To Be “Terrorist” But Not “Gay:” Iran’s Threat To The U.S.

By Ava Ahmadbeigi

In the years following the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, Iran–US relations shifted drastically from the close alliance that once existed between the Shah and the US to a dynamic characterized more and more in the early 2000s by animosity and mistrust. In what follows, I consider three major events that helped to render Iran a threat from the US perspective: the Iranian Islamic Revolution, George W. Bush’s 2002 state of the union address, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 visit to Columbia University.[i] This newfound threat occurred on two levels. First, Iran became an unpredictable nation that could use its “weapons of mass destruction” against the US and its allies. Furthermore, President Ahmadinejad’s refusal to use normative language around sexuality and to acknowledge the presence of “homosexuals” in Iran threatened the containment and control the American state had achieved over its own purportedly “deviant” sexual population. By constructing a narrative of Iran around the idea of being an “evil” terrorist threat, the US created an enemy that needed to be controlled and civilized to save “oppressed” Iranians and to safeguard American values involving gay rights and citizenship.

Foreign policy concerning terrorism may seem distant from LGBT rights, both discourses are grounded in anxieties involving nationhood, citizenship, and otherness. In her article, “Mapping US Homonormativities,” Jasbir Puar argues that the construction of a “terrorist” figure by the US creates a space for gay, lesbian, and queer bodies to act as patriots while it continues to “other” them as sexual deviants.[ii] She calls this “homo-nationalism” and grounds it in Lisa Duggan’s theory of homonormativity defined as a “‘new neo-liberal sexual politics’ that hinges upon the ‘possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.’”[iii],[iv] “Gay culture” and “homosexuality” are western concepts that emerged in the late 1800s.[v] This is not to say that same-sex desire and love did not exist in previous eras, just that consensual and deviant sexual desires and practices were neither labeled as identities nor used as a tool for domesticity, consumption, and nationalism. The turn to “homosexuality” as an identity has been the basis of the LGBT rights movement in the US (a shift that has been particularly apparent in the discourse around marriage equality and about whether LGBT are “born that way”), as well as a tool for US intervention in foreign affairs. In what follows, I do not take a stand for or against the US or Iran in matters concerning terrorism or the rights of sexual minority populations. Instead, I aim to understand how the US LGBT movement and the construction of the middle-eastern “terrorist” affect and are affected by our desire for citizenship and belonging.

Following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, a key moment for the shift in discourse around citizenship in both US and the “civilized” world, President G.W. Bush declared in his January 2002 State of the Union Address that “those of us who have lived through these challenging times have been changed by them. We’ve come to know truths that we will never question: Evil is real, and it must be opposed.”[vi] He grounded this of “evil” in terrorism, saying,

[The] goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction… Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom… States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.[vii]

According to this speech, North Korea and Iraq were also dangerous nations whose regimes made up the “axis of evil.” President Bush charged these states with “arming to threaten the peace of the world” with their “weapons of mass destruction”. Needless to say, the US and its allies also had and continue to have and develop weapons capable of widespread “destruction,” yet it was the countries in the “axis of evil” whose actions and motives for the development of these weapons were labeled as “terrorism.” Furthermore, President Bush offered no real definition of “terrorism” in his speech; instead, he deemed any country that opposed the US and that has weapons “terrorist.” More than just placing North Korea, Iran, and Iraq on an “enemies” list, this speech portrayed the above countries as inherently evil, unpredictable, and untrustworthy terrorist threats and set up the Iranian people in particular as in need of help and saving from their own government.


The Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979) and particularly its final monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had a friendly relationship with the United States. It was, however, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran that changed everything: the government shifted from a monarchy to a theocratic Islamic republic, new laws were put in place, new attitudes adopted, and foreign relationships were redefined. The structure and intent behind these new relationships, as well as Iran’s terrorist motives are debated. On one side of this debate are people like Shaul Shay, a historian and former leader of the Israel National Security Council, who argues that, “In the course of twenty-five years of Islamic rule (1979-2004), Iran has appeared to be a state that supports a radical foreign policy with no holds barred, including terror, in order to export the Islamic revolution and facilitate its political objectives”[viii]. On the other side of the debate, there are scholars like Ervand Abrahamian who acknowledge some Iranian activity that argue for a more nuanced understanding of Iran – US relations.

In Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran, and Syria, Abrahamian writes that President Bush’s statement about the “axis of evil” came as a shock to both Iran, which had been improving its relationship with the US for several years and to the State Department, which had not been consulted about the content of Bush’s speech[ix]. Abrahamian argues that the invention of the “axis of evil” was a reflection of fearful sentiment that existed in neo-conservatives in the US. This constituency, “known among more conventional conservatives as neo-rightists and neo-crazies,” had “persistently complained for years about Washington’s ‘dovish’ and ‘appeasement’ policies towards ‘fascists’ and ‘Islamic fanatics.’”[x] “In their eyes, the 1979 Iranian revolution turned politics upside down. In one swift blow, it wiped out their ‘island of stability’ in the region, their main ‘policeman’ in the Gulf…”[xi] Iran was many things and of much use to the US during the Pahlavi Dynasty, but the Islamic Revolution of 1979 brought a shocking end to this relationship not only because Iran stopped cooperating with the US as its “policeman” in the Gulf, but because it suddenly was equated with Islam, an “uncontrollable” religion “fundamentally” opposed to the West and westernization. Although the Islamic Republic of Iran was trying to make amends for tense relations with the US in the years leading up to 9/11, its efforts were overlooked in the aftermath of the attacks. The popular opinion still holds that “Iran embodies the incorporation of two basic elements in its policy that turn the use of terror in its international relations into a ‘legitimate and effective’ tool… The first principle is the ideological and religious basis at the center of which lies the aspiration to establish Islamic rule worldwide…”[xii] As far as the US is concerned, Iran has become an evil and terrorist Islamic state, threatening to spread its backwards rule everywhere.

Iran’s occupation of this backwards terrorist position becomes even more threatening when it concerns not just “weapons of mass destruction,” but the sexual lives of ordinary people. In her article, “Dating the State,” Katherine Franke argues that sexuality and sexual rights become a way for governments to talk about foreign policy and mobilize globalization and civilizing missions. She discusses examples from Israel, Iran, Poland, and Romania, and in the case of Iran, explores President Ahmadinejad’s 2007 visit to Columbia University, which is now most known for Ahmadinejad’s denial of the existence of homosexuals in Iran. Franke’s argument, similar to arguments made retrospectively about the manipulation of women and gender in colonialism, is focused on the dangers of “world powers” imposing their views on other groups and countries. I n Iran’s case, there was another layer of motivation behind the strong reaction against President Ahmadinejad’s denial of the existence of homosexuality in Iran. Ahmadinejad seemed to not only know that Iran was placed outside of global conversation and citizenship, but he seemed to not care, smiling his way through the audience’s “boos” as he rejected their normative language on sexuality and rights.[xiii] If what keeps people “in line” is the fear of being placed outside the nation and outside of citizenship, then Ahmadinejad’s blatant disregard for a global disapproval of his position is threatening not only in that it makes the US vulnerable to Iran’s unpredictable motives, but in that it jeopardizes the very normative grounds on which the US has incorporated homosexuality into the nation.


The context in which homosexuality surfaced during President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University further stabilized Iran’s portrayal in the US as an evil Islamic, premodern, and uncivilized threat in the two main ways outlined above. After his speech, Ahmadinejad was asked about the rights of women and homosexuals in Iran, to which, as Franke quotes, he responded, “ ‘[w]omen in Iran enjoy the highest levels of freedom…In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country…In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.’”[xiv]There was huge backlash against this statement, from both LGBTQ activists and the general public who insisted that of course homosexuals exist in Iran, and of course they deserve to have their “gay rights”. Franke argues,

[Ahmadinejad’s statements about women and homosexuals] offered evidence of what some in the United States thought they already knew about Iran and its political leadership: It is tyrannical, pre-modern, uncivilized, and not to be trusted–not trusted about its knowledge of its own people, nor about other issues such as its nuclear ambitions, its role in supporting the insurgency in Iraq, or its threat to Israel.[xv]

More than an issue of gender, sexuality, and laws around same-sex desire, Ahmadinejad’s response to the question of homosexuality was used as a way into conversations about civilization and modernity. Indeed, the introduction given by Columbia’s president situated Ahmadinejad as a “petty and cruel dictator” that represented all that Americans thought they knew about Iran’s backwards Islamic position on war, weapons, and terrorism.[xvi] Franke argues that “Modern states are expected to recognize a sexual minority within the national body and grant that minority rights-based protections. Premodern states do not.”[xvii] Iran, by that definition, is a premodern and uncivilized state—a condition that is characterized primarily by Iran’s “adherence” to Islam and Sharia law.

