November 4, 1979 a mob 3,000 of Iranian militants invaded the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, taking hostage sixty-six diplomats and military personnel.[1]  The Iranian Hostage Crisis lasted 444 days, ending January 20, 1981 hours after President Ronald Reagan delivered his inaugural address.[2] Between the hostage period of 1979, and the early 1990s Iran was perceived as a national threat by media in the United States.

This post will discuss the historical context of the Iran hostage crisis, and how media in the United States demonized Iranians with examples. This post also includes discussion questions and suggestions for additional resources to supplement the content presented. 

Propaganda and Demonization:

To understand how media in the United States demonized Iranians it is important to understand two terms, propaganda, and demonization. Although the definition of propaganda is highly contested in the field of communication, for our purposes an operational definition is as follows: the systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party in a tendentious manner to encourage a particular attitude or response. That is, propaganda is a group dispersing information or an idea to encourage their audience to think or act in a certain way.

Secondly, demonization is a propaganda technique that promotes the idea that a particular group is an aggressive threat to inspire hatred and or a call for action. In other words, demonization is a method of propaganda that spreads the specific idea that a group is a threat, so that the audience can either feel hatred, or act against them in some way.

Historical context:

The Iran hostage crisis has its roots in a series of events that took place nearly a half century before it began, the closest of these is the oil conflict between Iran and the United States in the 1950s.

The majority of Iran’s petroleum reserves were controlled by British and American corporations prior to the hostage crisis. However, in 1951, Iran’s newly elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh announced plans to nationalize the country’s oil industry. As a response, the American C.I.A. and the British intelligence agency overthrew, and replaced Prime Minister Mossadegh with Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. The Shah was a brutal, and arbitrary dictator whose secret police tortured and murdered thousands of people.[3]

In the 1970s, many Iranians discontent with Shah’s government turned to a radical Islamic cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seeking change. In July 1979, these same revolutionary forces forced Shah to end his government and flee to Egypt, as Khomeini installed a militant Islamist government. In October of that same year, President Carter allowed the exiled leader, Pahlavi, to enter the United States for treatment of his advanced malignant lymphoma. To protest, on November 4, just after Pahlavi arrived to New York, a group of pro-Khomeini students scaled the American embassy in Tehran, and seized 66 hostages. Khomeini issued support for the student’s actions, and the students vowed not to release the hostages until the U.S. returned Pahlavi for trial. Ultimately, 444 days later Khomeini’s government decided it was time to end the matter and released the hostage’s minutes after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.[4] 

The Demonization of Iranians in U.S. media:

During the time of the crisis and for a decade later Iranians were demonized in U.S. media. This demonization took the form of plays on cultural narratives that showed Iran as a “religiously fanatical, dirty, primitive, irrational, unreliable, intolerant, and violent nation”.[5] Additionally, these cultural narratives were reinforced by the popular cultural trope that Iranians are rich, cheating merchants.[6] The demonization of Iranians in United States media was is also noted in visual signifiers used to characterize them. Due to its location in the Middle East, visual signifiers of Arabs such as a beard were applied to Iranians despite the cultural distinction between the two. [7]

It is difficult to conclude why media in the United States demonized Iranians, but the leading theory suggest that rhetoric in the media framed the United States as a captive, and therefore needed an enemy, a country who could be blamed for their captivity.[8]

 Examples:

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Figure 1. A still from the film Not Without my Daughter (Brian Gilbert, 1991), as Moody Mahmoody (Alfred Moliana) physically argues with his wife Betty Mahmoody (Sally Field) about returning to the United States

The film Not without my Daughter, is based on the true story of an Iranian physician, who takes his American wife and their daughter to Iran for a visit. However, once there, he decides to stay and refuses to let his wife and their daughter leave. As shown in Figure 1, the films uses the cultural narrative of a controlling husband who is cunning enough to trick his wife, and also cruel enough to resort to physical violence to assume authority over his wife. The narrative of a wife and daughter held captive by a controlling, greedy Iranian was meant to invoke an emotional response from American viewers.[9]

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Figure 2. A vinyl of Bobby B. Baker’s track Take Your Oil, and Shove It (1979)

One of the more blatant forms of demonization against Iranians was the song by Bobby B. Baker, Take Your Oil and Shove It. Written during the crisis, the song was a personal response from Baker that called for Americans to take a stand against Iran, specifically calling for the refusal to use Iranian oil. The song framed the hostage situation in economic terms and played off the cultural stereotypes that all Iranians are cunning thefts interested in making money. Further, this potrayed Americans as victims who were being robbed, in this case of liberty and freedom.

