Persuasion in the Rhetoric of Iranian and American Officials in Regards to the Nuclear Deal

Two states with vastly different policies, cultures, and outlets for rhetoric recently came to a contentious agreement known colloquially as the nuclear deal. In order for this to go into effect, bodies of both states needed to be persuaded to ratify it. The United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran were both party to July’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially known as the nuclear deal, but as these states have a history of disagreement and tension, both states saw a lot of popular dissent within their general public. By examining how various officials in both Western states and Islamic countries have commented on the July Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially known as the nuclear deal, and how news sources have reported on this nuclear deal, this paper will provide an analysis of how the rhetoric of government in a Western State differed from that in an Islamic State in a case where both had similar goals.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding nuclear weapons was passed by United Nations Security Council on July 20 as Resolution 2231 in a form agreed to by not only the five permanent members of the Security Council, but also the European Union, including Germany specifically, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. After several years of negotiation, some press initially portrayed this as a major goal achievement. For Iran, the deal meant the removal of harsh economic sanctions. For the US, the deal meant more national and global security. However, while both the United States and Iran portrayed the deal to their nations as one in which their nation received the better end, different audiences led to different techniques employed.

The United States White House refers to this deal as “The Historic Deal that Will Prevent Iran from Acquiring a Nuclear Weapon: How the U.S. and the international community will block off all Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon.”[1] As the US Congress needed to ratify the deal, and members of US Congress always wants to have popular opinion in their favour in order to be re-elected, it was imperative that public opinion back the deal in order to have officials ratify it. As such, official documents released by the president’s office make the JCPA appear to be a comprehensive and effective deal, focusing on how it solved the issues the US was supposedly worried about.

Public opinion polls and research during the George H. W. Bush era showed how the American public found “rhetoric emphasizing axiological considerations. . .to be more compelling in justifying the Gulf War than rhetoric emphasizing economic reasons, such as jobs and oil.”[2] A main idea seen in political discourse in the United States is the idea of American exceptionalism, that “America represents the forces of good against evil.”[3] As such, rhetoric appealing to the American public often portrays the United States as the good player and any opponents as the evil player, because often this will resonate with the public more than rhetoric that talks about economic factors that might affect people’s lives. Iran has been subject to this for many years, with former president George W. Bush naming it in the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address.[4]

To get the public’s support for this deal, United States President Barack Obama had to reverse this portrayal, already engrained in the American mantra, and instead convey an image of Iran being rational enough to keep their side of the deal. In his August 5th speech, he cleverly used rhetoric to portray Iran as just another country the US isn’t allied with, similar to many other countries in the world. By talking about them being an opponent to the US he was emphasising that the US and Iran are not allies, but the subtly diplomatic terms he used to describe the superpower made Iran seem less threatening. With this, he portrayed the agreement as exactly that—a treaty between two countries, not a document in which two enemies make concessions towards each other.

Instead of slamming Iran, Obama’s speech emphasised the challenges of diplomacy and the effort that all parties had taken to get to this point, referring to the “painstaking work of building international consensus;” calling the deal a “negotiated agreement [offering] a more effective, verifiable and durable resolution;” and going as far as to call it “the strongest non-proliferation agreement ever negotiated.”[5]

President Obama, in this speech, quoted two prior presidents in talking about diplomacy over war, calling upon their pathos to emphasise his points. He used President Kennedy to show how the United States had faced a similar situation during the Cold War and succeeded through diplomacy. As Kennedy is well respected, this was an assurance to American people. He quoted President Reagan as saying “Peace is not the absence of conflict,” but “the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.” President Reagan was a Republican, meaning that he holds more pathos to current Republicans today. Obama utilized the respect Reagan garners in using his words as a persuasive technique towards the American people.

In addition to gaining pathos from previous presidents, Obama emphasised how

“because this is such a strong deal, every nation in the world that has commented publicly, with the exception of the Israeli government, has expressed support. The United Nations Security Council has unanimously supported it. The majority of arms control and non-proliferation experts support it.  Over 100 former ambassadors — who served under Republican and Democratic Presidents — support it.”[6] (my emphasis)

He calls upon the United Nations Security Council as being representative of the biggest world powers. He calls upon experts as these people have done much research and are more knowledgeable than the general public. He calls upon ambassadors as having diplomatic experience and understanding negotiations, and cites them as being of both parties to emphasise how the agreement serves needs on both sides of the spectrum. Obama’s use of these figures and their weight serves to persuade the public.

According to a Senate staffer, “there is a great deal of skepticism in Congress about Iran’s intention to follow through on the deal.” Senators have suggested that the body could pass legislation that “could include language to allow the sanctions to be imposed immediately if Iran doesn’t follow through on the deal.”[7] This increases tensions between both parties to the deal, which can be less effective with less trust.

