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    Middle East
     Feb 28, 2009
From 'axis of evil' to 'clenched fist'
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Good bye "axis of evil", hello "clenched fists". So much for President Barack Obama making a clean break from the George W Bush administration's addiction with negative, and dangerous, metaphors. Only one month into his presidency, and already the sirens of a brand new martial metaphor of "clenched fists" squarely attached to Iran can be heard.

Initially, when invoking the term in his inaugural speech as an offer to extend a hand to adversaries willing to "unclench their fists", Obama appeared to be making a veiled gesture of conciliation as part of a new era in US foreign policy. Then came the new president's first interview, with the Saudi television network al-Arabyia, in which Obama repeated it in direct reference to Iran,


again offering reciprocity if the Iranians "unclenched their fists".

In this he nailed the rhetorical status of this new metaphor - as a "kissing cousin" of the axis of evil, to borrow a term from Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher known for his deconstructive analyses that unveiled the hidden structures embedded in discourses.

According to Derrida, in political discourses there is often a hierarchy and "one term becomes dominant, the others repressed". That was certainly the case with Bush's "axis of evil" that fixed the image of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as hostile others, often in connection with other terms such as "Islamofascism", that gave Bush's "war on terror" a clear crusade tenor.

Hence, it was rather gratifying to hear Vice President Joseph Biden tell a security meeting in Munich last month that the US no longer subscribed to a "clashing civilizations" thesis nor to ideological dogma. This was meant to ingratiate the new US administration to a Muslim world that is already impressed by Obama's explicit gestures, particularly his message that the US is not against Muslims and that he has Muslims in his family circle.

But, unfortunately, such positive steps aimed at polishing the US's bruised global image have been held back by the currency of the "clenched fist" metaphor. This, instead of a Foucauldian "normalizing and de-pathologizing" of Iran's image - an important prerequisite for a fruitful US-Iran dialogue - maintains the trace of the "axis of evil" by projecting onto Iran a negative and hostile image.

This is a martial metaphor that conveys the overt images of anger, hostility, violence, and even war, as well as covert images of an emotional, stubborn and even irrational adversary that, to paraphrase Derrida, "contains the hidden trace of the other", that is, its predecessor metaphor of the "axis of evil".

Various media pundits in the US have been quick to seize on this new metaphor to bash Iran. For example, a recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune, titled "Iran's clenched fists", posed the question of whether Iran's recent overtures toward the US are genuine or merely a facade meant to buy time for Iran to pursue its nuclear ambition. [1]

This editorial freely distorts the content of the recent International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) report on Iran and falsely claims that "United Nations officials" have "concluded" that Iran's recent understating of its volume of enriched uranium has been deliberate and that Iran now has enough material to make a bomb. This is false. (See IAEA douses furor over Iran report
Asia Times Online, February 24, 2009.)

The "clenched fist" metaphor has also been elevated to such a degree of importance that it has prompted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to openly dismiss the suggestion that its purview includes Syria. "This is an Iranian issue. We never clenched our fists," Assad told a press conference this week.

Even though he emphasized the need for US-Iran dialogue, Assad should have perhaps added that Iran, too, has not clenched its fists against the US, as reflected in President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's conciliatory congratulatory letter to Obama on his elections victory, followed by Ahmadinejad's explicit embrace of direct dialogue "based on mutual respect".

Yet, no matter what Iran does or says, the persistent efforts in the US to attach to Iran certain martial metaphors that underscore the political image of the country as fundamentally hostile to America, continue. Clearly, the Obama administration bears direct responsibility for taking this false first step toward Iran by invoking this metaphor.

The label simultaneously breeds a quasi-Manichean perception of a "good" Uncle Sam with benign intentions versus "bad" Iranians with sinister intentions. Yet it is Iran's neighbors which have been invaded by the US superpower and, as per reports in the US media two months ago, it is the US government which has authorized "covert operations" inside Iran, something inherited by the Obama administration.

The sub-text of the "clenched fist" term is the history of US-Iran relations, one in which the US overthrew Iran's democracy in 1953 and replaced it with a dictatorship for a quarter of century, The US then backed Iran's invasion by Iraq in 1980, and the US since September 11, 2001, has tightened the nose of its security belt around Iran.

Since everything Iran is directly connected to its "nuclear weapons ambitions", adopted as an article of faith by many without the slightest ambiguity, the "clenched fist" rhetoric ranks as pre-war rhetoric. It cultivates the enemy image of Iran, warranting a pre-emptive strike to nip in the bud the nuclear threat. There is, in other words, a direct and organic connection between this metaphor and Washington's subtle war-making discourse. This has already been justified by, among others, Dennis Ross, the newly-appointed advisor on "the Gulf," a euphemism for Iran, according to US Department of State officials.

The hawkish Ross, who is closely entwined with Jewish lobby groups and think-tanks, penned about the pathway to war with Iran, predicting an 18-month trajectory in July 2007. (See The search for a US envoy for Iran Asia Times Online, December 11, 2008.) An adamant supporter of the "military option" over Iran's nuclear program, Ross' role has gone under certain transformations in the Obama administration. It has designated an ill-defined "Southwest Asia" as also a part of the geographical area to be covered by Ross in his new position.

This position lacks the higher status of "special presidential envoy" granted to Ross' colleague in the anti-Iran outfit, United Against Nuclear Iran, Richard Holbrooke, who is now covering both Pakistan and Afghanistan. This outfit's blatant demonization of Iran and its lack of any acknowledgement of any constructive role played by Iran in the region, leaves no doubt that the war-making discourse against Iran in the US is now actively operating overtime.

This drive is much aided by the "clenched fist" metaphor that is saturated with negative stereotypes and anchored in a hegemonic policy that is wedded to the idea of a new Middle East cold war pitching the moderate, US-backed states against rogue states led by Iran.

Like the previous Cold War, semantics play a key role in perpetuating the enemy image of the hostile other, irrespective of the many small olive branches that the other side, in this case Iran, has publicly extended toward Washington, as far back as early 2003.

With the differences between "axis of evil" and "clenched fists" being rather marginal, the image of Iran as a permanent enemy has already been hatched by the Obama administration, and that certainly does not bode well for the future of US policy in the Middle East or for the cause of regional and world peace.

1. Iran's clenched fist, February 26, 2009.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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