Illustration by Andrea Nebhut
The assassination of Iranian top general Qasem Soleimani has propelled a broader debate internationally on the West’s role in Iran, the impact of this action on Iranian civilians and what the future holds for both nations. Sources ranging from the mainstream media to internet memes have shaped the narrative surrounding Iran for decades, with recent reports suggesting that the tensions have dangerously heightened.
According Trinity political science professor Sussan Siavoshi, justification for the assassination of Soleimani has been inconsistent since initial reports from military personnel.
“The argument in the beginning was that he was planning to attack the United States’ interests and personnel, and that this attack is very imminent. However, as it turned out it wasn’t that, and they sort of struggled to find another thing to say. Even when they went to Congress, Republican senator Mike Lee said it was very unsatisfying that [they] did not get any response, there was no indication that there was imminent threat. President Trump said eventually that we had information that Soleimani had plans to attack four American embassies in Iraq, and then the Secretary of Defense says hasn’t seen any evidence of this attack against the embassy. So the discourse shifted into what he [Soleimani] had done previously,” said Siavoshi.
According to Trinity political science professor Peter O’Brien, the action taken under Trump’s leadership has altered international perceptions of the U.S. particularly among allies in Europe.
“Trump is an extreme version of the kind of change that can happen. He has also quite profoundly upset the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, and that was quite a solid alliance for a long time. I think many people thought that the argument that the United States would withdraw from the international nuclear deal with Iran was a ploy to get elected, and of course when he did it, it was a major disappointment for Europeans. There are a few that support him, Victor Orban in Hungary, for instance, but most find his administration, and him in particular, to be a disappointment,” said O’Brien.
While much of media coverage has focused on the threat of retaliation to American forces, according to Siavoshi, it may be beneficial for lawmakers and citizens alike to consider conflict from the Iranian perspective.
“Just so Americans understand, it is as if Americans were just informed by their authorities that a very prominent military general has been assassinated by an enemy. How would they feel, and what would they like to be the response? That is how they felt, and that is why we saw millions of people coming into the street and mourning his death,” said Siavoshi.
While the true reason behind the assassination is unknown, according to O’Brien, it is possible that the assassination was politically motivated, and ideally, an investigation into the decision would result in a clearer understanding of why the assassination took place.
“I would love for there to be a thorough investigation of the reasons why, but those are difficult to carry through because of the exercise of executive privilege. We’ll see as this election continues. He wouldn’t be the first politician — not even the first US politician — to think that it helps the president in a reelection bid,” said O’Brien.
Given the escalated tensions between the nations, according to Dr. Siavoshi, a war with Iran is within the realm of possibility.
“The threat of this conflict to spiral into a much bigger deal, which would lead into even drafting in this country is real. I am not suggesting that it is going to happen, I don’t want to be alarmist, but we all have to understand these are possibilities we have to entertain.”
According to O’Brien, the decades-long tension with Iran is rooted in an innately biased view of the Middle East.
“There’s a very long tradition of what is called Orientalism, and that a kind of supercilious, arrogant western view that the west is superior to the Muslim world, and that the Middle East is a place where politics has to occur through military action and force. That stereotype is hundreds of years old, and it’s a pretty strong one, ” O’Brien said.
According to Sarah Erickson, professor of communication, the media plays a significant role in shaping our perception of world events.
“We talk about something called cultivation effects, which is the idea that we learn how to think about the world from the media, and we learn what the world looks like – particularly if we aren’t otherwise familiar. If I am not someone who’s not familiar with another culture, then my only knowledge of that culture may come from the media, “ Erickson said.
According to Siavoshi, in order to move forward and promote international unity, lawmakers must start viewing Iranians as people, rather than perpetual adversaries.
“When the media says that Iran is expansionist, Americans should understand that Iran lived in that neighborhood. It has friends in the area and national interests. I am not suggesting that Iran doesn’t do some regressive things, but Iran lives in that neighborhood, we don’t. From the view of Iranians, it is the United States that has inserted itself in the area,” Siavoshi said.
According to Erickson, it is important that citizens utilize multiple media sources, in order to avoid deriving biased or inaccurate information.
“Public and noncommercial media, so your NPRs and your PBSs, it’s not perfect, but their primary motive is not profit, so they are willing to invest in things that other networks are not because it is not going to be immediately profitable. From a consumer perspective, I think trying to not rely on just one media source is really important. Yes there are these places I go as touchstones, but I try to see how other media outlets are perceiving this and reporting on it,” Erickson said.
According to Siavoshi, a more nuanced view of Iran is essential to finding common ground and avoiding unnecessary conflict.
“What we tend to forget is that there are 80 million people, most of them just live their lives as you do. They go to work, they think about what to make for dinner, they think about what to do with their children on weekends, how to pay their loans – things like that. I think these are the things we need to think about as young people, and try to educate yourself about these things,” Siavoshi said.