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© 2022 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
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Mohammad Javad Zarif likes to lecture. That much is obvious to anyone who has ever read more than a handful of tweets by Iran’s previous foreign minister (2013-2021), and it is especially striking when seeing him talk in the flesh. In a video taken at a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in July 2019, he enlightened his fellow attendees who, mind you, are all high-ranking diplomats and senior statespersons as to the nature of U.S. sanctions against Iran: “This is terrorism. Pure and simple. No question about it. […] So please, friends, stop using sanctions. Sanctions are a means of imposing a lawful order. Sanctions have a legal connotation. […] This is economic terrorism, pure and simple, […] and we do not negotiate with terrorists.” In the 20-odd years since 9/11, many countries have appropriated sometimes, rather enthusiastically the language of terrorism propagated by the U.S. for their own aims, be it staying in the U.S.’ good graces or   cracking   down   on   internal   dissent . Iran, on the other hand, has chosen to go another way: turning the language of terrorism, including lessons learned from 9/11, against its most prominent propagator, who also happens to be Iran’s sworn enemy. During his time as Iran’s face to the world, Zarif regularly referenced 9/11 to paint a picture wherein the U.S. is not primarily the victim of the one of the most deadly terrorist attacks, but a bumbling giant who makes all the wrong choices. In an almost conspiracy-like manner, he accused the so-called “B-Team” that is, then-Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton, and a few others of playing the U.S. like a puppet on a string, manipulating it into throwing U.S. resources behind other people’s interests. B-Team participants, according to Zarif, “a) provided most 9/11 terrorists & b) pushed the US into the Afghan/Iraq quagmires,” and now are willing to keep fighting   to   the   last   US   soldier  in order to cow Iran. The fact that bin Salman was still a teenager in the early 2000s and that Netanyahu and Bolton did not play a central role in the decision to invade Afghanistan (unlike the invasion of Iraq ), does not appear to bother Zarif much: his interest was in assigning blame, not historical accuracy. In Zarif’s eyes, being manipulated does not absolve the U.S. of responsibility for the messes it made during the Global War on Terror; on the contrary, he often presented statistics about what the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the instability they created cost both   the   U.S . and the   Middle   East . He thereby placed the blame for the region’s struggles entirely on U.S. shoulders and used it as an argument against any kind of U.S. intervention in the region, be it as guarantor of an illegal no-fly-zone in Libya (2011) or as uninvited advisor to Syrian/Kurdish forces fighting ISIS (ongoing as of September 2022). The U.S.’ knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 appears in this worldview as the original fall from grace, whereby calamities like Libya’s disintegration, Syria’s decade- old civil war, or Yemen’s humanitarian crisis all resulted from the U.S. government’s unabashed pursuit of the Global War on Terror across the Islamic world and beyond, hell or high-water. This mono-causal view, while not entirely misguided, is far too simplistic, not to mention that it robs people in the region of their agency. But such a view does have its advantages: it paints the world in broad black-and-white strokes and absolves Iran from its fair share of the blame for decades of bloodshed and suffering across the region. Having assigned the role of the villain(s), Zarif with his habitual explanatory demeanour now felt free to depict Iran as superior in every way: not only as the country that knew   better   all   along  , but also as an empathetic nation that held a candlelight vigil as WTC was on fire .” Playing further on this theme, Iran’s former top diplomat also included other instances of U.S. transgressions against non-Muslim nations and its own population. Drawing a direct line from the bombing   of   Hiroshima   and   Nagasaki to the murder   of   George   Floyd , he suggested that the U.S. government does not care, and in fact has never cared, about the lives of innocent civilians no matter where they live. This adds another layer of wickedness to Zarif’s portrait of the U.S.: it might appear like the U.S. follows some grand, incredibly intricate strategy that solely serves its in - terests to the detriment of everyone