My partner and I saw Iran from our own eyes last May 2014. The plane was going up and down, as I never experienced before. The pilot seemed to struggle to land in what appeared to be a sand storm over Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran. This difficult landing injected adrenaline in my blood. It did not need this adrenaline. My blood was already racing in a closed circuit it knew too well. The literature I read on Iran, be it critical, balanced or favorable to the regime, did not help. I was anxious to cross the Iranian border as no other border before. Images of interrogation, imprisonment, and torture could not escape from my mind. It was too late to turn back. I took my courage in both hands and we joined the queue. After half an hour waiting, a customs officer scanned our passport and visa.
He did not ask a single question. We were free to go… in Iran. After checking in at the hotel, the receptionist pointed at a portrait of Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. What do you think of him? She asked. I replied that it was not for me to judge, but Iranian citizens. Are you afraid? She replied with a smile. She was right… I was afraid. And she added: “he is a dictator!” My partner and I left the hotel to enjoy the last light of the sun in a city park. Children were cycling around fountains, families were laughing and friends were chatting on the grass. A retired shoemaker joined us on a bench. He was learning French and he was looking for visitors to practice. The serene atmosphere of this first encounter with Iranians merged with myself. I was no longer afraid.
How did I end up being afraid of Iran, despite studying it for the last eight years, I wondered? More and more studies point out that fear is not only an individual experience. Fear is, above all, a relational experience. Fear depends on mutual understandings about things that are “fearful” in a community. Traces of these mutual understandings can be found, in part, in repeated images whether they reflect the reality or not (e.g. a major epidemic, a nuclear explosion, or a “terrorist” attack). In other words, the body comes to know what to fear from being exposed to images available to make sense of a “thing” in a community, which was Iran in this case.
When policy-makers, experts and the media repeatedly mobilize the same fearful images of Iran, it remains difficult to apprehend future Iranian experiences, such as crossing its border, in a different light. Even if I trained my eyes to criticize these images, my body resisted my will and reacted to the most circulated images of Iran. Fear, therefore, becomes hardly challengeable everyday, even to a skeptical individual, when its community shares it. As a result, fear becomes a double-edged sword. It may become helpful in consolidating political support on the one hand. But, on the other, it may channel political options toward a single one: conflict.
While many Iranians focus most of their energies on making ends meet (as many Israelis do), many are also afraid. As in societies I grew and lived in, there is no shortage of elements sustaining fear in the Iranian society. Mediums sustaining fear in Iran will, perhaps, look familiar: memories, conspiracy and academic theories, and policy-makers’ declarations. Memories are often recalled to forecast a fearful future such as bombardment campaigns during Iraq’s invasion in the 1980s. Conspiracy theories are abundant to make sense of the future. These theories often suggest that foreign powers are plotting against Iran: the coup d’Etat against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, or more recently, the sabotage of nuclear infrastructure and assassinations targeted against nuclear scientists make it difficult to contest these theories. Popular academic theories in Iran, such as realism, push in the same direction. Realism claims that states live in perpetual uncertainty. They can only count on themselves to insure their safety from potential threats. Above all, many policy-makers developed the habit of repeatedly threatening Iran militarily. These declarations cement fears summoned from memories, conspiracy or academic theories and make them more real.
The more a community fears another, the more it tends to support security measures to insure its safety. This should not come as a surprise that Gallup surveyed 42% Iranians still in favor of developing nuclear weapons last November. And, this proportion is more important among the Iranian population than among Iranian policy-makers, political scientist Vali Nasr suggests. Mossad’s recent leaked report confirms this trend. It claims that Iranian policy-makers did not decide whether to weaponize the nuclear program. Any gestures that would suggest so, would be on standby, the report claims. If the Mossad is right, fearing Iran, and conducting foreign policy accordingly, might create the very conditions leading to what is feared in the first place: an active nuclear weapons Iran. In other words, mutual fear might be intuitive in this case, but it is counter-productive. The risk of self-fulfilling prophecies, driven by the engine of mutual fear, is a phenomenon that any responsible policy-makers and citizens should bear in mind. Instead, direct and indirect dialogue between communities fearing one another is among the avenues to be explored to shift the engine of mutual fear on reverse.