By FATEMEH KESHAVARZ
Discussing the rising U.S. exports of cigarettes to Iran recently, Senator McCain joked, "Maybe that's a way of killing them." We have seen the unfortunate impact that Iran has on the Senator’s sense of humor before (the famous “Bomb, bomb, bomb” song). But this essay is not about Mr. McCain or the election. It is about the circumstances that make it possible for him to voice the death wish: “our” deep ambivalence toward “them,” the Iranians.
The Americans who travel to Iran, an average of 300 a year, find the country full of surprises. Before they arrive in Tehran, they know a thing or two about the country. They know that a religiously oriented government is in place and the constitution extends its tentacle deep into personal lives. They know that many young Iranians long for living in a more western society. Not an unrealistic assessment. But there is a lot they don’t know. Iran has a constellation of highly developed urban centers. Literacy is pretty high (over 90% among 15 to 25 year olds). Universities are filled with women students. The infant mortality and population growth rates are under control. And the country is at the forefront of stem cell research. If these are not enough, there is a bigger shocker: Iranians like Americans.
Why is it then that, here in the U.S., Senator McCain can safely issue Iranians a collective, supposedly humorous, death sentence? After all, if he did that to the Poles, or the Senegalese, he’d be jeopardizing his political career.
Interestingly enough, the legitimacy of Mr. McCain’s comment is rooted in a handful of stories. In the past year or so, as we have gone about our daily lives, these stories have floated in the background developing – gradually but surely – into “facts.” In truth, they are neither facts nor fabrications. They are a selective arrangement of truth with important parts missing. And they all have one message: Iran is dangerous.
Take the story of the “clandestine” nuclear program which Iran is said to have kept secret for twenty years. It refers to the nuclear facilities at Natanz outside the historic city of Isfahan. The building of this center was not announced until about three months before nuclear materials were introduced into it. The missing detail here is that the None Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory, allows its members to do exactly that: announce a facility three months before it becomes operational.
Then there is the story of the Iranian “sabotage” of our success in Iraq and Afghanistan. Few Americans know that Hamed Karzai and Nouri al-Maliki both consider Iran a valued ally of their respective government. Few know that Iran is building a dental college in Kabul and supplying Baghdad with electricity. Even fewer know that the lethal roadside bombs killing the American troops are made in Iraqi factories not in Iran: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3862435.stm
Occasionally, there is news that could debunk one of these stories completely. In May, L.A. Times reported an unprecedented confession by the US military: the weapons they had recently found in Iraq did not include a single item made in Iran. The news should have grabbed the attention of all major papers. If it did, their reporting did not show it. http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article19908.htm
But all is not lost. Like Iran, America has its surprises. While presidential hopefuls find it easy, even funny, to construct scenarios of mass killing, many ordinary Americans dedicate their lives to understanding situations of crisis and preventing wars.
On Tuesday, July 8, Andrew Wimmer, and fourteen other members of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood of St. Louis, visited the office of William Lacy Clay, Jr. of Missouri's 1st District and spoke with him via teleconference. The purpose of the visit was to discuss with him the House Concurrent Resolution 362 "expressing the sense of Congress regarding the threat posed to international peace, stability in the Middle East, and the vital national security interests of the United States by Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and regional hegemony.”
Four days later, in these very columns Andrew wrote: “House Concurrent Resolution 362 and its companion, Senate Resolution 580, pave the way for open war with Iran. It is that simple, and we must be equally clear and bold in our opposition.”
When Representative Clay observed: "Look, I'm sure that we all agree that we need to send a clear message to Iran that they cannot continue building nuclear weapons and killing our soldiers in Iraq. "No," responded the group: "that is precisely what we do not agree on because neither of those claims has been substantiated and repeating them only propagandizes for war." In Andrew’s words, the group speaking to the Senator “included young and old, veterans and veteran activists, teachers and students.”
On Wednesday, July 9, William Lacy Clay became the first member of the House to withdraw his sponsorship of Resolution 362. It appears that Iranians are not naïve in their liking the Americans. They realize that for each Senator McCain, there are many Andrew Wimmers – and one would hope – Lacy Clays.
Fatemeh Keshavarz is Chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literature at Washington University and the author of Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran.