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
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. 
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
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.
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
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.