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Anthropological Quarterly 76.4 (2003) 671-691

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Iran and the United States:
Postmodern Culture Conflict in Action 1

William O. Beeman
Brown University

The Cultural Discourse of Conflict

Fifty years ago the study of culture conflict for anthropologists was limited to peoples who lived in close proximity to each other. The most frequent subjects of study were factions of the same society. Even in more recent times, studies of conflict and violence seem restricted to internal divisiveness within nations rather than between nations (cf. Gluckman 1959, Segal and Beals 1960, Levine 1961, Dahrendorf 1968). International conflict was largely left to the purview of political scientists.

After World War II, no one could have predicted that the United States would eventually be involved in conflicts in places as remote from North America as Lebanon, Korea, Somalia and Vietnam. These conflicts were relatively short lived, and were limited military operations.

One engagement seems to have a different character than all of these others—this is the American engagement with Iran. It is now the longest stand-off the United States has ever had with another nation, with the possible exception of Cuba and North Korea. Even during the Cold War era, the United States maintained diplomatic, cultural and economic relations with Russia and other communist states. The engagement with Iran is important and distinctive for another reason— [End Page 671] its initial stages arguably constituted the opening volleys in what promises to be an extended conflict with oppositional forces throughout the Islamic world. In this paper, I will analyze the conflict between Iran and the U.S. and suggest a model for an approach to future encounters between nations in the coming decades of our increasingly shrinking world.

Post-Modern Conflict

In the wake of the American invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, the United States has had renewed conflict with Iran. Many commentators asked "Is Iran next?" Representatives of the Bush administration developed a whole series of reasons why the government of Iran should undergo "regime change" such as had taken place in Iraq. Iran was accused of harboring terrorists, of developing nuclear weapons and of masterminding attacks on American facilities in other countries. These accusations remain unsubstantiated at this writing.

Iran continues to accuse the United States of trying to undermine its governmental structures, directly supporting dissident elements inside and outside the country. These accusations too remain largely unsubstantiated.

This state of affairs leads to the conclusion that the American conflict with Iran as it continues today is a true postmodern culture conflict. It centers not on substantive differences or real conflict, but rather on symbolic discourse. In this discourse both nations construct the "other" to fit an idealized picture of an enemy. The process is reminiscent of the Cold War in its processes of mutual demonization, but it differs from the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union in a number of significant respects.

First, unlike the situation of the Cold War, Iran and the United States hold little or no immediate danger for each other. Both try to emphasize the danger of their opponents, but on close examination, these constructed threats have little or no substance.

Second, the mutual opposition between the two nations exists at an abstract, governmental level, but is not generally shared by the populations of the two nations. Both nations maintain that their quarrel is not with the people of the other nation, but with the "government."

Third, the demonization of the "government" in both cases is not substantive, but rather symbolic, and shifting. It sometimes applies to individuals, such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or President George W. Bush, and sometimes to vague unspecified forces within the two governments. This is revealed in statements such as "Iran supports terrorism," or "America oppresses the Gulf region." [End Page 672]

Fourth, officials of the two nations do not talk directly to each other. Most communication is carried out through back-channels, or primarily through the media. This process of indirect discourse between nations is endemic in today's world, but it...


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