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Weekend Read: New Book Examines The Narratives and Myths Behind Decades-Long US and Iranian Enmity

April 22, 2022
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By Claire Harvey

Nuclear negotiations between the United States, world partners, and Iran are stalled, and the question of how to bridge the gap between Washington and Tehran remains as important today as it was decades ago. A new book, “Republics of Myth: National Narratives and US-Iran Conflict” by Malcolm Byrne (National Security Archive), Hussein Banai (Hamilton Lugar School, Indiana University), and John Tirman (Center of International Studies, MIT), explores this question and the role that national narratives, alongside concrete grievances and opposing interests, have had in the complex US-Iran relationship. The Archive posted “Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the US- Iran Conflict” on April 14, 2022, to celebrate the new book. The posting features the book’s introduction and a selection of key declassified documents related to US and Iranian national perceptions. 

The April 14 posting introduces readers to the dominant narratives that Byrne, Banai, and Tirman identify across decades of Iranian and US relations and relevant archival documents. The posting includes the book’s full introduction, which sets up the often under-recognized personal component to bilateral diplomacy, and the remarkable challenge that “sharply different understandings of geostrategic reality” posed to negotiations leading up to the 2015 nuclear deal. These “different understandings of geostrategic reality”, the book argues, are partially informed and reinforced by each country’s deeply ingrained national narrative. The posting includes a selection of documents that illustrate the dominant narratives shaping American and Iranian relations, respectively. One such example is a declassified January 12, 1944, memorandum from President Franklin Roosevelt to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, wherein Roosevelt expresses excitement at employing an “unselfish American policy” to transform Iran, “definitely a very, very backward nation”; this is a rationale that Byrne recognizes as an important blueprint for US policy in developing countries following World War II. Another example is an April 1, 1979, address to the nation by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, wherein Khomeini depicts Iranian history as the victim of foriegn interference and states that Iran is “neither East nor West ”. The posting also includes documents reflective of each country’s narrative leading up to President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018.

The book’s focus on Iranian and American narratives is a novel perspective on a historically complex relationship, distinct from traditional international relations theory. Malcolm Byrne, Deputy Director and Director of Research at the National Security Archive and co-author of the book alongside Banai and Tirman, stated: “This is not a book about international relations theory. It’s the result of our assessment of a lot of documentary and testimonial evidence that we’ve gathered over several years in an attempt to help explain how leaders of these two governments have not only persistently seen each other as adversaries but have been unable to get over that obstacle even when it’s blocked them from reaching agreements and outcomes each side wants.” Byrne continued that what the authors have focused on in this case “are the narratives both nations have developed about themselves over time – plus the narrative that has grown up around their bilateral relationship. Narratives (which we describe in the Introduction and Chapter 1) are separate from events, interests, and ideas – the concepts international relations theorists study – but they often act in tandem with those factors, as in the U.S.-Iran case, to help drive each government’s policy making toward the other.” The book’s examination of narratives gives a further depth of understanding to past and present US and Iranian enmity.

The book is the result of an ongoing multinational archival research project on the US-Iran relationship, including “critical oral history” conferences involving past policymakers and government experts from the US, Iran, and Europe, and individual expert interviews. Further material is available on the Archive US-Iran Project page, including postings on the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis Recalled, Documenting Iran-U.S. Relations, 1978-2015, and a media library of videos from key interviews and historical moments. 

Interested readers can also explore archival documents through the subscription service Digital National Security Archive, which includes collections on U.S Policy toward Iran, From the Revolution to the Nuclear Accord, 1978-2015, Iran: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977-1980, and The Iran-Contra Affair: The Making of a Scandal, 1983-1988.

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