For the deal to be ratified, these sceptical Congresspeople needed to pass it. In attempting to garner these votes, rhetoric focused on the idea that no better deal would come, and that this agreement would effectively prevent Iran from creating a nuclear bomb despite opposition saying otherwise. “Without this agreement, the Iranians will have several potential pathways to a bomb. With it, they won’t have any,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said.[8]

In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani faces a significantly easier battle. While the Iranian Parliament needed to ratify the deal, its members did not openly criticize and advocate against the deal as the Congresspeople of the United States did. However, Rouhani’s rhetoric still reflects his attempt to persuade the public of the benefits of the deal.

A 1999 report on the influence of the press in Iran argued that “the press in general, and intellectual journals in particular, have played a pivotal role in Iran’s political effervescence during the last decade and continue to nurture the public debate.”[9] Though often privately funded journals are pulled down, the media and the statements respected leaders put forward can still play an influential role in garnering public support. Even the Iran Project, an independent project gathering “news, analysis, and coverage” of Iran is under some censorship; its about page states “Everything is issued independently, however not in way causing reprimand from the Iranian government”[10] (my emphasis.)

After the finalisation of the nuclear deal, President Rouhani issued a statement saying “negotiators have reached a good agreement and I announce to our people that our prayers have come true.”[11] His reference to prayers contains the implication that the deal is something God had created. As the general schema of something created by a god is perfection, this thus leads the public to believe this deal is close to perfection.

A 2007 study on how the rising generation of Iranians consume media examined the way these people perceive the government, concluding “the majority of these youth disclosed their disagreement with the state-presented Islamic-Iranian package. ”[12] The new generation has a different perspective on its government than the previous, which had been through the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Rhetoric directed to the public has to bear in mind that younger people might want to emphasise “their own personal interpretations of being Moslem/Iranian. Departing from the grand narratives of the state, the youth make their own personal choices of their identities.”[13] Rhetoric emphasising God’s power thus might not be effect. Rouhani also called the deal a “historic victory”[14] that would open “a ‘new chapter’ in Iran’s relations with the world,”[15] both aspects that could appeal to this younger generation where religion might not.

Iranian officials portrayed the deal as both a success diplomatically and a boon to the Iranian economy. The head of the office of the Supreme Leader issued a statement saying that “Iran’s nuclear negotiating team ‘stood courageously’ in the face of enemies”.[16] This mirrors US rhetoric that the countries are by no means allies, but that nonetheless the deal is an accomplishment, one that took courage. As Islam often emphasises shahadat, struggles for justice, martyrdom and the such, this choice of words is very intentional as it portrays the team as willing to sacrifice themselves, and thus deserving of respect. Meanwhile, the more closed officials remain walled-off: one columnist commented on how Supreme Leader Khameini has managed to get the sanctions on Iran removed while “getting the world to bless Iran’s ‘peaceful’ nuclear enrichment program. . . And he’s done it all while giving his hard-line base the feeling that he’s still actually against his deal and his negotiators the feeling that he’s for it.”[17]

The nuclear deal means the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran which will have a great positive benefit on Iran’s economy. While Iranian officials rushed to defend the nuclear deal, they were still able to remain extremely critical of the United States. A study on Iranian beliefs led in the author theorising “Political apathy is ensconced among the middle class today, while the remaining activists have lost touch with the grassroots,”[18] meaning that people are less likely to be terribly opposed to the deal, but will always benefit from economic boons. Iran is already preparing for a huge increase in tourism, with officials planning to “host over 20 million tourists by 2025.”[19] As the 2013 election of Rouhani showed, economic sanctions were greatly harming Iranian economy and causing social unrest that. Because of this, the deal is easier to sell to the Iranian public than to the distrusting American public, meaning that their rhetoric can focus on economy and continue to treat the United States with wariness instead of on portraying one of their enemies in a more positive light. An American commentator for Iranian news agency Press TV, Dr. Kevin Barrett, calls the American political system “rotten to the core” and accuses the United States of being on a “rush to destabilize the Middle East.”[20] Even if the public has negative viewpoints of the United States, the economic benefits weigh much more than distrust of the United States. Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to the Supreme Leader Khamenei, “told state TV: ‘On implementation, all should be watchful that Westerners, particularly Americans, to keep their promises.’”[21] Additionally, Iran’s Passive Defense Organization “is observing changes in U.S. officials’ language since the conclusion of the nuclear deal as a bid to probe potential threats.”[22]

At the same time, they maintain a picture of strength and do not hesitate to assure the public of their capabilities to defend themselves. General Masoud Jazayeri, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Brigadier, said “Iran’s Armed Forces will spare no effort to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as the nation’s ideals and values,” going on to call international threats “ranting and raving by bullying powers and global hegemons.”[23] This statement is almost overly strong and shows once more Iran’s independence by demonstrating that it can defend itself and thus can take actions as it sees fit. This accusation is slightly ironic, however, as Rouhani has “noted that the United States sometimes makes mistakes in its rhetoric regarding Iran due to the numerous domestic problems it faces,”[24] implying that the US uses rhetoric against Iran to distract from other issues that plague the nation while criticizing the amount of criticism that the United States makes against Iran.

