The Dialogue of the Civilizations Has Communication Issues
Ted Koppel has apparently joined up with the Discovery Channel and produced a documentary that tries to explain the decades of antecedents behind the latest US/Iran impasse by uncovering the average Iranian’s view of the United States. It is an attempt at mutual understanding, an intriguing and needed project, to be certain. Unfortunately, it suffers from an expected pro-American, anti-Iranian bias at times, propagated by Koppel himself even if he doesn’t realize it. The documentary’s absolutist title, Iran: The Most Dangerous Country, should be hint enough that the content will be a bit skewed. While I applaud Koppel and the producers of the Discovery Channel for bringing attention to the historical basis of Iranian/American animosity, it should be obvious that one should not consistently interrupt an Iranian woman while she publicly speaks of reform. To be more clear, the woman is Dr. Massoumeh Ebtekar — former Vice President under moderate president Mohammad Khatami, and English translator for the US diplomats during the 1979 Hostage Crisis. Here’s a portion of the transcript, beginning with Ebtekar broaching the topic of moderate reform following Khatami’s election and her appointment as VP (thanks to the magical rewind capability of DVR):
Ebtekar: There was an opportunity to see things in a different light. But unfortunately, it was not taken properly — but on the contrary, we can say the climax of the reform process [was when] Iran was termed a member of the Axis of Evil by the Bush Administration, which was a severe blow to the —
Koppel: That’s a, that’s a nasty phrase. Do you think it sort of matches “The Great Satan”?
Ebtekar: This is the way it goes…
Koppel: Exactly, words.
Ebtekar: The reality is that this blow came at a time when we were pushing for a geniuine democratic movement in Iran —
Koppel: But this is coming at a time where the United States is still being denounced as the “Great Satan” in Iran. I made the mistake back in 1979 when I first heard that phrase “The Great Satan”, what a silly phrase. They don’t really mean it. But you did mean it, you meant exactly that. You meant that the United States was, in a sense, the embodiment of evil.
Ebtekar: I think the Iman made that reference based on that understanding that the Americans have no recognition for human rights when it comes to their interests. The only thing they see is to protect those interests by any means.
Koppel’s insistence on “The Great Satan” squelched a chance for a real conversation centered on the reform movement. Instead, his antagonism spurred Ebtekar to throw back her own incendiary remarks, feeding into the cycle of damaging words Koppel himself acknowledged as counterproductive. I don’t necessarily blame Koppel for falling into such a rhetorical trap — if anything, it’s emblematic of the aggregate American view of Iran. The 1979 Hostage Crisis remains heavy on the public’s collective conscious, and it, along with Iran-Contra, are deeply ingrained within the foreign policy establishment’s institutional memory, as well. The fear and animosity are almost genetic at this point, but it can be reversed. While Koppel tends to slip up here and at other times, at least his goal seems pure by pursuing this direly needed Dialogue of Civilizations.