walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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Banning Barbie In Iran

A new front has opened in the quasi-war between Iran and the West. Reuters reports from Tehran:

Iran’s morality police are cracking down on the sale of Barbie dolls to protect the public from what they see as pernicious western culture eroding Islamic values, shopkeepers said on Monday.

As the West imposes the toughest ever sanctions on Iran and tensions rise over its nuclear program, inside the country the Barbie ban is part of what the government calls a “soft war” against decadent cultural influences.

Stories like these, amusing as they are, also remind us of the very serious fact that, as Reuters puts it, Iran’s theocratic rulers have “fought a running battle to purge pervasive western culture from the country since its Islamic revolution overthrew a western-backed king in 1979, enforcing Islamic dress codes, banning Western music and foreign satellite television.”

When so-called foreign policy realists argue that we could mollify the mullahcracy simply by removing troops from the Middle East, or lessening sanctions, or slashing aid to Israel–whatever the merits of these individual proposals–they completely elide this crucial cultural consideration.

In the final analysis, Iran does not resent the West merely because of our policies in the region, as realists would have it, or because of our ideologies, as neoconservatives would have it, but rather due to a complex combination of the two. It is precisely this enigmatic intermingling of the cultural and the political that makes Iran policy-making so fraught with difficulty. Contrary to what many pundits will tell you, there are no simple solutions to our problems in the country.

In any case, hostility between Iran and the west is vital to some powerful political interests in Iran. Some westerners say that we should drop our hostility as a way of weakening these radical elements; nice idea, but if the west seeks to ratchet the tension down, these forces are likely to respond by staging provocations that will heighten the confrontation again.

Right now, Iran’s position is deteriorating while the US and its partners are gaining strength, a resurgent Sunni world has put Shiite influence on the defensive and the confrontation in Syria has knocked Iran back on its heels. Only in Iraq, where early US withdrawal has eased Iran’s quest for power, can Tehran find any glimmers of hope. Banning Barbie won’t help Iran deal with a run of geopolitical setbacks, but it testifies to a continuing radicalism in the ruling establishment that bodes poorly for those of us still hoping for a diplomatic deal.

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  • Randy

    “In the final analysis, Iran does not resent the West merely because of our policies in the region, as realists would have it, or because of our ideologies, as neoconservatives would have it, but rather due to a complex combination of the two.”

    Can I suggest a third possibility? Iran (and I’d extend this to Islam in general) resents us because their theology is so screwed up. The mere existence of the U.S. and Israel simply can’t fit into their worldview. Tell me I’m wrong.

  • Jim.

    Let me add a Realist side to the ideological issue, then.

    As long as non-westerners think that to Westernize is to be forced to say, “My daughter is a whore and my son is a homosexual, and I am OK with that!”, we will meet considerable resistance to our ideas and agenda, and groups like the Mullahs will be able to use this resistance to keep themselves in power.

    You’re the Great Compromiser, Walter, and your Yule blogs show you to be a practicing Christian as well. It shouldn’t be too difficult to detoxify the image of our ideology by making a compromise with the majority of humanity on traditional moral issues… could you take point on that?

  • Kris

    I am reliably informed that the reason for this crackdown is that the latest Barbie model lisps “Nuclear physics is tough!” And then blows up.

    Jim@2: First, this might be realistic, but it is not “Realist.” Second, Mead, POTUS, and a plethora of NGOs can all present the more “conservative” message you advocate, but these fine words won’t make much of a difference unless you’re willing to muzzle Hollywood.

  • Corlyss

    “It shouldn’t be too difficult to detoxify the image of our ideology by making a compromise with the majority of humanity on traditional moral issues”

    Wow! Gag reflex now engaged.

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