The film Into the Night, by John Landis is about a dope and jewelry smuggling organization group in the United States lead by the Shah’s twin sister, Ashraf.

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Figure 3. A still from the film Into the Night (John Landis, 1985) showing an Iranian criminal agent running clumsily running into a door

The film plays on the cultural stereotype that Iranians are dishonest, backwards people by presenting the family of the country’s leadership as corrupt. Further, Ashraf’s agents in the organization are presented as incompetent, and cruel Iranians that disrespect their female victims, slaughter without remorse, but also serve as comedic relief running into closed doors as shown in Figure 3.[10]

David Zucker’s comedy The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, made fun of many enemy world leaders, including a Khomeini-like figure. In the film the figure served as terrorist ringleader who rallies other enemy countries to attack the United States.

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Figure 4. A still from the film The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (David Zucker, 1988) showing Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielson) comedically punching Khomeini (Charles Gherard)

The ringleader’s attack is foiled as the protagonist of the film rank Drebin (Leslie Nielson) , assaults him in a comedic manner punching him several times in the face as his turban falls revealing orange hair. The film uses cultural narratives of Iranians as terrorist obsessed with the United States and turns it into a comedic moment as  shown in Figure 4. Figure 4 also shows how the film uses the visual signifiers of a beard and hair to make Iranians seem foreign, but also laughable.

ABC news anchor Ted Koppel is shown in this photograph from a video screen during the Iran hostage crisis on the 100th day of the hostage crisis
Figure 5. ABC news anchor Ted Koppel during the Iran hostage crisis on the 100th day of the hostage crisis. Image taken from: TVNewser

Figure 5 from Ted Koppel’s nightly new report “Crisis in Iran: America Held Hostage: Day…”, shows the graphic used for the news program. It serves as an example of how news media outlets pushed an American captivity narrative using Iranian cultural stereotypes. News media outlets presented Khomeini as a tyrannical leader, and Islam as an irrational backwards religion making the crisis a conflict between civilization and barbarism.[11]

Final thoughts:

It is impossible to ignore that in our country’s history many cultural groups have been scarred by demonization from another group. However, by becoming aware of how groups of people such as Iranians have been demonized in the past, we have the ability to better criticize similar messages nowadays. We are now aware of some of the styles, and techniques that demonization can take.

Lastly, this post has also brought to light the implication that demonization can affect an entire nation. Demonization is form of propaganda that places the blame of a few upon many. It has the ability to cross cultural, religious, and ethnic boundaries grouping together an entire country as a singular entity. In this case, the country of Iran was grouped together as the enemy, for the actions of a group of students. This module also demonstrates that demonization has the ability to transcend time. As the post has demonstrated, the demonization of Iranians extended years after the Iran Hostage Crisis took place.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways are cultural narratives about Iranians similar, or different to those of other cultures? Where do these narratives overlap? Where do they contradict each other?
  2. Reflecting back on the popularity of the films such as Not Without my Daughter, Naked Gun, and of the most recent adaptation of the crisis in Argo, have you ever mistakenly taken historical fiction to be truth? If so, when, and how did you discover the filmmaker’s use of fiction in the film.
  3. Historically there is not much evidence to argue why filmmakers demonized Iranians in their films. Why do you think filmmakers choose to do this? Where there economic, political, or personal reasons for this?
  4. Reflecting back on Baker’s song They Can Take Their Oil and Shove It, can you think of a current song that is critical of a political or social event? Are these songs heard on mainstream channels, or are they obscure? Is there popularity related to their criticism?
  5. What techniques can the average American take to be better informed about world events without falling into only believing one frame of the story?

