Innocence Abroad: Bruce Laingen’s Memo on “the Persian Psyche”
February 4, 1981
On August 13, 1979, a confidential telegram signed by Bruce Laingen, charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, was sent to then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. On January 27, 1981, after the hostages had been released, excerpts were published on the Op Ed page of The New York Times.
Editors at the Voice thought the telegram so astonishing, so revelatory of an occidental, imperial mentality that we asked Edward Said, professor of English at Columbia, author of Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and the forthcoming Covering Islam, to discuss the historical and cultural mindset that inspired it.
For those who did not read the excerpts published in the Times, here are its essential points. The author set himself the task of analyzing the “Persian psyche” and the “cultural and psychological qualities” that accounted for difficulties experienced by Americans in their dealings with Iran.
“The single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism… an almost total Persian preoccupation with self.” The writer noted the “bazaar mentality so common among Persians, a mindset that often ignores longer-term interests in favor of immediately obtainable advantages.” He also stressed “a general incomprehension of causality,” partly to be accounted for by Islam’s “emphasis on the omnipotence of God,” which led to difficulty in “grasping the inter-relationship of events.” The writer suggested that this helped explain the “Persian aversion to accepting responsibility for one’s own actions.” He concluded that Persians had imperfect understanding of the notion of obligation and “given the Persian negotiator’s cultural and psychological limitations he is going to resist the very concept of a rational (from the Western point of view) negotiating process.”
At one point during the recent ABC special on the secret negotiations leading to the hostage release, Christian Bourguet describes his late March 1980 meeting with Jimmy Carter at the White House. Bourguet, a French lawyer with ties to the Iranians, acted as an intermediary between the U.S. and Iran; he had come to Washington because, despite an arrangement worked out with the Panamanians to arrest the Shah, the deposed ruler had left suddenly for Egypt. So they were back to square one:
Bourguet: At a given moment [Carter] spoke of the hostages, saying, you understand that these are Americans. These are innocents. I said to him, yes, Mr. President, I understand that you say they are innocent. But I believe you have to understand that for the Iranians they aren’t innocent. Even if personally none them has committed an act, they are not innocent because they are diplomats who represent a country that has done a number of things in Iran.
You must understand that it is not against their person that the action is being taken. Of course, you can see that. They have not been harmed. They have not been hurt. No attempt has been made to kill them. You must understand that it is a symbol, that it is on the plane of symbols that we have to think about this matter.
In fact Carter seems to have viewed the embassy seizure very much in symbolic terms, but, unlike the Frenchman, he had his own frame of reference. From Carter’s perspective, Americans were by definition innocent and somehow outside history; Iran’s grievances against the U.S., he would say on another occasion, were ancient history. What mattered now was that Iranians were terrorists, and perhaps had always potentially been a terrorist nation. Indeed, anyone who disliked America and held it captive was dangerous and sick, beyond rationality, beyond humanity, beyond common decency.
Carter’s inability to connect America’s longstanding support for local dictators with what was happening to the Americans held unlawfully in Tehran is extraordinarily symptomatic. Even if one completely opposes the hostage taking, even if one has only positive feelings about the hostages’ return, there are alarming lessons to be learned from what seems like the official national tendency to be oblivious to certain realities. All relationships between people and nations involve two sides. Nothing at all enjoins “us” to like or approve of “them,” but we must at least recognize (a) that “they” are there, and (b) that so far as “they” are concerned “we” are, at least in part, what “they” have experienced of us. Neither side in a conflict has such command of reality as to disregard totally the other viewpoint. Unless of course we believe as Americans that whereas the other side is ontologically guilty, we are innocent.
Consider now the confidential cable sent from Tehran by Bruce Laingen to Secretary of State Vance on August 13, 1979 — a document entirely consistent with President Carter’s attitudes in his conversation with Bourguet. The cable was published on The New York Times Op Ed page January 27, 1981, perhaps to explain what Iranians are really like, perhaps only as an ironic footnote to the crisis. Yet Laingen’s message is not a scientific account of “the Persian psyche,” despite the author’s pretense to calm objectivity and expert knowledge of the culture. The text is, rather, an ideological statement designed, I think, to turn “Persia” into a timeless, acutely disturbed essence, thereby enhancing the superior morality and national sanity of America. Each assertion about “Persia” adds damaging evidence to the profile, while shielding “America” from scrutiny and analysis.
This self-blinding is accomplished rhetorically in two ways. First, history is eliminated unilaterally: “the effects of the Iranian revolution” are set aside in the interests of the “relatively constant… cultural and psychological qualities” underlying “the Persian psyche.” Hence modern Iran becomes ageless Persia. The unscientific equivalent of this would have Italians becoming dagos, Jews, yids, blacks niggers, etc. (How refreshingly honest is the street-fighter compared to the polite diplomat!) Second, the Iranian national character is portrayed only with reference to their imagined (i.e., paranoid) sense of reality. Laingen neither allows that the Iranians may have experienced real treachery and suffering, nor that they may have arrived at a view of the United States based on their understanding of U.S. actions in Iran. This is not to say that Laingen implies the U.S. did not do anything in Iran: only that the U.S. is entitled to do what it pleases, without irrelevant complaints or reactions from Iranians. The only thing that counts for Laingen is the constant “Persian psyche” that overrides all other realities.
