The Iran Narrative

Ferrero, Christopher Joseph, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Owen, John, Department of Politics, University of Virginia
Freedman, Paul, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

Why has the United States failed to seize apparent opportunities for rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran? The two countries have been estranged since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent seizure of American hostages. Variation in Iranian behavior and systemic geopolitical conditions between 1990 and 2003 exceeded the level of variation in US policy toward Iran. Tehran presented subsequent US administrations with seemingly genuine opportunities to repair the relationship, but after tepid flirtations with engagement, successive US presidents demurred. This dissertation posits a liberal-constructivist explanation for the extreme reticence (and in the case of President George W. Bush, outright rejection) that successive American presidents have shown toward engaging Iran. Journalists, public intellectuals, interest groups, and government officials have jointly constructed the Iran Narrative – a collection of myths, frames, themes, characterizations, and over-simplifications which depicts the Islamic Republic as uniquely evil and beyond the pale. A media content analysis reveals that Iran is overwhelmingly portrayed in American public discourse as a fanatical, threatening, terror-sponsoring, hostage-taking, WMD-seeking state. Iran's legitimate or 'normal' interests as construed by realist schools of thought receive short shrift. This Iran Narrative increases the political costs and reduces the normative desirability to senior decisionmakers of pursuing forward-leaning policies of engagement with Iran. While America alone cannot be blamed for the estrangement, this study sheds light on its contribution – and suggests that ideas play a larger sustaining role in the conflict than do material realities.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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