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Conspiracy or Common Sense in the Iranian Response to the WikiLeaks Cables

December 1, 2010

What kind of people would make themselves look really really bad just to make someone else look even worse? I don’t really know, but Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does, and he apparently thinks that a group of them are overseeing the foreign policy of the United States. See, in a press conference on Monday, Ahmadinejad discussed the numerous mentions of Iran in the cables made public in the recent WikiLeaks controversy. The cables make it look like a lot of other nearby nations—chief among them Saudi Arabia—are none too happy with Iran at the moment. Unhappy enough, in fact, to encourage United States military action against Iranian nuclear facilities.

But Ahmadinejad isn’t buying it. In fact, he thinks that the entire WikiLeaks business is a crafty ploy staged by the United States, in part to undermine Iran:

Some part of the American government produced these documents…We don’t think this information was leaked. We think it was organized to be released on a regular basis and they are pursuing political goals.

Iran, he says, won’t fall for it. They won’t be allowing such nasty gossip to undermine their relationships with neighboring countries. “Regional countries,” he says, “are all friends with each other. Such mischief will have no impact on the relations of countries.”

Now, my first reaction here was to think “Mahmoud, Ima let you finish but the Clinton Body Count was one of the greatest conspiracy theories of all time.” But then I got to thinking about what rhetorical purposes could be served here by this statement. Ahmadinejad is often caricatured in the American media as being overly brash and oppositional, but that’s not the whole story. There’s more going on in statements like the one above than mere chest-thumping. See, while it might seem crazy to American readers to think that the United States government would willingly embarrass itself in front of the global community and strain relations with a number of key allies (and frenemies) in the process, clearly it doesn’t seem that way to Ahmadinejad, or to a number of other people in the Middle East. In fact, Ahmadinejad’s statements are so dismissive (it’s all just “mischief”) and so confident that it almost seems like he thinks it’s common sense.

And he probably does—this is the same guy who a few months ago suggested that the U.S government had a hand in planning the Sept. 11th attacks. To Ahmadinejad, it is common sense that the United States government is scheming, manipulative, and capable of great acts of malice in its own self-interest.

And when people attempt to simplify complex, contestable notions like the transparency of United States foreign policy into “common sense”-type tidbits, they’re doing two important things. First off, they’re ascribing shared values to their audience. Ahmadinejad’s statements about WikiLeaks only sound like a crazy conspiracy theory if you don’t (or don’t want to) believe that the U.S. government is capable of such things. If, however, you do believe that this is something America might do, then you’d be a lot less likely to write him off. So in making these statements, he’s assuming an audience that shares a certain idea about what America is capable of.

The second, and more important, function that these types of statements serve is closely related: in assuming the existence of such an audience, they actually help create it. If enough events are publicly interpreted through the lens of “America is not afraid to deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate in order to advance its political aims,” people will start to believe it and apply that lens to their own interpretations of America’s future actions.

So, while it may seem to us that Ahmadinejad is just taking a quick jab at America while reaffirming the strength of his country’s relationships with its neighbors, he’s also putting forth a particular view of America and what it is capable of. We write off comments like this at the peril of our future communication with Iranians—enough of these “quick jabs” will further solidify the legitimacy of that view in the eyes of his audience, and then we’re at an unfortunate impasse. What seems to Americans like conspiracy theory will seem to Iranians to be, well, common sense.

If you want to know more:

  • For more on how shared values and consensus serve normative functions, check out “Knowledge, Consensus, and Rhetorical Theory” by Thomas Farrell.
  • You can read the New York Times article on Ahmadinejad’s remarks here, or a briefer summary from Reuters here.
  • On the off chance you were wondering: Yes, “deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate” is an X-Files reference.
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