Does Iran Really Scare You? Misperception and Policy Making

Two weeks ago, I joined a National Iranian American Council delegation to Senator Markey’s office to express our support for the Iran nuclear deal based on our own personal reasons. For me, that was like sipping hot water; on one side I had strong personal reasons to support the deal, and on the other side it made me revisit my non-nostalgic memories, those that I have tried to avoid thinking about.

I was born and raised in a western city of Iran, just a few miles away from Iraq’s border. We were engaged for 8 years in a horrific war with Iraq. Because of that war, I lost my mother. I was injured, and my cousin lost her life in a cluster bomb explosion when we were walking to school at the age of 9. After that, we were displaced for years. I learned to love my new sweet home, a small tent in the Zagros Mountains, because I was safe there. That war ruined my childhood. I do not want any child to have the same experience I had.

Before moving to the United States in 2006, I worked as a journalist in Iran. My job gave me the opportunity of being up close and personal with the problems that Iranians were facing concerning sanctions. Sanctions have created huge income inequalities and harmed lower income and middle class families in Iran. My brother was affected by sanctions — he lost his job because of them, and now he cannot provide for the basic needs of his family.

I want this deal to be passed by Congress. Finalizing the Iran nuclear deal means no war and no ruined childhoods; it also means releasing Iranians from the economic pressures caused by the sanctions.

Senator Markey’s staff members who attended the meeting were impressed when they heard our personal reasons to support the Iran nuclear deal. Yet, stating our personal views about the deal was just a part of the meeting; it was unexpected when Senator Markey’s staff asked a couple of questions about the political side of the deal. They asked for a guarantee that Iran would implement the deal, and also not give the money they would receive when the sanctions are lifted, to terrorist groups.They also wanted to know why Iranians are pursuing nuclear energy when they possess the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas.

These types of questions about the Iran nuclear deal suggests that Senator Markey’s staff, like most Americans, have a strong misperception about Iran. The reason is obvious; most of the Western media presents a conflictual narrative about Iran. The media does not present a fair view of the real facts regarding Iran. Most of the time, Western media spices the raw materials and presents them in a way which is more supportive of Western interests. Yet, the misperception of American policy makers about Iran is another issue, which is caused by several factors.

What is Misperception?

Robert Jervis, in his book Perception and Misperception in International Politics, believes misperception about other states is a product of interest, past experience, current perception, irrational cognitive consistency (finding an alternative in a conflictual situation to reduce the discomfort), and the inclination to improperly generalize. Jervis concludes that, considering other nations are more centralized and planned than is in fact the case, exaggeration of playing the central role in other nations’ policy, and the role of the media, are other factors of the misperception process.

Misperception is a result of distorting available data. Let’s apply this concept to American policy-makers’ misperception of Iran. First, consider the dominance of pro-Israel political assumptions in the United States on one hand, and the Iranians’ support for anti-Israel resistance groups on the other. American policy-makers are surrounded by lots of information about Iran. They have to create a new policy for upcoming events (currently, the decision of Congress to support or reject the Iran nuclear deal).  In the first step, they pick the data most conductive to fit their current views. Deep in their memories, they return to the experiences they have formed dealing with economic, social, political and civil affairs regarding Iran. These flashbacks consciously or unconsciously impact their screening mechanism and form their misperception respecting Iran.

Considering Iranian society to be planned and centralized also leads American policy-makers to regard Iranians as hostile. Furthermore, misperception of American policy-makers about Iran is partly shaped by their security dilemma (i.e., policies which increase one state’s security tend to decrease that of others) make it difficult for states to realize their common interests). This security dilemma provokes power balancing through arms races and alliance formation in the region. Besides, American policy-makers, like the majority of ordinary people, have an inner feeling which drives them to the beliefs, attitudes and subjects in harmony with their assumptions and isolates them from the ones in disharmony; therefore they pick harmonic information concerning Iran, those with the highest amount of consistency with their beliefs, and reject the contrasting ones. This reaction is called “irrational cognitive consistency.” Another factor which guides American policy-makers to misperception towards Iran is the belief that Iranians are more important and effectual than they really are (seeing Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, for example). Moreover, American policy-makers have a desire to generalize issues by assuming that if a policy is good or bad in one area, it must be the same in others; this inclination pushes them toward misperception regarding Iran.

Some scholars have the strong belief that “people do not develop misperception in a vacuum.” American policy-makers disseminate information about Iran based on their interests directly and indirectly through media that supports them. The media transmits this information and, at least in theory, provides critical analysis. “One’s source of news or how closely one pays attention to news may influence whether or how misperception may develop.” (Steven Kull, Clay Ramsay and Evan Lewis, “Misperception, the media and the Iraq war,” Political Science Quarterly, 2003)

Analysis and Assessment of American misperception about Iran

To support the assumption of American policy-makers’ misperception about Iran, compare the United States’ relationships with Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Based on a U.S. State Department fact sheet, the United States has a conflictual policy towards Iran: “The United States has long-standing concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, sponsorship of terrorism, and human rights record. The United States and the international community have imposed comprehensive sanctions against Iran to compel Iran to engage seriously in discussions with the international community and address concerns over its nuclear program and human rights abuses. The current Iranian government still has not recognized Israel’s right to exist, has hindered the Middle East peace process by arming militants, including Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and continues to play a disruptive role in sustaining violence in the region, particularly Syria.”