However, the reaction to President Ahmadinejad’s response is problematic in several ways. The first is that it is founded on an incomplete understanding of Iran and sexual relations in Iranian culture and society. In her article, Franke cites Professor Hamid Dabashi’s more accurate translation of Ahmadinejad’s words on homosexuality in Iran: “ ‘[I]n Iran we do not have homosexuals as you do. In our country there is no such thing. In Iran such things—in Iran—in Iran—there is no such thing. I have no idea who has said this to you.’”[xviii] There is only a subtle difference between this and the previous translation, but the crucial difference is in the meaning of the original Persian words. Professor Dabashi analyzes how, to say that Iran does not have homosexuals as Americans do does not mean that a similar phenomenon does not exist in Iran, but that it does not manifest nor is it expressed in the same ways. He also points out that Ahmadinejad’s language of existence (“there is no such thing”) could imply that same-sex desire and sex are not socially acceptable and are therefore not seen publicly and in that way, do not exist in Iran.[xix] By refusing to talk about the state of sexuality in Iran in terms of the normative language and frameworks laid out in the US, Ahmadinejad, either intentionally or unintentionally, became an even larger threat, this time to America’s ability to contain homosexuals and maintain heteronormativity.

To further understand why Iran’s nonconformity with frameworks of American sexuality is so threatening, it is helpful to look at Afsaneh Najmabadi’s study of sexuality in contemporary Iran. In her book Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran, Najmabadi looks at how and why transsexuality is more accepted than “homosexuality” in Iran. This seemingly reverse acceptance has been confusing for people unfamiliar with Iranian culture, which along with legal and medical authorities, frames sex change as the “cure for a disease abnormality (gender identity disorder)” and a “religio-legally sanctioned option for heternormalizing people with same-sex desires and practices.”[xx] The Islamic Republic of Iran actively invests large sums of money in sex change surgeries for transsexuals. It does not do this because it is “progressive” in the American sense, but because it recognizes same-sex desire and would rather change the genders of sexual deviants, than confront their sexual practices. I am not arguing that the cultural, social, and religious views on same-sex desire in Iran are not problematic, just that they do not necessarily have to do with Islam. Najmabadi, for example, argues that cultural norms, not religion, are the primary obstacle for trans and “gay” people in Iran.[xxi] Still, “American gay press after 1979 began to report on the extermination of Tehran gay life,” which was more visible during the Pahlavi Dynasty, “by the Islamic Republic. There is an implicit progressivist dynamic to these stories: the emergent gay subculture of Tehran would have led naturally to a livelier, more open gay Tehran, except that its life was cut short by the 1979 revolution and the subsequent Islamization of society.”[xxii] Islam, then, is presented as the root of difference between modes of managing same-sex desire in Iran and the US.

Following Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University, American reactionary framing of Iran as backwards and uncivilized because of its “adherence” to Islam was also problematic in that it flattened diverse interpretations of Islam. In her article, “Iran’s Sexual Revolution,” Pardis Mahdavi argues that a new “sexual revolution,” emerging in Iran as a mode of resistance to the Islamic Republic. She writes, “What began as a small movement seeking to shift attitudes about morality, comportment and sexuality in Tehran quickly broadened to a larger focus on the body, sociality, and comportment in opposition to what many young people view as a repressive regime.”[xxiii] This social movement, which consisted of everyday modes of resistance such as drinking, dancing, and not abiding by the dress code in Iran, was linked to the political Green movement, which also rejected aspects of the Islamic Republic. The existence of this internal resistance is not contradictory to my argument because I do not claim that the Islamic Republic of Iran does not treat its own population in questionable ways; instead, I argue that the Islam of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not necessarily the Islam of Iranian people. The Republic’s Islam is interpreted and enforced such that in recent years, Iranians have been criticizing the regime for having lost touch with the values of Islam.[xxiv] Therefore the Republic, and by extension the entirety of Iran, is inaccurately presented as an “Islamic” deviant terrorist and uncivilized threat.

