Only three days into 2020, an American drone strike killed Iranian Major General Qassim Suleimani, leading many to express confusion and concern over the attack and its potential consequences. Still in the midst of Hamilton’s winter break, Professor of History Shoshana Keller decided that to help clarify “the mess that has exploded,” she would assemble an interdisciplinary group of faculty members with a range of perspectives on U.S.-Iran relations.
On Jan. 22, Keller helped introduce “Iran, Iraq & the U.S.: Panel & Discussion,” which included Keller, Assistant Professor of Government Erica de Bruin, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Mariam Durrani, Instructor in Asian Studies Usman Hamid, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Asian Studies Emiko Stock.
Keller opened the discussion by providing an overview of Iran’s history, highlighting the nation’s struggle to “regain independence and dignity from years of foreign rule” over the last two centuries. She described how Russia, Britain, and the United States had all vied for power in Iran, eventually leading the U.S. to increase pressures on the state in the late 1970s. Then when the U.S. backed Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, tensions deepened, and Suleimani began to rise in rank within the Iranian military.
De Bruin offered a political scientist’s perspective on the Iran crisis and detailed potential goals of the drone strike and the extent to which it might prove effective. She mentioned and critiqued President Trump’s claims that the assassination was done to “prevent imminent attacks” and analyzed why the drone strike might not ultimately be a successful mode of deterrence.
Usman then broke down the politics of public reactions regarding Suleimani’s death, focusing on the massive processions throughout Iran that occurred in the aftermath and were reported on Western media. He explained the religious significance of similar processions and marked the mass demonstrations as a signifier of the nation attempting to embolden a state identity while also cultivating a “feeling of martyrdom and victimhood as a cultural practice.” Usman read statements from students at Amir Kabir Polytechnic University in Tehran, which offered an alternative, Iranian perspective on the crisis.
Stock, having traveled to Iran several times, shared personal photographs of Iran and addressed and demystified popular Western notions of Iranians, such as preconceptions that all Iranians hate the U.S., are Muslim extremists, and are irrational and impulsive.
Durrani closed the panel discussion by providing insights into how the Iran crisis has played out in social media, focusing on the escalation and de-escalation of war on Twitter and in World War III memes. She emphasized people’s ability to publicly react and respond to political officials’ comments, citing the negative public response to Trump’s threats to destroy Iranian cultural heritage sites. She then discussed World War III memes and the dangers of using humor to cope, particularly when that humor essentially dehumanizes others.