Still Misreading Tehran


Iran's Green RevolutionForeign Policy has a series this month entitled “Misreading Tehran” in which “Leading Iranian-American writers revisit a year of dreams and discouragement” that is quite interesting. The introduction describes how “the Western media was presented with a sweeping, dramatic story” after the June 12, 2009 presidential election in Iran. “It was a story that seemed to write itself. But it was also a story that the West – and the American media in particular – was destined to get wrong in ways both large and small.”

It proceeds to blame this media failure on Iran’s repressive crackdown on journalists, but does leave other possible explanations open in concluding that the purpose of the series is to revisit “the hype and hope” and find answers to “why so many of us got it so wrong.”

The first article in the series is entitled “What the West Isn’t Hearing About“, by Azadeh Moaveni. It basically reiterates the explanation that getting “the real story” is “virtually impossible” because of Iran’s crackdown on journalists. This is why we are “in danger of misreading Tehran”. It then acknowledges that “the Western media seemed to overinflate the Green Movement, declaring a ‘revolution’ and pumping up the expectation for regime change beyond all reasonable hope”.

Prominent among those who hyped the opposition movement was Andrew Sullivan, blogging at the Atlantic, and Reza Aslan at the Daily Beast. “While journalism that favors the Iranian government’s view of events tends to overlook uncomfortable truths about the opposition, stories that overhyped the Green Movement’s potential were no less careless with the facts.”

Moaveni then asks “who do we trust?” and proceeds to list “Voice of America, BBC Persian TV, and news websites like Rooz”, as well as “the handful of news sites operating in Iran that are linked to the opposition”  – in other words, all the principle sources responsible for hyping the opposition movement and propagating the claim that Ahmadinejad had stolen the election, that were responsible for “overinflating” the situation by being “careless with the facts”. Yes, we should trust those sources, because their bias is the right kind of bias.

Moaveni concludes by suggesting that “it would be unfortunate indeed if Western journalists, with whatever good intentions, faltered in their understanding of Iran”. Indeed.

Not everyone got it wrong on the election and the opposition movement. I was writing at the time about how the Western media was overinflating the Green Movement and propagating false claims about a stolen election. So were Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, and a handful of others who refused to jump on that bandwagon. Some of us got it right, so you can’t very well attribute that “misreading” to Tehran’s repression of journalists.

The second article in the series is entitled “What We Got Wrong” by none other than Reza Aslan, one of those leading figures responsible for hyping the opposition movement and propagating the claim of a stolen election.

Aslan acknowledges that “the media (and I include myself in that epithet) had a difficult time grasping the meaning of what came to be called the Green Movement.” He admits that “we had no idea who these people really were and what they really wanted.” He admits “it has been so easy to foist upon it our own ideological leanings, our own desires for Iran”. The opposition movement was “an empty vessel to be filled with our dreams. Its goals became our goals, its agenda our agenda. And so when it failed to do what we wanted – when winter came and the demonstrations dissipated, the regime endured….”

Aslan thus admits his own bias – his desire for regime change in Iran. Yet, apparently not content in completely setting aside his own admitted delusion, he concludes that “there is just as much reason to believe that the memory of last year’s struggle will reinvigorate the Green Movement as there is that the movement will fade into history as just another failed attempt to challenge the hegemony of the Iranian regime.”

That statement itself contains another delusion: that the opposition had set out “to challenge the hegemony of the Iranian regime”. With Mir Hossein Mousavi being the movement’s leading figure? Hardly. Well, you can’t blame the guy for dreaming. Can you? Well, actually, when he reports his delusional fantasies as fact, yes, you can.

The third in the series is “Iran’s Hidden Cyberhijad” by Abbas Milani. This one is pretty unremarkable. It mostly remains on the theme of government repression and attempts to severely curtail freedom of speech. But one sentence stands out: “There is also strong evidence pointing to the continued vibrancy of the country’s democratic movement that goes almost completely unnoted.” What evidence? Please, do tell. Oh. Milani offers none.

See, Milani is like Aslan, having projected his own hopes and dreams for Iran upon the opposition movement. Most notably, note the description of the opposition as the “democratic” movement (if you have any doubts Milani refers to the “Green Movement” here, you can dispel them by reading here). This is a holdover from the claims that Ahmadinejad had stolen the election. But if Ahmadinejad legitimately won, wouldn’t that, by the same logic, make the opposition the “undemocratic” movement? Doh!

