On Tuesday, Italy hosted an unusual guest: Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran, who is touring Europe this week as part of his post–nuclear deal campaign to generate goodwill and economic ties in the West.
The trip generally seemed to go well, with Rouhani and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi giving a joint press conference in the city's palatial Musei Capitolini to announce trade deals on infrastructure, energy, and automobiles worth $18 billion.
But the story that emerged from the trip is not one of trade deals or thawing Iranian-European ties. Rather, it is a story about art, cultural sensitivities, and the dual terrors of the Islamic Republic of Iran and political correctness.
Ostensibly the story is about whether Italy was right to add modesty covers to nude statues on display in the Musei Capitolini during Rouhani's visit. But, as is so often the case with controversies over Iran, the nominal subject isn't the real issue.
This conflagration of hot takes is not really primarily about proper diplomatic statue etiquette, but rather is about whether Iran should be accepted into the community of nations at all. For some, even the slightest hint of acquiescence to Iranian sensitivities is the first step in what they fear will be an actual Western surrender of all its interests, and perhaps the entire Middle East, to the unquenchable hostility of the evil Iranian regime. To those who hold that hawkish view, covering the statues brings us closer to disaster.
The story of the statues and the white boxes
Rouhani said his team had no previous talks on #boxgate but said Italians are hospitable & this is a media issue. pic.twitter.com/h9BS8FhMjC— Arash Karami (@thekarami) January 27, 2016
Here is what happened: As reporters filed into the Musei Capitolini for the press conference, they noticed that many of the museum's nude statues, works of art that are rightly regarded as national and global treasures, had been covered by large white boxes.
It looked as if Italian authorities had covered up the nude statues out of respect for Rouhani, so as to his make his delegation more comfortable and avoid giving offense.
The outrage was immediate: Italians fumed that their government had humiliated itself, compromising national heritage and core national values to appease this foreigner's anti-Italian backwardness.
"This isn’t respect, it’s canceling out differences and it’s a kind of surrender," Luca Squeri, a lawmaker with Silvio Berlusconi's center-right party, said. Another called it an "act of submission." Italian newspapers ran furious headlines. A viral Italian cartoon suggested that Italy should've instead placed the white boxes over Rouhani's head to spare him from seeing the statues.
The outrage quickly extended to the US as well. Particularly those who had opposed the Iran nuclear deal and other baby steps toward a US-Iran thaw expressed outrage, warning that the West was "kowtow[ing] to Iran," inviting terror attacks, and perhaps surrendering Western civilization itself:
In order to be sensitive to other cultures, we have to destroy our own. Obvi. https://t.co/Ju7F1Y2NWo— Michael B Dougherty (@michaelbd) January 27, 2016
Covering up those statues is very bad—Italy painted itself as ripe for terror threats from Iran axis. Just as WH did by unforced appeasing.— Lee Smith (@LeeSmithTWS) January 26, 2016
Hey 'member that time the one-time heart of Western civilization covered its ancient treasures to woo a theocrat? https://t.co/6QPIFLy0ia— Oren Kessler (@OrenKessler) January 26, 2016
If you want to understand what drove opposition to the nuclear deal, look at this photo: https://t.co/8yzuHLVyan pic.twitter.com/Msuy7eJF8h— Brookings (@BrookingsInst) January 28, 2016
That Brookings link goes to an article warning, "The alacrity with which Italian leaders jettisoned their values and historical legacy in hopes of gaining some advantage in Iran's post-sanctions gold rush is precisely what nuclear deal opponents predicted and hoped to forestall."
A narrative quickly took shape: Iran, arrogant and overconfident, fresh from its conquest of the Middle East, demanded that Italy cover up the art as a show of national submission. Italy, which like so much of the West is eager to prostrate itself before an Iran that it should by any reasonable standard oppose, kowtowed without hesitation.
Italian civilization itself, if not all of Western civilization, had been brought crashing down by a man in a turban and a dick in a box.
Why this controversy is all a bit silly
Those crying foul over Italy's cowardly surrender to Iran's arrogant demands have overlooked one detail that is, arguably, quite significant: that no demands were ever made, and no surrender ever happened.
