On September 24, 2019, in his UN address President Trump defended the United States’s economic sanctions against Iran by invoking language that has become so familiar to us we fail to hear its ruthless and genocidal resonances. After stating that it was his duty and priority to “defend America’s interests,” Trump cited “Iran’s blood-lust,” its “menacing behavior,” its “traffic in monstrous antisemitism,” and accused Iran of single-handedly destabilizing the Middle East. The use of abstract and degrading terminology to discuss Iran has a long history in American politics: in 1987, during a televised address in reference to the Iran–Contra Affair, Ronald Reagan innocently stated that “what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages” (it’s important to note that Jimmy Carter had lost the reelection to Reagan because he was devoted to the Middle East Peace Process and unwilling, in his own words, to “wipe Iran off the map”); in 1989, George H.W. Bush claimed that “we can’t have normalized relations with a state that’s branded a terrorist state”; and, during his State of the Union address months after the ghastly and apocalyptic 9/11 attacks, George Bush stated that “Iran aggressively pursues weapons of mass destruction and exports terror,” and that “states like these [Iran, Iraq and North Korea] and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil arming to threaten the peace of the world by seeking weapons of mass destruction posing a grave and growing danger.” This appeal to nationalist discourse has served time and again to justify the imposition of American will over Iran. Toward the end of his speech, President Trump punctuated his admonitions with the same rigid and suspicious rhetoric of nationalism through which he has been inciting white rage over their perceived marginalization since he ran for office in 2016, reminding friend and foe that “America is the world’s most powerful nation.” “If you want peace,” he said, “love your nation,” because “the future belongs to patriots.”
As a writer, I am trained to extract meaning through proximity; to perceive what is being implied by the calculated gaps and silences in a person’s speech. And because I am a woman and an Iranian-American, I am also well versed in analyzing grammatical elisions designed to further entrench in the American consciousness demonic portraits of the Islamic world. Trump’s language, once decoded and scrutinized, reveals a rhetoric that efficiently positions America’s supposed moral purity in opposition to Iran’s allegedly scheming and irrational character. What strikes me as particularly macabre in Trump’s speech is the subtle positioning of demeaning language toward Iran next to future-oriented verbiage that exclusively guarantees hope for a select segment of the American population. What he is saying is that the only bodies worthy of being vested with futurity are the bodies of patriots and of those who are willing to exercise a debilitating politics of asphyxiation toward Iran and other “lesser” nations in order to guarantee American greatness.
Where does this rhetoric leave Iranian-Americans, those of us who belong in equal measure to nations that are sworn enemies and whose sense of wholeness depends on integrating these two supposedly opposing poles of good and evil? If the future belongs to patriots who are either ignorant of the long history of America’s meddling in the Middle East or who might feel entitled to plunder the Middle East in order to preserve and perpetuate their own geopolitical and economic interests, then it follows that America’s rehabilitation requires Iran’s debilitation. To make matters worse, what Trump is positing through careful grammatical elision is that Iran’s political isolation and economic collapse can be avoided if a different present were manufactured — if Iran would learn to “play nice” — as if Iran had been the sole creator of the present condition of animosity in which we find ourselves. The past — America’s covert CIA operation in Iran in 1953, the sale of arms to Iran via Israel known as the Iran–Contra Affair, America’s secret sale of arms to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980–1988, its general strategic evacuation of resources from Iran and its punitive tactics of control — is repeatedly and deliberately obscured in order to forge an ahistorical narrative that unilaterally places the blame on Iran. Trump’s narrative, which is continuous with statements issued by our previous presidents with the exception of Carter and Obama, deliberately exercises amnesia: it is a narrative of dissociation that is consistent with the founding rhetoric of our nation. When it comes to discussing Iran, the past becomes purposefully obfuscated. But the past is not the only temporal dimension that is subject to erasure: if the future belongs to patriots, then it follows that the possibility of a future for Iranian-Americans depends on a shift in the present, a change which is impossible at the outset because the present discourse asserts American purity over Iranian corruption effectively evacuating credibility from any response put forth by the Iranian community or by the Iran government before it is even articulated. Not only does the rhetoric performed by the US government over the last 40 years conduct an erasure of the past, it also collapses temporal distinctions between the past, present, and future, dangerously foreclosing the possibility for diplomatic imagination.