The next piece in the series, “A Forgotten Civil Society“, is an interview of Azar Nafisi by Britt Peterson. Nafisi explains how Iranians got their news in large part from “watching the Western media” – which certainly goes a long way to explain why so many in the opposition movement came to believe that the election had been stolen.

Next is “What We Got Right” by Nazila Fathi, which opines that “Against terrible odds, the foreign media did a remarkable job covering the last year’s turmoil in Iran”. Oh really! What, by claiming the election was stolen and suggesting the opposition movement sought to fundamentally change the mechanisms of the ruling regime?

With journalists in Iran overcoming brutal repression and death threats, “the media has done a remarkable job in properly identifying the enormity of the past year’s events. The Green Movement has, indeed, shaken the very core of the Islamic Republic.” But, uh, didn’t those other articles already acknowledge that was a load of hype? Doh! So what was it you got right?

Fathi continues: “We managed to do so” – to get it right, that is – “because so many of the most important developments were observable from afar.” The example is given of “when former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani openly allied with top candidates Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karrobi” against Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. When Rafsanjani “withheld his condemnation of the protests … the Western media knew this was a sign of deep division in the ruling establishment.”

Deep division, huh? Recall this is the same Moussavi who was Prime Minister from 1981 until 1989, during which time Rafsanjani was the Chairman of the Parliament. They worked together to arrange for secret arms transfers from the U.S. in what became known as the “Iran-Contra Affair”.

This is the kind of “deep division” we see in the U.S. establishment when yay-nay votes on a piece of legislation are split down party lines. We’re not talking revolution here. Mousavi hardly represented a possibility for fundamental change in the regime.

Haleh Esfandiari begs to differ in the next piece, entitled “The Real Impact of the Elections“, in which she describes the election as “a real race centering on the issue of significant change versus the status quo”. One example of this “significant change” was the more prominent role of women in the campaign, with Mousavi’s wife accompanying him, giving interviews, and addressing crowds herself, and Mehdi Karrubi announcing that he would appoint a woman as foreign minister if he won. Esfandiari neglects another important example of this significant change – the first woman minister since the Islamic Revolution, appointed by Ahmadinejad.

Another “significant change” was that “Commentators understandably assumed that the vote would not see massive fraud” because in previous elections, “tampering with the vote count did not take place on a significant scale.” Esfandiari then repeats the claim: “On this occasion, however, massive vote fraud appears to have occurred.”

Evidence? When the results were announced, Ahmadinejad had “an improbable majority of over 60 percent”. I’ve addressed this argument at length in this article and elsewhere, so won’t repeat it here, but basically both the record from the 2005 election and numerous public opinion surveys show that this margin of victory for Ahmadinejad was in fact quite probable.

The final piece in the series, “The Twitter Devolution” by Golnaz Esfandiari, repeats the claim of “Ahmadinejad’s apparent theft of last June’s elections.” Evidence? None.

Oh, there’s one other interesting thing about this piece. Remember bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Nico Pitney at the Huffington Post and such, who relied so prominently upon Twitter for what they said were accounts coming out of Iran in what was described then as a “Twitter Revolution” (remember “#iranelection”)?

Uh, yeah, this article points out finally (as others of us did at the time) that “There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran”. It was mostly “Americans tweeting among themselves”, and otherwise Iranians outside of Iran creating all the “buzz”. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.” Well, not exactly “no one” – but close enough.

An “honest accounting of Twitter’s role in Iran would also note its pernicious complicity in allowing rumors to spread” – a fact I pointed out at the time – including rumors about the horribly brutal nature of the regime’s crackdown on protesters; not that it wasn’t horribly brutal enough without the hoaxes – but Esfandiari’s point remains all the same.

In short, the “Misreading Tehran” series acknowledges that the media over-hyped the “Green Movement”, but continues to propagate the myth of it being somehow a revolutionary one, and, even more grievously, it continues to propagate the claim, without evidence, that Ahmadinejad stole the 2009 election. In sum, “Misreading Tehran” is yet a further example of how the media is misreading Tehran.

As Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett point out, in a response also published at Foreign Policy, “Foreign Policy’s seven-part series, ‘Misreading Tehran,’ is, for the most part, a disappointing example of the phenomenon it purports to explain – inaccurate interpretations of Iranian politics surrounding the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009, presidential election.”