 

For more information:

If you are interested in learning more about the topic of the demonization of Iranians, the Iran hostage crisis, or Iranian and United States politics, the items listed below are a great resource to supplement the information provided on this page. These items are widely available, and can be purchased through Google books, and Amazon.com.

Kamalipour, Y. R. (1997). The US media and the Middle East: Image and perception (No. 46). Greenwood Publishing Group.

In this book, experts in the field of Communication explore the ramifications of the portrayal of the Middle East in U.S. media.

Nacos, B. L. (1996). Terrorism and the media: From the Iran hostage crisis to the World Trade Center bombing. Columbia University Press.

In this book, Brigitte Lebens Nacos examines the response of U.S. media to major acts of anti-American terrorism between 1979 and 1994.

Mobasher, M. M. (2012). Iranians in Texas: Migration, politics, and ethnic identity. University of Texas Press.

In this book, Mohsen M. Mobasher analysis the political nature of immigration, observing the negative shift in American public opinion following the Iranian hostage crisis in Texas.

Larson, J. F. (1986). Television and US foreign policy: The case of the Iran hostage crisis. Journal of Communication, 36(4), 108-130.

James Larson is the Vice President for Academic Affairs at SUNY Korea, and previously the chair of the department of Technology and Society. His research intrest include television and foreign policy, television in the Olympics, and telecommunications policy.

[1] Information taken from: “Jimmy Carter and the Iranian Hostage Crisis”, The White House Historical Association. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/teacher-resources/jimmy-carter-and-the-iranian-hostage-crisis

[2] Information taken from: “The Iranian Hostage Crisis” PBS American Experience. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/carter-hostage-crisis/

[3] Information taken from: “Iran Hostage Crisis” History.com. http://www.history.com/topics/iran-hostage-crisis

The Shah was seen as a brutal, arbitrary dictator whose secret police, the SAVAK, tortured and murdered thousands of people. At the same time the Iranian government spent billions on American made weapons as the countries economy suffered.

[4] Information taken from: “The Iranian Hostage Crisis” PBS American Experience

It is believed that Khomeini’s government decided to end the matter because there was little no more advantage to gain, and ongoing sanction were making it harder to boost a chaotic economy.

[5] Information taken from: Naficy, H. (2012). A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 4: The Globalizing Era, 1984–2010 (Vol. 4), p.285. Duke University Press.

Hamid Naficy is a leading authority on Iranian film, details a comprehensive social-historical analysis of Iranian Cinema. In this analysis  he includes the role of cinema and other media from the United States, in shaping the national identity of Iran.

[6] Tharoor, I. (2015, July). How not to write about Iran. Retrieved September 26, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/07/02/how-not-to-write-about-iran/.

Ishaan Tharoor is a foreign affairs writer for The Washington Post. He was previously a senior editor at Time based fist in Hong Kong and later in New York.

[7] Kamalipour, Y. R. (1998). Window of opportunity: Images of Iranians in the US media. The Iranian.http://www.iranian.com/Opinion/Aug98/Media/index.html

Yahya R. Kamaipour is a professor and chair in the Department of Journalsm & Mass Communication at north Carolina AT&T State University.  He is also the president of the Global Communication Association in Greensboro, North Carolina. He is a noted scholar with research in globalization, media impact, international communication, Middle East media and new communication technologies.

[8] Scott, C. V. (2000). Bound for glory: The hostage crisis as captivity narrative in Iran. International Studies Quarterly44(1), 177-188.

Agnes V. Scott is a professor and chair in the department of Political Science at Agnes Scott College. Her research intrest include U.S. foreign policy, development theory, and U.S. foreign policy in the post-Vietnam era.

[9] Kamalipour, Y. R. (1998). Window of opportunity: Images of Iranians in the US media. The Iranian.http://www.iranian.com/Opinion/Aug98/Media/index.html

[10] Naficy, H. (2012)

[11] Scott, C. V. (2000).

 

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