Peculiarly Oriental Iranians

Iranian children (cc photo: Mãhi Teshneh)

Iranians: inherently suspicious? (cc photo: Mãhi Teshneh)

With nuclear talks underway again, there’s more discussions of Iran–unfortunately, in some cases. 

In a New York Times story (11/15/13) about a new report about nuclear inspections–which found “evidence that the Iranians have put the brakes on their nuclear expansion”–readers were treated this discussion of Iranian motives: 

The lack of certainty about Iran’s motives lends itself to widely conflicting interpretations of the report’s findings.

“They’ve got enough facilities, enough centrifuges, to develop and to complete the fissile material which is at the core of an atomic bomb,” Mr. Netanyahu said Thursday.

On Capitol Hill, aides to Republican and Democratic senators dismissed the report. “It simply confirms the concerns that senators already have: There have been no centrifuges removed,” said one. Another added, “They’re closing it down in the morning and opening it up in the afternoon.”

So the experts on what Iran is really up to are Netanyahu–who has been warning for two decades that Iran was just about to build a bomb–and two unnamed Senate aides. Good to know.

But the idea that Iranians are inherently more suspicious is widespread. Time magazine’s Karl Vick wrote a piece for the Time website (11/19/13) about a new YouTube video featuring Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif talking about Iran’s right to enrich uranium. 

The video is “entertaining,” with a “winsome piano solo”–and Zarif’s “solemn style is Persian to the core.”

So what’s the problem? To Vick, he doesn’t spell out that he’s talking about uranium enrichment. And that refusal to state the obvious is also, I guess, “Persian to the core”:

Iranians are masters of what has been termed “Oriental indirection“—which amounts to not quite saying what you mean, but getting your point across in a range of subtle ways.

Now that struck some people as downright offensive:



This didn’t sit well with Vick, who explained that Oriental misdirection wasn’t offensive at all. His proof? He’d written about this Iranian tendency once before (9/20/13). In that piece, he explained that Iran’s political culture can be hard to understand–which is true enough. But it’s the explanation that is so puzzling, when Vick explains that this is so because the government’s messages are 

wreathed in what’s been dubbed in the past as “Oriental indirection.” Translated–and anything coming out of Tehran must be translated–Oriental indirection means “listen to what I didn’t say” and “watch my eyes dance as I don’t say it.”  It’s a bit like “you get my drift,” except the drift is never evident from a single conversation.

Now that’s not as offensive as, say, Richard Cohen’s “These Persians lie like a rug,” but it’s closer to the similarly bigoted notion that Iranians have special religious license to lie. Vick seems to wish Iran were more direct; sure, and I wish all political leaders everywhere were. 

The problem is in making this seem like an exotic part of the Iranian character. Let’s offer a counter-example: Vick is Time‘s Jerusalem bureau chief. He must know that Israel possesses nuclear weapons–but Israel has made a habit of never disclosing this fact publicly. Would Vick come up with an ethnic or religious explanation for this peculiar political trait? I would hope not; but for Iran, the rules are evidently different. 

In the supposedly evasive video, Zarif says, “Iranians are no different from any other people on this planet we share.” It seems like Karl Vick begs to differ. 


About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.