There’s a lot to parse in the lengthy interview that Donald Trump gave to The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa on Thursday. The Republican front-runner made some dramatic pronouncements about the future of the U.S. economy and his ability to fix it.
In the realm of foreign policy, though, it was more of the same: Trump touted the need to “renegotiate deals” with a host of countries that are “draining” the United States of its money and jobs. He described the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as “obsolete” and suggested that he would better command the respect of geopolitical adversaries such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump also echoed his frustration with the Iran nuclear deal, grumbling about how “terrible” it was for the Obama administration to help unlock $150 billion in frozen Iranian funds as part of a compromise on sanctions placed on the country.
He then dabbled in a familiar ethnic stereotype, casting the result of many months of concerted international diplomacy as a clever Persian trick:
“It was negotiated by people that are poor negotiators against great negotiators. Persians being great negotiators, okay? It’s one of those things. You might be Persian. But the Iranians, frankly, are great negotiators.”
This is hardly the first time he has used such language.
“The Persians are great negotiators,” Trump told CNN in July when Iran and world powers, including the United States, looked close to forging a pact on Tehran’s nuclear program. “They are laughing at the stupidity of the deal we’re making on nuclear. We should double up and triple up the sanctions and have them come to us. They are making an amazing deal.”
The idea that “Persians are great negotiators,” while seemingly flattering, is part of a centuries-old Western cliche of the wily Persian swindler who cannot be trusted. Trump is not alone in embracing this stereotype, especially in recent times.
A host of leading U.S. diplomats and commentators from across the political spectrum trade in this lazy shorthand.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman once accused Tehran of operating with a “carpet bazaar” mentality. A leading U.S. negotiator for the Iran deal warned Congress that “deception is in [Iran’s] DNA.” A former top NATO official framed Iran’s grand strategy as an extension of the expansionism of Persia’s ancient empires.
This irks observers, who point out, rather reasonably, that plausible critiques of Tehran’s many questionable actions can be made without resorting to Orientalist pablum.
“Iran is an ancient civilization with a rich culture that definitely has roots in its old history,” Iranian American journalist Negar Mortazavi told The Post last year. “But to stereotype modern Iran and Iranians based on what happened thousands of years ago is wrong.”
“If you’re writing about a country of more than 77 million people,” said Kia Makarechi, news editor at Vanity Fair, “and the metaphors or signifiers you draw on come more from ‘Aladdin’ than a serious understanding of that nation’s politics and culture, you should probably hand the assignment to someone else.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Ishaan Tharoor