The question I am left with is which verb tense are we, as Iranian-Americans, meant to live in? The answer is none. We are not meant to survive. Not in this America. We, Iranian-Americans, are living beyond tense. We have been relegated to a verb-less land at the outer limits of language where all tenses have been flattened or extinguished. And since it is the case that without verbs we are unable to take action, the only conclusion left is that we are either dead or inhuman which, one could argue, is just as well, since any reaction from our part will only be used as evidence to support Trump’s claim of our supposedly unpredictable, deviant nature.
To complicate matters even further, I, like most if not all Iranian-Americans, am at one point or another the target of a double demonization, suspected by both parties as a potential betrayer. Looked at from the position of the United States government, I am the child of a government that is considered to be a “menacing” presence with an irrational predisposition for “blood-lust” and for total and unyielding control not only over their own fate but also over the fate of those with whom they wrongly align themselves. From the perspective of the Iranian government, as an American citizen I am a potential spy, a double-agent in the making, a betrayer of my brothers in arms and my mother-land. My body, forged by two nations who have been at one another’s throats for as long as I have been alive, has been caught in the cross fire. It was born in the cross fire; it is a physical manifestation of that very cross fire. To be Iranian-American, therefore, is to be caught in the false logic of binary oppositions. The two sides of my personhood, seemingly contradictory and paradoxical, are continually made to disappear into one another: I cannot be both good and evil, morally pure and corrupt, a person simultaneously endowed with transparent and deviant intentions.
Having been forced into the margins of the body politic through this double demonization it should come as no surprise that I would turn to language itself — the very materiality of words — into my medium of resistance. What other option am I left with than to commit myself to the power of language in order to parse through, counter, or reappropriate the very judgments that have been wielded against me? As an Iranian-American, if I were to stop writing I would fall into the silencing vessel of repression constructed on both sides by state-sanctioned violence. If I write, I have to navigate that weaponized silence. But the risk is worth taking because the alternative is annihilation. And I am not dead. Not yet. And I’m certainly not inhuman despite the fact that America’s political rhetoric has extorted depth from the lives of Iranians and transformed us in the American consciousness into a flat surface, a soulless body, that has been targeted for attack. We have been marked for death. We have been placed in the position of debility, treated as a risk that requires management. Our moral, psychic, economic, and material injury is merely an unintended consequence of the language and actions of war.
The American government is masterful, always has been, at obfuscating its murderous actions in the Middle East. But our story is not unique. The birth of the nation as we know it today has its roots in the ethnic cleansing and mass displacement of Indigenous Tribes, the kidnapping and enslavement of black bodies, the abuse of generations of Chinese and Chinese-American men who built the very railways that allowed white progress to garner even more speed, the repression of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the exploitation and disenfranchisement of migrants from Central and South America who toil our soil, the plunder of the Middle East to fuel the nation’s ongoing industrial revolution. This list, like any list, cannot do justice to all of the bodies on whose backs our nation was built, bodies who were subsequently treated as disposable and against whom the fantasy of whiteness as purity, virtuosity, moral superiority has (re)consolidated to great effect, occasionally emerging into full relief through the Office of the President which employs language such as terrorist state, axis of evil, and the future belongs to patriots. White obsession with purity is a mirror image of the white man’s guilty conscience. In a country that resists a culture of memory and that deliberately obscures the fact that our past has been shaped by the debilitating logic of empire, in a country in which the present exists only in so far as it is a field to be exclusively sown by patriots in order to secure their future, it might seem like we have been denied access to language as a means of annunciating our personhood. It is precisely for this reason that we must turn toward language with radical attention in order to reinsert our voices into the annals of history as it unfolds in the past, present, and future. Manipulating grammar, targeting, limiting, or exclusionary forms of speech, can lead to a shift in consciousness. That kind of rigor allows us to exert pressure on such centralizing forms of speech, to expose subtle and overt forms of censorship, and to record and respond to historical crises. It allows us to bring previously invisible forms of suffering into the realm of public discourse.