The mishandling by the British Ministry of Defense of the return of the captured British service personnel from Iran has been greeted with indignation and anger throughout the political establishment. Inept media management, in particular the seemingly abrupt decision to allow the personnel to sell their stories to the mass media, has been seen by many as having heaped insult upon injury and effectively handed a propaganda coup to the Iranians.
It is indeed remarkable, and perhaps a salutary lesson for our times, that without a shot being fired the Iranians succeeded in not only humiliating the British Armed Forces—ridicule from allies proved particularly hard to stomach—but also brought a British Defense Secretary to the brink of resignation. But for all the talk of humiliation, the real lessons of this latest confrontation between Iran and the West have yet to be digested.
Among the most evident, and the least appreciated, is that this was an exchange in soft power, in which the media were the weapons of choice. Moreover, the greatest wounds were self-inflicted, and Iran effectivelyrebounded from what might have been a public relations disaster not through design but through the ineptitude of its opponents. This is not the only time this has occurred—similar experiences were had during the war in Lebanon in 2006 and in the various bouts of nuclear negotiations—but this experience was explicit as much as it proved to be politically trivial.
Media coverage in Britain and other Western countries was driven by a master narrative that contained within it a number of assumptions related to Western supremacy. (This characterization does not hold for all media outlets; however, while some broadsheets might opine of diverse views on their opinion pages, the underlying narrative followed the same pattern expressed among the more sensationalist tabloids.) Moreover, with 24-hour newsgathering and dissemination, reflection and analysis is often replaced, if not determined, by the need to provide rapid assessments and new information. What’s happened is that the surplus of news outlets has had the paradoxical effect of increasing our information and reducing our knowledge.
Nuanced analysis—insofar as it exists—is replaced by stereotype, and among the most obvious is the Manichaean division of the world into good guys and bad guys, with the Western alliance most definitely among the former. In the post 9/11 world, this is a view that has been enthusiastically endorsed by Western politicians, encouraging a "You’re either with us or against us" attitude, which was embraced to a great extent by the press.
An explicit example can be found in the relationship between Fox News and the Bush administration. While Fox rushed to explicitly condemn Iran as the chief protagonist during the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, more sober news outlets similarly bought the Bush narrative of Iranian guilt. Indeed, at times the anti-Iran hysteria—bolstered by words appearing on the editorial and op-ed pages of news outlets—reached such a high volume that a distinguished Princeton academic such as Bernard Lewis could write an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal that declared—with no sense of irony—that Armageddon may be upon us. Certainly such an extreme view would not be published without some consideration of its authority and impact. And because it is well known that Lewis has been a close advisor to the White House and is considered an "authority" on issues Arab and Islamic, publication of these words sent a message that reverberated beyond the op-ed pages.
Lewis’s piece might be an extreme example of a narrative arc gone wild, but both the writer and the newspaper are of sufficient weight to alert readers as to the extraordinary social depth of this narrative. Yet nobody thought to query such an extraordinary claim. [See author’s note.] Furthermore, in developing this narrative through the war in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, it was remarkable that no Iranian official was approached to offer an opinion.
The British Sailors
A quite similar narrative construction could be seen with the recent experience involving the British sailors. This was particularly apparent among the British right-wing press although, more interestingly, some cracks could already be seen in the edifice. Implicit assumptions were made of the righteousness of the British cause and her actions, and they were juxtaposed against the obvious perfidy of the Iranians (a nice mirror image of the narrative in Iran); some commentators even began to question what they considered to be British government timidity in the face of such a blatant affront. Indeed for some this was a paradox that could not be reconciled and demands were soon being issued for "action."
Quite what this action might be was not obvious but clear, unsympathetic comparisons were being drawn between Blair and Thatcher—since by fortunate happenstance, Britain was commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War. Indeed as right-wing American commentators joined their British counterparts in berating Blair for his apparent weakness, the debate became curiously internal—with Blair contending with the image he’d created and Iran almost incidental to the whole process.
This sense of implicit righteousness drove the decision to allow the sailors to sell their stories. Once the truth was out, it was conjectured, the true extent of Iranian malevolence would be understood. The notion that the Iranians might be anything more than one-dimensional villains had clearly not crossed anyone’s mind. Indeed, it would be fair to point out that but for a few tentative attempts to try to discern motive and understanding in the print media, real knowledge about Iran and its grievances barely grew.
Two interesting developments are illuminated by this crisis, and to a greater or lesser extent are reflected in the broader media confrontation. It is striking how the portrayal of Iran by much of the media is mirrored in Iran itself: There was and remains a widespread assumption in the duplicity and mendacity of the Iranians, as cunning and calculating to the core. In this narrative, there is no room for mistakes or incompetence. What happens has been planned and, while on occasion Iranians are characterized as great "chess players," by and large any strategic aptitude is regarded as inherently malevolent.
This is, of course, precisely the image of the United States and Great Britain presented in the Iranian press, which never tires of reminding readers that it was an Anglo-American coup that overthrew the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. It came as something of a revelation to the British media, for instance, that Iranians considered them just as perfidious as they regarded the Iranians. And while Iranian historical recollections are undoubtedly simplified, people there nonetheless seem to have a better appreciation of Anglo-Iranian history than their counterparts, who seemed more preoccupied with imperial history.
The other development of note, and one that might hold important lessons for the future, is the way in which the master narrative finds itself confronting an unreceptive audience. While during the war in Lebanon a few voices—from within the United Nations, from some politicians and commentators—were raised to oppose the call to war, there was little willingness to challenge the fundamental narrative of Iranian villainy. With the sailors’ capture, however, the British public were polarized in their support or condemnation of the government, with some refusing to believe, post Iraq, that their government would tell the truth. This failure on the part of government to convince similarly played a significant role in ensuring that the sailors’ stories were told.
The tragedy of this dynamic, however, is that it remains resolutely internal. Iran is almost incidental to the process as debate revolves around the efficacy of narratives propounded by the government. It was government failure, not Iran, which ultimately undid the Blair administration, and as such it should come as little surprise that few will have come away better informed or enlightened from the experience. After all, while some journalists have belatedly sought to reflect on their poor performance during the walk-up to the Iraq invasion, few lessons appear to have been absorbed. Signs abound that too many journalists are making similar mistakes in their coverage of Iran, as skepticism and hard questioning give way to a slippage back into worn-out narratives.
Ali M. Ansari is Reader in Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Institute for Iranian Studies, and Associate Fellow of the Middle East Program at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House). His most recent book is "Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Crisis in the Middle East" (Basic Books, 2006).