Rouhani said his government did not request the white boxes. He offered instead a diplomatically vague expression of gratitude. "I know that Italians are a very hospitable people, a people who try to do the most to put their guests at ease, and I thank you for this," he said.
Italy's culture minister also said neither he nor Renzi had asked for the statues to be covered, and called the decision "incomprehensible." It's thus something of a mystery, though some Italian media speculate that overzealous lower-level Italian officials made the decision.
But there's a far bigger reason why it's hard to take the outrage here seriously. In October, just three months earlier, a high-ranking United Arab Emirates government official traveled to Florence on an official visit. Renzi's government covered up a nude statue at their meeting place. Outrage over that incident was minimal. It did not become a major international news story.
So, to be clear, the exact same thing happened two times within three months. The first incident involved an Emirati visitor, the second an Iranian visitor. Only the latter became such an enormous controversy. Which suggests that the real issue is not that the statues were covered, nor that they were covered in consideration for a visiting Muslim political leader, but rather that they were covered for Iran.
As Arash Karami of Al-Monitor put it, "When Italy covered nude statues for UAE prince hardly made news. When they did it for Iran it's endless hot takes."
What the controversy here is really about
This is in many ways an extension of the American debate over the Iran nuclear deal, which itself never really turned on centrifuges or uranium but rather on the question of whether it was good or bad to take these initial baby steps toward thawing relations with Iran.
To the deal's opponents, the agreement was a disaster because it made America less likely to use military force against Iran, which they viewed as the only credible means by which the uniquely nefarious and irrational Iranians could ever be deterred.
The deal was also, they feared, a first step toward Obama's secret agenda of surrendering American interests in the Middle East to Iran. They viewed the weak-kneed Europeans as especially likely to cave, and to greedily seek trade deals that would put the final nail in the coffin of a Middle East free from Iranian domination.
In this view, even the slightest show of welcoming or friendship toward Iranian leaders is a disaster. Such amity, they fear, hastens the great Western surrender to the wily mullahs who are only pretending to be riven by deep internal divisions between moderates and hard-liners. So for Italy to put boxes over its statues is not just symbolic: It is a sign that Iran's growing power is already giving the country influence over even our most cherished cultural institutions.
What statues and sailors have in common
If this dynamic sounds familiar, it's because a similar kind of debate played out just two weeks ago, when Iran picked up a group of US sailors who had wandered into Iranian waters, detained them overnight, and then freed them the next day.
For Iran hawks, the sailors' brief detention was not an awkward diplomatic incident that was quickly and peacefully defused, but rather an unacceptable outrage because the US had responded with anything other than military threats or even military action.
To them, the US response was thus a unilateral American retreat from the proper position of maximal and unflinching belligerence toward Iran. It risked hastening America's unmistakable surrender to Tehran, as well as legitimizing Iran as just another nation state when, they believe, it can only be seen as an evil entity literally on par with Nazi Germany.
This is a dynamic that plays out again and again. To cite another recent example, a headline at Jerusalem Post, raising a separate controversy over Rouhani's Europe trip, really captured this perspective: "Knesset Speaker: Hypocritical of Italy, France to host Rouhani on Holocaust Memorial Day."
This, it seems to me, is sort of an odd argument. It was, in fact, Italy and France that helped commit the Holocaust! If anything, the headline should read, "Rouhani is hypocritical for visiting countries that committed the Holocaust, France and Italy, on Holocaust Memorial Day."
But it didn't, because the dispute was no more about Holocaust remembrance than the other debates were about statues or sailors. In this case, the reference to the Holocaust was really a reference to the fear that if Iran's integration allows it to become more powerful, it could bring danger to Israel and, by extension, to Jews. In other words, once again, this Iran argument is really about whether Iran's baby steps back into global integration are good or bad.
That's a valid and worthwhile argument, particularly given Iran's ever-growing and destructive role in the broader Middle East. But it's one we should have openly. Instead, we're arguing whether putting cardboard boxes over statues is a surrender of Western civilization, when it pretty plainly is not.