Iranian media is controlled heavily, and their English produced press may be catering towards international countries as the main language spoke in Iran is Persion. When a later incident led to suspicion that they may have already broken the agreement they put forward innocent yet defensive statements, saying of the deal that “the country’s nuclear industry has not been restricted in a real sense since the Islamic Republic has never sought to build such weapons. ”[25] This statement implies that other nations are jumping to conclusions by suggesting that Iran would go against the deal. Another example of this claims that Iran would never create a nuclear bomb: “Ensuring this obvious issue (that Iran doesn’t seek to build nuclear bombs) is no special privilege because based on religious and human principles and the fatwa by Leader of the Islamic Revolution Iran has never been and never is after nuclear weapons.”[26] This calls upon the ethos of religion to show that Iran is sincere.

Officials additionally use the rhetoric of the deal to defend their country. It argues that Article IV of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) “guarantees states-parties access to nuclear technology as long as they adhere to their treaty obligations” [27] and as this doesn’t specify uranium enrichment, Iran has the ability to enrich uranium. However, “U.S. policy does not interpret access to enrichment technology as a right under Article IV.”[28] These differences in interpretation could be cause for future conflict, meaning that for the time being officials will work to convince their public of what the treaty means.

The rhetoric used varies between two states with similar motivations, but simple factors such as the challenge of ratifying the treaty in the United States produced differences within rhetoric. For the most part, however, leaders were supportive of the deal and used their language to build up enthusiasm within the public that would ensure the deal’s success.

[1] “The Historic Deal that Will Prevent Iran from Acquiring a Nuclear Weapon.” White House Foreign Policy. Web. 20 Oct., 2015. <>

[2] Esch, Joanne. “Legitimizing the “war on Terror”: Political Myth in Official-level Rhetoric”. Political Psychology 31.3 (2010): 357–391. Web. p. 372

[3] Esch, p. 366

[4] Bush, George W. “State of the Union Address.” United States Capitol. Washington, D.C. Jan

29, 2002. <>

[5] Obama, Barack. “Remarks by the President on the Iran Nuclear Deal.” American University. Washington, D.C. 05 Aug. 2015.

[6] Obama

[7] Davenport, Kelsey. “Iran, P5+1 Sign Nuclear Agreement”. Arms Control Today 43.10 (2013): 20–23. Web. p. 22.

[8] Siegel, Benjamin; Weingberg, Ali. “President Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal Officially Unstoppable in Congress.” ABC News. 02 Sept, 2015. Web. 20 Oct., 2015. <>

[9] Merat, Zarir. “Pushing Back the Limits of the Possible: The Press in Iran.” Middle East Report 212 (1999): 32-35. Web. p. 32.

[10] The Iran Project. “Welcome to the Iran Project.” The Iran Project. n.d. Web. 20 Oct., 2015. <>

[11] Mullen, Jethro; Robertson, Nic. “Landmark deal reached on Iran nuclear program” Cable News Network (CNN). 15 July, 2015. Web. 20 Oct., 2015. <>

[12] Jafari, Aliakbar. “Two Tales of a City: An Exploratory Study of Cultural Consumption among Iranian Youth.” Iranian Studies 40:03 (2007): 367-383. Web. p. 378

[13] Jafari, p. 378

[14] “President Rouhani says Iran will not give in to pressure.” Press TV. 26 July, 2015. Web. 29 Oct, 2015. <>

[15] “Iran nuclear talks: ‘Historic’ agreement struck.” BBC. 14 July, 2015. Web. 20 Oct, 2015. <>

[16] “Iran negotiators hailed for performance in nuclear talks.” Press TV. 24 July, 2015. Web. 29 Oct, 2015. <>

[17] Friedman, Thomas L. “Iran Deal Players’ Report Cards” The New York Times. 16 Sept.,

  1. Web. 08 Nov., 2015.

[18] Kupchan, Clifford. “Iranian Beliefs and Realities.” The National Interest 81 (2005): 106-110. Web. p. 107

[19] Ahmadi, Gisoo Mishal. “Iran plans to host over 20 million tourists by 2025.” Press TV. 28 Sept., 2015. Web. 20 Oct, 2015. <>

[20] “US has no choice but to pass nuclear agreement: Kevin Barrett.” Press TV. 28 Aug, 2015. Web. 29 Oct, 2015. <>

[21] “Obama puts nuclear deal into effect.” Tehran Times. Oct 19, 2015. Web. 8 Nov, 2015. <>

[22] “‘Iran should guard against infrastructure espionage after nuclear deal.’” Tehran Times. Oct 09, 2015. Web. 8 Nov, 2015.

[23] “Iran military capable of countering any threat: Senior commander.” Press TV. 25 July, 2015. Web. 29 Oct, 2015. <>

[24] “President Rouhani says Iran will not give in to pressure.”

[25] “Zarif: We’ve never claimed nuclear deal only favors Iran.” Tehran Times. 22 July, 2015. Web. 20 Oct., 2015. <>

[26] “Zarif: We’ve never claimed nuclear deal only favors Iran.”

[27] Davenport, p. 21

[28] Davenport, p. 21