Iran has a prominent place in America’s geopolitical imagination. The Shah assumed absolute power after a 1953 coup engineered by the UK and the USA removed Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, only to be overthrown twenty five years later in a revolution that created the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mutual animosity was secured through the 1979 hostage crisis, during which US embassy staff were held captive in Tehran for 444 days. Add to that Iran’s lamentable human rights record, and concerns over its regional military posture, and Iran has long been a part of the ‘axis of evil’ around which the US structures its strategic outlook.
Against this backdrop are occasional attempts to offer a different view of Iran. The Atlantic’s In Focus 6 January gallery “A View Inside Iran” is one such effort, with 42 pictures from agency photographs capturing prosaic scenes over the last year. This is a good and worthwhile mining of the visual archive to make a general point. It is structured in terms of implicitly providing the inverse image to the stereotype. Other than two shots of crowds engaged in Islamic rituals (#6, #19), we see individuals, artists, sports people, and religious minorities (including Christians and Jews) going about their business peacefully. Against the vague notion of Iran being backward, we see common markers of modernity, including city scenes, internet cafes, people on mobile phones and market traders. To ensure balance, the captions are careful to note the contradictions of Iranian life. The July 2011 photo (above) by Reuters’ Caren Firouz shows mother and daughter Shahrzad and Noora Naraghi practicing on a motocross track in the mountains overlooking Tehran. After detailing their commitment to the sport, it states “women are banned from driving motorcycles on the streets of Iran.” Likewise, the Raheb Homavandi photograph (#41) of the internet cafe makes clear how official censorship works.
Another challenging view of Iran emerged this week through Tyler Hicks’ extraordinary images of the US Navy’s capture of Somali pirates, and the release of thirteen Iranians the pirates had held for a month. Detailed in a series of revealing images, and supported by the vivid writing of C.J. Chivers (here and here), this event would have likely gone unrecorded had Hicks and Chivers not been on board the U.S.S. John C. Stennis. I was interested to see one reader’s comments on the Chivers/Hicks story, marked as a ‘NYT pick':
This was a great saga, proving the greatness, compassion and the ability of our military and our values as the most blessed nation on this earth. We show kindness even to our enemies. What sacrifice our armed forces made and courage they displayed!
This rescue notwithstanding, and in contrast to the benevolent American exceptionalism imagined by this reader, US policy towards Iran remains hostile (as does Iranian policy towards the US, Israel and others). Indeed, there are worrying signs that Iran is being embedded in a bellicose narrative reminiscent of the run up to the invasion of Iraq a decade ago. Before Christmas US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta conducted a network television interview on board the US nuclear command aircraft (the “Doomsday Plane”), to make the point that the US would not tolerate a nuclear armed Iran and that all policy options for responding to a potentially nuclear armed Iran were on the table. He reiterated much of this message yesterday in another CBS interview. And in an unfortunate echo of the run up to the invasion of Iraq, the New York Times has been called out for misleading readers by overstating Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
More complex, nuanced photographic accounts of Iran – including those of the many fine Iranian photographers, such as Newsha Tavakolian – are not going to halt misleading journalism or militaristic policy in its tracks. But they might just make some of us pause and think about Iran’s automatic status as a perpetual enemy.
Featured photo: Noora (right) and Shahrzad Naraghi practice on a motocross track in the mountains overlooking Tehran, on July 3, 2011. Shahrzad Naraghi started riding motocross eight years ago to spend more time with her daughter Noora who became interested in the sport after watching her father compete in races, and began riding motorcycles at the age of four. The pair raced against each other at first and in women’s only motocross races in Iran in 2009. In 2010, Noora travelled to the United States, completed training courses and raced in competitions sponsored by the American Motorcyclist Association. Women are banned from driving motorcycles on the streets of Iran. Copyright: Reuters/Caren Firouz.
Second photo: In a naval action that mixed diplomacy, drama and Middle Eastern politics, the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis broke up a high-seas pirate attack on a cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman, then sailors from an American destroyer boarded the pirates’ mother ship and freed 13 Iranian hostages who had been held captive there for more than a month. Sailors detained the Somali pirates in a small skiff. Copyright: Tyler Hicks/New York Times, 6 January 2012.