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The Iran Narrative: The Ideational Context of US Foreign Policy Decision-Making toward the Islamic Republic of Iran

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image of Iran and the Caucasus

The United States and Iran have been estranged for over thirty years. Conventional wisdom in the US holds that Iran is chiefly responsible given its threatening actions and harsh rhetoric. Yet, between 1990 and 2003, Iran presented successive American presidents with opportunities for rapprochement. Each declined to fully seize the opportunity. Why? This article posits the causal significance of ideas and discourse in the United States. What the author calls the Iran Narrative is comprised of the vast collection of frames, myths, caricatures, news reports, “expert” analyses, and ideas that cohere and portray Iran as a uniquely evil, hostile, and irrational enemy of the United States. Domestic actors leverage the Narrative to increase the political costs and reduce the normative desirability of rapprochement with Iran. Perceptions of high political cost and low normative desirability dissuade American presidents from more actively pursuing engagement with Iran. In this article, the author tests the evidence for the existence of an Iran Narrative through a media content analysis and suggests that the Narrative has causal significance for policy decisions. Further explication of the Narrative is an interdisciplinary task that ought to leverage the tools of political science, psychology, anthropology, and other fields. The policy implications of the Iran Narrative are critical. If the Narrative does, indeed, constrain American presidents from taking bold risks for peace with Iran, then a fuller explication and deconstruction of the Iran Narrative is a necessary condition of rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.


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