According to this statement, the United States has three reasons for its conflictual policy towards Iran: attempting to obtain nuclear weapons, supporting terrorism, and violating human rights. However, inside Iran, the situation is completely different.. According to a public opinion study about Iranian attitudes on nuclear negotiations held by the University of Tehran and Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland in 2014, 94% of respondents strongly supported having nuclear energy. In this study, “69% believe that Iran’s sole objective is to use peaceful nuclear energy while 18% believe Iran is also pursuing the capabilities needed to develop nuclear weapons alongside its energy program. An additional 4% think the capabilities for weapons are Iran’s sole objective.”

In 2007, the organization Terror Free Tomorrow conducted a nationwide survey of 1000 participants from 30 provinces of Iran. 84.9% of participants backed full access for Iran to peaceful nuclear technology and 78% of Iranians strongly favored the development of nuclear energy. In this survey, 64.7% of respondents supported financial assistance to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.

On February 2014, the Anti-Defamation League performed a survey of 101 countries. The results of interviewing 53,000 people showed Iran to be the least anti-Semitic country in the Middle East. In this survey, Iran did not even make it into the survey’s worldwide top 20 anti-Semitic hot spots. U.S. allies in the region (Kuwait 82%, Qatar and United Arab Emirates 80%, Saudi Arabia 74% and Turkey 69%) had a much higher rate than Iran with 56%.

As to the U.S.-Israel relationship, the State Department fact sheet makes it clear that the relationship is friendly, despite Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons and violations of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. A Washington Post report about last summer’s conflict between Israel and Palestine, which was based on the UN report, reveals that 7 in 10 Palestinians killed in 2014 Gaza attacks were civilians, while Israel disagrees.

On Tuesday December 2nd, 2014, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution calling on Israel to renounce possession of nuclear weapons and put its nuclear facilities under international oversight. The resolution, titled “The risk of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East,” was introduced by Egypt and adopted in a 161-5 vote. The United States was among the countries which voted against the resolution. Israel is the only country in the Middle East which is not a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and “Israel is widely considered to possess nuclear arms but declines to confirm it.”

The United States also has a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia despite Saudi’s support of terrorism and their human rights violations which is noted in the U.S. State Department Report. Paul Sperry, the author of the New York Post article “Inside the Saudi 9/11 Cover up”, talks about the 9/11 attacks and refutes the idea that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were a sole act of terror by Al-Qaeda. Further information from the article indicates that there was a “state sponsor,” namely, Saudi Arabia, due to the fact that 15 out of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. Keeping the information secret, President Bush inexplicitly censored 28 pages of an 800 page report investigating theattack. Attempts by Reps. Walter Jones (R-NC) and Stephen Lynch (D-MA) could not reveal the nation involved without violating Federal Law. As a result, through a congressional proposal, they asked President Obama to declassify the entire report on the Intelligence Community Activities before and after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The FBI and CIA leaked documents that point back to a presumed United States alliance with Saudi Arabia. The information exposed that the hijackers had vast resources and financial support direct from the Saudi embassy in Washington and their consulate in Los Angeles.

As mentioned before, the United States policy-makers have a conflictual policy about Iran. Comparing the Iranian position, as per violations of human rights, support of terrorism, and attempts to obtain nuclear weapons, with U.S. allies in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and Israel) reveals that the U.S. policy-makers’ yardstick, which they use to establish their relationship with other countries, is not valid. Despite unimpeachable evidence about Saudi Arabia’s engagement in supporting terrorism and violations of human rights, the United States is still in a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is the same story with the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. Reviewing the human rights violations in occupied Palestinian territory, and the mass killings of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip during the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas in the summer of 2014, shows the American policy-makers’ yardstick used to measure its relationship with Israel is not valid either.

In order to clarify the American policy-makers’ assumptions concerning Iran, one must look closely at both positions on the Iranian question. On the one hand, it is believed that Iran has the ambition to produce nuclear weapons, and that the backing of Hamas and Hezbollah is a government initiative that supports “terror” without the backing of the Iranian people. On the other hand, according to the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in 2007, Iran stopped all its nuclear weapons program in 2003, a report which has been reaffirmed every year since 2007, but the Iranian people do still support nuclear ambitions for peaceful purposes. As well, despite the State Department’s labels in the U.S., Hamas (a Palestinian political party, which won the Palestinian legislative election in 2006, and does not recognize the State of Israel; and is also supported by Saudi Arabia) and Hezbollah (a political party in Lebanon which has several members in its government) are seen as organizations which promote and pursue the region’s right to be free from undue Israeli influence and occupation.

The assumption of the American policy-makers’ misperception about Iran will be more acceptable by comparing the fair position of Iran in the anti-Semitism survey with the position of the U.S.’s regional allies.

It is important to know that gaining misperception about Iran could be a production of interest, past experience, current perception, irrational cognitive consistency, and an inclination to improperly generalize by American policy-makers. Also, the consideration of Iranian actions as more centralized and planned than they actually are, the exaggeration that Iranians are playing a central role in other countries’ policies, namely those of Iraq and Syria,, and the role of the media are other factors that lead U.S. policy-makers towards misperception about Iran.

To avoid and minimize this misperception, decision-makers should be explicit in the expression of their beliefs and values, recognize common perception and see the world from the eyes of others. Playing the devil’s advocate is another way to counter misperception. (Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics)

See the world the way it is.

Rashin Khosravibavandpouri is an Iranian-born journalist and currently a M.S. student in International Relations at Suffolk University, as well as a member of MAPA’s Middle East Working Group.