More of their correct assessment is worth quoting at length:

It is certainly true that much of the American media — including some of the writers featured in the “Misreading Tehran” series — got the story of Iranian politics over the last year spectacularly wrong. But that was hardly destiny. That so many got it so wrong is not the result of a “proverbial perfect storm of obstacles in producing calm, reasonable reporting about the events in Iran,” as the prologue suggests. The real culprit was — and, unfortunately, still is — willfully bad journalism and analysis, motivated in at least some cases by writers’ personal political agendas.

In fact, it was possible to get the story right, and some did so. (At the risk of seeming immodest, we count ourselves among them.) It was also entirely possible for those who got the story so wrong to have gotten it right — but, to do so, they would have had to care more about reality and analytic truth than their personally preferred political outcomes or having a “sexier” story to sell.

From literally the morning after the election, the vast majority of Western journalists and U.S.-based Iran “experts” rushed to judgment that the outcome had to have been the result of fraud. These journalists and commentators largely succeeded in turning the notion of a fraudulent election in Iran into a “social fact” in the United States — just as journalists like Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times, and “experts” like Kenneth Pollack, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, helped turn myths about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction into “social facts” before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But there has never been a shred of hard evidence offered to back up the assertion of electoral fraud. For many, a “preliminary analysis” of the official results by University of St. Andrews Iranian studies professor Ali Ansari and two collaborators, published by Chatham House nine days after the election, was taken as scholarly ratification for an already dominant Western narrative about what had happened. But the extent of the evidentiary and analytic flaws in the Chatham House report is breathtaking. Don’t just take our word for it. We refer anyone who is interested to two impressively meticulous and thorough reviews of the 2009 election process and results. One, by two Iranian scholars living outside the Islamic Republic, systematically goes through all the points adduced by Ansari and his collaborators — alleged irregularities and anomalies in voter turnout, the sourcing of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s votes, the alleged underperformance of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi (an ethnic Azeri) in Azeri-majority provinces and his fellow disappointed presidential hopeful Mehdi Karroubi in his home province, perceptions of statistical anomalies in the official results, etc. — and offers devastatingly persuasive rejoinders on every point.

The other paper, by Eric Brill, an American lawyer, also offers a powerful refutation to Ansari and his colleagues about the official results. But Brill goes on to review the various complaints about the electoral process and results that have been widely alleged — though never in any formal or documented way — by Mousavi and his supporters: registered observers turned away or later ordered to leave, Mousavi votes thrown away, ballot boxes stuffed with Ahmadinejad votes, pens with disappearing ink, and vote counts either misreported from the field or altered once they reached the Interior Ministry in Tehran.

Brill dismantles all these allegations. He also underscores a critically important point: To this day, Mousavi has not identified a single polling station where any of this supposedly occurred. During our most recent visit to Tehran earlier this year, we spoke with Iranians who said they had voted for Mousavi (one had even worked for Mousavi’s campaign) and, when Mousavi charged afterward that there had been electoral fraud, turned out to protest in the first few days after June 12, 2009. But, when Mousavi failed to produce evidence substantiating his public claims, these people lost faith in him.

Why did the overwhelming majority of Western reporters covering the election and its aftermath not write about this? Why did most Western Iran “experts” not deem these facts worthy of inclusion in their analyses? We would suggest that the lack of evidence of electoral fraud did not fit with the narrative that these reporters and analysts preferred — that the election had been “stolen” from a resurgent reform movement and handed to the deeply unpopular incumbent, backed by a supreme leader whose authoritarian bent was now clearly on display. Some might have preferred that narrative because it fit their own political preferences, others because it garnered more attention than a straightforward “Ahmadinejad seems to have a popular base after all” narrative would have attracted. In any event — and notwithstanding Nazila Fathi’s curious assertion of the Western media’s “remarkable job in properly identifying the enormity of the past year’s events” — simply following normal practices of evidence-based reporting and analysis would have produced very different coverage of the election than we got from most Western media outlets and commentators.

And there you have it.

Like what you're reading?

Sign up now to keep up with my latest work and receive exclusive subscriber-only content.

You can unsubscribe at any time, and I respect your privacy (I hate spam, too).

What do you think? Share your comments!