Most readers of the Laingen message will accept, as doubtless he does too, that one should not reduce other people or societies to such a simple and stereotypical core. We do not today allow that public discourse should treat blacks and Jews that way, just as we laugh off Iranian portrayals of America as the Great Satan. Too simple, too ideological, too racist. But for this particular enemy — Persia — the reduction serves. The question is what exactly does it serve if, as I shall argue, it neither taught us anything about Iran nor, given the existing tension between the U.S. and Iran after the Revolution, did it help to guide our actions there.
Laingen’s argument is that no matter what happens, there is a “Persian proclivity” to resist “the very concept of a rational (from the Western point of view) negotiating process.” We can be rational: Persians cannot be. Why? Because, he says, they are overridingly egoistical; reality for them is malevolent; the “bazaar mentality” urges immediate advantage over longterm gain; the omnipotent god of Islam makes it impossible for them to understand causality; and words and reality, in their world, are not connected to each other. In sum, according to the five lessons he abstracts from his analysis, Laingen’s “Persian” is an unreliable negotiator, having neither a sense of “the other side,” nor a capacity for trust, good will, or character enough to carry out what his words promise.
The irony of this cliché is that literally everything imputed to the Persian or Muslim without any evidence at all can be applied to “the American,” that quasi-fictional, unnamed author behind the message. Who but “the American” denies history and reality in saying unilaterally that these don’t mean anything to the “Persian.” Now play the following parlor game: find a major Judeo-Christian cultural and social equivalent for the traits that Laingen ascribes to “the Persian.” Overriding egoism? Rousseau. Malevolence of reality? Kafka. Omnipotence of God? Old and New Testaments. Lack of causal sense? Beckett. Bazaar mentality? New York Stock Exchange. The confusion between words and reality? Austin and Searle. But few people would construct a portrait of the essential West using only Christopher Lasch on narcissism, the words of a fundamentalist preacher, Plato’s Cratylus, an advertising jingle or two and (as a case of the West’s inability to believe in a stable or beneficent reality) Ovid’s Metamorphoses laced with choice verses from Leviticus.
Laingen’s message is a functional equivalent of such a portrait. In a different context it would be a caricature at best, a crude though not particularly damaging attack at worst. It is not even effective as a bit of psy-war, since it reveals the writer’s weaknesses more than its opponent’s. It shows, for example, that the author is extremely nervous about his opposite number; and that he cannot see others except as a mirror image of himself. Where is his capacity for understanding the Iranian point of view or for that matter the Islamic Revolution itself, which one supposed had been the result of intolerable Persian tyranny and the need to overthrow it?
And as for good will and trust in the rationality of the negotiating process, even if the events of 1953 and U.S. support for the Shah were not mentioned, much could be said about the attempted army coup against the Revolution, directly encouraged by the U.S.’s General Huyser in late January 1979. Then too there was the action of various U.S. banks (unusually compliant in bending the rules to suit the Shah) who during 1979 were prepared to cancel Iranian loans contracted in 1977 on the grounds that Iran had not paid the interest on time. (Le Monde’s Eric Rouleau reported on November 25–26, 1979, that he had seen proof that Iran had actually paid the interest ahead of time.) No wonder that “the Persian” assumes his opposite number is an adversary. He is an adversary, and an insecure one at that: Laingen says it plainly.
Let us concede that accuracy, not fairness, is the issue. The U.S. man on the spot is advising Washington. What does he rely on? A handful of Orientalist clichés that could have been taken verbatim from Sir Alfred Lyall’s description of the Eastern mind, or from Lord Cromer’s account of dealing with the natives in Egypt. If poor Ibrahim Yazdi, then foreign minister of Iran, resists the idea that “Iranian behavior has consequences on the perception of Iran in the United States,” which U.S. decision-maker was prepared to accept in advance that U.S. behavior had consequences on the perception of the U.S. in Iran? Why then was the Shah admitted here? Or do we, like the Persians, have an “aversion to accepting responsibility for one’s own action”?
Laingen’s message is the product of uninformed, unintelligent power, and certainly adds little to our understanding of other societies. As an instance of how we confront the world it does not inspire confidence. As an inadvertent American self-portrait it is frankly insulting. What use is it then? It tells us how our representatives created a reality that corresponded neither to our world nor to Iran’s. But if it does not also demonstrate that such misrepresentations had better be thrown away forever, then we are in for more international troubles and, alas, our innocence will again be uselessly offended.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 3, 2020