“An Open Door”: Responsibility and the Comic Frame in Obama’s Foreign Policy Rhetoric on Iran
Abstract

Abstract:

The July 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States was heralded by many as the best possible chance of avoiding both a nuclear armed Iran and another war in the Middle East. Although success is far from certain, the path to the deal was even less so. That the Obama administration achieved a verifiable suspension of Iran’s enrichment activity in November 2013 was itself a major success. What is even more remarkable is that the Obama administration was able to do so while utilizing the same mix of policy tools, diplomacy, and pressure as the George W. Bush administration. The difference in outcomes is especially confusing given the tendency of foreign policy experts to hold that President Obama’s and President Bush’s foreign policy worldviews are relatively identical. I argue that a rhetorical perspective provides the answer. Specifically, President Obama responded to the challenge of Iran’s nuclear program by fashioning a frame of responsibility in a comic register, shifting the obligation to resolve the standoff peacefully onto both Iran and the United States. A crucial aspect of this rhetorical strategy was that it presented the Iranian regime with the option of rejoining the global community (albeit on restricted terms). Thus, Obama presented a hybrid of Kenneth Burke’s tragic and comic frames that chastised the Iranian regime for dangerous behavior while acknowledging American guilt, error, and responsibility for bringing the nuclear standoff to a peaceful end.