Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Conflict and the Vagaries of Memory

Gary Sick reviews a new book on Iranian-American relations which uses newly declassified information and oral histories:
Iranians tend to forget or to underestimate the impact of the hostage crisis on how they are perceived in the world. Many Iranians are prepared to acknowledge that it was an extreme action and one that they would not choose to repeat, but their inclination is to shove it to the back of their minds and move on.
This book makes it blindingly clear that the decision by the Iranian government to endorse the attack on the U.S. embassy in November 1979 and the subsequent captivity of U.S. diplomats for 444 days was an “original sin” in the words of this book for which they have paid – and continue to pay – a devastating price.
Similarly, U.S. citizens tend to forget their casual response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, our tacit acquiescence to massive use of chemical weapons by Iraq, and the shootdown of an Iranian passenger plane by a U.S. warship, among other things.
The CIA deposition of Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953 also plays a prominent role in Iranian historical memory.  The idea that much conflict between the American and Iranian governments and elite classes depends on different emphases in historical memory was an important theme in Ali Ansari's Confronting Iran, and I'd argue that similar issues lie near the root of many other conflicts in today's world.  This is well-known in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in his book Sectarianism in Iraq, Fanar Haddad highlighted the way in which divergent memories of the 1991 Shi'ite contributed to driving a wedge between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs in that country.

Conflicts, of course, are not all about memory.  The memories in question are of real events, and remain important for often concrete reasons.  It is memory, however, than justifies suspicion and a view of Others as somehow irrational or untrustworthy, and so gets in the way of conflict resolution.

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