else, but in reality, it is incompetent, short-sighted, and unable to learn from past mistakes. The U.S is not Hannibal Lecter, but Godzilla, trashing everything in its path. Iran, on the other hand, gets to enjoy the moral superiority of victimhood and the chance to bond with other affected countries like Syria, Russia, or China, where the U.S. deliber - ately   target[s]   civilians , trying to achieve illegitimate political objectives through intimidation of innocent people.” This kind of rhetoric is therefore useful not only to rage against the U.S., but also to strengthen Iran’s relations with anti-U.S. forces and portray itself as a powerhouse of resistance against U.S. hegemony. With the stage thus suitably set, Zarif redefined the targets and perpetrators of terrorism. Yes, terrorism is what al-Qaeda did; but much more often, it is what the U.S. (and its regional middle - men, especially Saudi-Arabia) does to other nations, chief among them Iran. According to Zarif, it is not Iran that needs to learn how to behave like   a   normal   country , but the U.S., which violates internationally agreed upon principles with its careless “might makes right” attitude. To support his point, Zarif argued from a legal perspective frequently citing international law while ad - vising U.S. politicians to not even   bother to open a law dictionary.” His personal attitude of schoolmaster superiority matches his portrayal of the Iranian nation, which as a principle does not base   strategy on ‘advice’ of foreigners—let alone Americans.” According to the worldview propagated by Zarif, a country like the U.S. that commits acts of terrorism is in no position to call other countries terrorists; a country like Iran, on the other hand on the receiving end of terrorist acts for decades has every right to act on the global stage as it sees fit. By redefining what terrorism consists of and who the true terrorists are, he therefore turned the tables on the U.S. and used the vocabulary of the Global War on Terror as a weapon against its originator.
Redefining Terrorism: Iran,  the U.S., and the War on Terror
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© 2022 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
Mohammad Javad Zarif likes to lecture. That much is obvious to anyone who has ever read more than a handful of tweets by Iran’s previous foreign minister (2013-2021), and it is especially striking when seeing him talk in the flesh. In a video taken at a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in July 2019, he enlightened his fel - low attendees who, mind you, are all high- ranking diplomats and senior statespersons as to the nature of U.S. sanctions against Iran: “This is terrorism. Pure and simple. No question about it. […] So please, friends, stop using sanctions. Sanctions are a means of imposing a lawful order. Sanctions have a legal connotation. […] This is economic terrorism, pure and simple, […] and we do not negotiate with terrorists.” In the 20-odd years since 9/11, many countries have appropriated sometimes, rather enthusi - astically the language of terrorism propag - ated by the U.S. for their own aims, be it staying in the U.S.’ good graces or   cracking   down   on   in - ternal    dissent . Iran, on the other hand, has chosen to go another way: turning the language of terrorism, including lessons learned from 9/11, against its most prominent propagator, who also happens to be Iran’s sworn enemy. During his time as Iran’s face to the world, Zarif regularly referenced 9/11 to paint a picture wherein the U.S. is not primarily the victim of the one of the most deadly terrorist attacks, but a bumbling giant who makes all the wrong choices. In an almost conspiracy-like manner, he accused the so-called “B-Team” that is, then- Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton, and a few others of playing the U.S. like a puppet on a string, manipulating it into throwing U.S. re - sources behind other people’s interests. B-Team participants, according to Zarif, “a) provided most 9/11 terrorists & b) pushed the US into the Afghan/Iraq quagmires,” and now are willing to keep fighting   to   the   last   US   soldier  in order to cow Iran. The fact that bin Salman was still a teenager in the early 2000s and that Netanyahu and Bolton did not play a central role in the de - cision to invade Afghanistan (unlike the invasion of Iraq ), does not appear to bother Zarif much: his interest was in assigning blame, not historical accuracy. In Zarif’s eyes, being manipulated does not ab - solve the U.S. of responsibility for the messes it made during the Global War on Terror; on the contrary, he often presented statistics about what