent of respondents came from) – is perhaps less surprising when we look at how people formed their perceptions of Iran.
Over half the people who responded to my questionnaire said they had formed their impressions of Iran via people they knew. Perhaps not surprising as Iran borders Pakistan and is closer to India than Iraq. However, three quarters of respondents were still effected by the news media. And about the same as Iraq (roughly half) felt their perception of Iran was affected by government statements. Again, an interesting finding. All research points to government and media being the least trusted, yet there appears to be a case for acknowledging that trusted or not, it has an impact on how we perceive.
Impressions of Iran formed by…
One thing that was clear to me was that when expressing perceptions of Iran, there was a clear lack of CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation marks!!!! compared to Iraq. Respondents appeared less angry and shouty and put their views across in a more rational and balanced way. It might be a leap to suggest that when people have a more “personal” and a less “media” informed perception, they are less extreme and prejudiced in their views.
As I wrote before, the rhetoric of evil isn’t ever useful, and nor are huge generalisations of any kind about a country and it’s people. Iran seems to have been judged in a more balanced way than Iraq, considering it was the same respondents answering the questions. However I felt a chill down my spine when someone wrote, perhaps the closest to the “evil” narrative that Iran “seems they have bad intents”.
Results in more detail:
26 per cent focused on how religious/conservative Iran was.
17 per cent saw Iran as a country that spoke out against international tyranny/USA/the west/imperialism doesn’t bow to external pressure.
16 per cent said Iran was brave/determined/independent.
15 per cent thought Iran was run by bigots/tryants/a zealot/a ”junta”/radicals/in the wrong hands.
12 per cent saw Iran’s relationship with the USA as a major problem.12 per cent thought Iranians were oppressed/were beginning to reject the system.
10 per cent mentioned that Iran/Persia was an ancient civilisation/rich culture.
9 per cent said Iran was a nice/good country.
7 per cent perceived Iran as hating Israel.
7 per cent thought Iran was a closed country.
7 per cent said that Iranians were loving/friendly. 6 per cent thought that Iran posed a real threat.
6 per cent said Iran was “radical”.
6 per cent said Iran had a failed theology.
5 per cent said Iran’s potential nuclear capacity is frightening/should stop.
5 per cent saw Iran as reformist or progressive.
5 per cent had no views of Iran at all.
5 per cent said Iran was a bluffer/mischief player/wannabe.
5 per cent said Iran was a powerful player.
4 per cent thought Iran was a peaceful country.
4 per cent said Iran had good relations with India.
3 per cent said Iran was colourful /magical/ beautiful landscape.
3 per cent Iran poses no danger to the international community.
3 per cent indicated that Iran was a rising power.
3 per cent thought Iran should be allowed to develop.
3 per cent felt that Iran was home terrorists or supports them.
3 per cent said Iran was full of (untapped) talent and resource.
2 per cent felt that Iran should be allowed to develop a nuclear capacity (why USA and Israel and not Iran? “all or none”.
2 per cent said Iran was a model for other Islamic Countries. 2 per cent mentioned the exploitation of oil.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.
Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and international relations. Her main research interests are in the perception of places and people as presented in the media. Her book A Better Basra, about her time in Iraq was published in August 2011.
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.