It is useful to think about this particular construction of Iran as an “Islamic terrorist” threat in the context of Puar’s argument on homonormative-nationalism. Puar writes,

“the Orientalist invocation of the ‘terrorist’ is one discursive tactic that disaggregates US national gays and queers from racial and sexual ‘others’, foregrounding a collusion between homosexuality and American Nationalism that is generated both by national rhetorics of patriotic inclusion and by gay, lesbian, and queer subjects themselves: homo-nationalism.”[xxv]

Homo-nationalism positions queer Americans as citizens who only fully belong in the nation given that they make up for their deviance through homonormativity and patriotism. To create a narrative of Iran that is centered on its Islamic foundation, cultural and religious backwardness, and terrorism, is to prompt queer Americans to further stabilize its position as a racial and sexual “other.” This view of Iran being so popular that even scholars express sentiments like:

[A]s the Islamic Republic of Iran tries to give meaning to the pronoun Islamic,

its laws ban the practice of same gender sex, and in case of four strikes you are out –death awaits the sinner…

Here, Iran becomes a terrorist threat not only by way of nuclear weapons, but by its deviant response to non-normative sexual populations.[xxvi] Puar writes, “Many gays and queers identified with the national populace as ‘victims of terrorism’ by naming gay and queer-bashing as a form of terrorism; some claimed it was imperative to support the war on terrorism in order to ‘liberate’ homosexuals in the Middle East.”[xxvii] In this way, homo-nationalism links terrorism and queer identity such that it reveals itself as being as much about creating an evil enemy other (and “saving” its victims), as it is about keeping track of and control over its own sexually deviant population.

These developments are only about a decade and a half in the making. As I have noted, it was in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution and in the wake of 9/11 that Iran-US relations changed such that Iran became a dual threat: through heightened “terrorist” activity and its rejection standards of global citizenship.[xxviii] When President Ahmadinejad boldly and unapologetically denied the existence of “homosexuals” in Iran, he both acknowledged and rejected the notion that states’ “political power, their legitimacy, indeed their standing as global citizens, are bound up with how they recognize and then treat ‘their’ gay citizens.”[xxix] By being placed outside of a modern, civilized, and global citizenship, Iran has undermined the value and validity of the very notion of “citizenship.” Furthermore, it is possible to understand modes of living in Iran as radically different from but not necessarily less “civilized” than modes of living in the US, as well as to see spaces that emerge out of what the US may deem “backwards,” which could create new possibilities for gender non-conforming people the world over.[xxx] To approach the matter this way is to challenge not only how the US views Iran, but how queer Americans relate to the US and the ways in which it contains their sexual “deviance” in a heteronormative system.


[i] Katherine M. Franke “Dating the State: The Moral Hazards of Winning Gay Rights” (Columbia Human Rights Law Review 44:1, February 2012) 35

[ii] Jasbir K. Puar “Mapping US Homonormativities” (Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 13:1, 67-88, February 2006) 67

[iii] Puar, 68

[iv] Lisa Duggan quote from “The new homonormativity: the sexual politics of neoliberalism”, in: Russ Castronovo & Dana, D. Nelson (Eds) Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2002

[v] Katz, Jonathan Ned. “The Invention of Heterosexuality,” Socialist Review

20:1 (Jan-March 1990): 14-15

[vi] “Text of President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company, 29 Jan. 2002. Web.

[vii] The Washington Post

[viii] Shaul Shay. The Axis of Evil: Iran, Hizballah, and the Palestinian Terror. (Transaction Publishers. 2005) 1

[ix] Ervan Abrahamian, Bruce Cummings; Moshe. Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran, and Syria. (The New Press, 2006) 97

[x] Abrahamian et al., Inventing the Axis of Evil, 97

[xi] Abrahamian, 98

[xii] Shay, The Axis of Evil, 10

[xiii] “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Speech to Columbia University 24 September 2007.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web.

[xiv] Franke, “Dating the State,” 21

[xv] Franke, 33

[xvi] Franke, 18-20

[xvii] Franke, 5

[xviii] Franke, 35

[xix] Franke, 34-35

[xx] Najmabadi, Afsaneh. Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (Duke University Press 2014) 1

[xxi] Najmabadi, 7

[xxii] Najmabadi, 121

[xxiii] Mahdavi, Pardis “Iran’s Sexual Revolution” in Introducing the New Sexuality Studies by Steven Steidman, Nancy Fischer, and Chet Meeks. (Routledge 2011) 411

[xxiv] Mahdavai, 414

[xxv] Puar, 67

[xxvi] Floore, Willem M., A Social History of Sexual Relations in Iran. (Mage Publisher 2008) 365

[xxvii] Puar, 70

[xxviii] As Puar argues, “Discourses of terrorism are thus intrinsic to the management not only of race…[but] to the modulation and surveillance of sexuality, indeed a range of sexualities, within and outside the US nation’s parameters.” (Puar, 85)

[xxix] Franke, 4

[xxx] Najmabadi,4








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