the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the instability they created cost both   the   U.S . and the   Middle   East . He thereby placed the blame for the region’s struggles entirely on U.S. shoulders and used it as an argument against any kind of U.S. intervention in the region, be it as guarantor of an illegal no-fly-zone in Libya (2011) or as uninvited advisor to Syrian/Kurdish forces fighting ISIS (ongoing as of September 2022). The U.S.’ knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 appears in this worldview as the original fall from grace, whereby calamities like Libya’s disin - tegration, Syria’s decade-old civil war, or Yemen’s humanitarian crisis all resulted from the U.S. government’s unabashed pursuit of the Global War on Terror across the Islamic world and bey - ond, hell or high-water. This mono-causal view, while not entirely misguided, is far too simplistic, not to mention that it robs people in the region of their agency. But such a view does have its ad - vantages: it paints the world in broad black-and- white strokes and absolves Iran from its fair share of the blame for decades of bloodshed and suffering across the region. Having assigned the role of the villain(s), Zarif with his habitual ex - planatory demeanour now felt free to depict Iran as superior in every way: not only as the country that knew   better   all   along  , but also as an em - pathetic nation that held   a   candlelight   vigil   as WTC was on fire .” Playing further on this theme, Iran’s former top diplomat also included other instances of U.S. transgressions against non-Muslim nations and its own population. Drawing a direct line from the bombing   of   Hiroshima   and   Nagasaki to the murder   of   George   Floyd , he suggested that the U.S. government does not care, and in fact has never cared, about the lives of innocent civilians no matter where they live. This adds another layer of wickedness to Zarif’s portrait of the U.S.: it might appear like the U.S. follows some grand, incredibly intricate strategy that solely serves its interests to the detriment of everyone else, but in reality, it is incompetent, short-sighted, and unable to learn from past mistakes. The U.S is not Hannibal Lecter, but Godzilla, trashing everything in its path. Iran, on the other hand, gets to enjoy the moral superiority of victimhood and the chance to bond with other affected countries like Syria, Russia, or China, where the U.S. deliberately    target[s]    civilians , trying to achieve illegitimate political objectives through intimidation of innocent people.” This kind of rhetoric is therefore useful not only to rage against the U.S., but also to strengthen Iran’s re - lations with anti-U.S. forces and portray itself as a powerhouse of resistance against U.S. hegemony. With the stage thus suitably set, Zarif redefined the targets and perpetrators of terrorism. Yes, terrorism is what al-Qaeda did; but much more often, it is what the U.S. (and its regional middle - men, especially Saudi-Arabia) does to other na - tions, chief among them Iran. According to Zarif, it is not Iran that needs to learn how to behave like   a   normal   country , but the U.S., which viol - ates internationally agreed upon principles with its careless “might makes right” attitude. To sup - port his point, Zarif argued from a legal perspect - ive frequently citing international law while advising U.S. politicians to not even   bother to open a law dictionary.” His personal attitude of schoolmaster superiority matches his portrayal of the Iranian nation, which as a principle does not base   strategy on ‘advice’ of foreigners—let alone Americans.” According to the worldview propagated by Zarif, a country like the U.S. that commits acts of terrorism is in no position to call other countries terrorists; a country like Iran, on the other hand on the receiving end of terror - ist acts for decades has every right to act on the global stage as it sees fit. By redefining what terrorism consists of and who the true terrorists are, he therefore turned the tables on the U.S. and used the vocabulary of the Global War on Terror as a weapon against its originator.
© 2022 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
Redefining Terrorism: Iran,  the U.S., and the War on Terror
Written by
PhD candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Freiburg and a research associate at the Collaborative Research Center “Heroes, Heroizations, Heroisms.”
If you are interested in contributing an article for the project, please send a short summary of the proposed topic (no more than 200 words) and brief bio to submissions@911legacies.com. For all other matters, please contact inquiry@911legacies.com.
CONTACT