To understand the big stories of the last year in Iran, we need better access to the little stories.
In July 2009, the Tehran fixer for a non-Western TV network had his hand chopped off with a machete by a pro-Iranian regime militant. His bosses stayed quiet: They knew if they spoke up, the Iranian authorities would shut down their bureau.
This was no isolated tragedy. In the year since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection sent millions of protesters into the streets of Tehran in what came to be known as the Green Movement, journalists have found increasingly formidable obstacles to doing their job. Getting the real story out of Iran today is virtually impossible.
Instead, we are all — to one degree or another — in danger of misreading Tehran. And if at first the Western media seemed to overinflate the Green Movement, declaring a "revolution" and pumping up the expectation for regime change beyond all reasonable hope, some of what we’re reading now is what the Iranian government wants us to read: a portrait of a quiescent country whose recent unrest was merely an irrelevant temper tantrum by sushi-eating, Chanel-clad north Tehran. Sadly, reporters who underplay the serious repression still present in Tehran — whether those intimidated by the government, or those simply seeking better access or the ability to move more freely — provide powerful ammunition to analysts in Washington who may now be tempted to dismiss Iran’s Green Movement as a construct of deluded partisan journalists. This dangerous dynamic — compromised journalism abetting a security establishment that would prefer to focus on Iran’s nuclear confrontation with the outside world instead — seriously threatens to undermine the West’s ability to engage with both the Islamic Republic and the opposition on the basis of an honest picture of Iranian society.
When I last lived in Tehran in the mid-2000s, working as a journalist veered between the precarious and the harrowing. During relaxed periods, government officials scolded me for reporting on subjects they found embarrassing or inconvenient. They offered tea and pastry, but the steely message behind the Persian politeness was clear: Heed the red lines if you want to stay accredited. When the government felt vulnerable, civility vanished. In one especially unpleasant year, I was trailed by a hook-nosed security agent, bullied to inform on my sources, and threatened with prosecution for "endangering national security." That was all before the summer of 2009, when the Iranian government faced the most serious challenge to its rule since the 1979 revolution.
Now, the situation is far worse. Foreign reporters in Iran, whether permanently or temporarily, must constantly worry that their stories will provoke arrests or worse. Government filters on websites mean journalists spend hours fiddling with filter-busting software instead of reporting. Phones have always been tapped, but anxiety now runs so high that journalists cannot use their cell phones or office lines to call sensitive sources. The situation is so bad that even some journalists accredited to work in Iran have elected to move to nearby cities like Dubai or Beirut. Those who stay, or those who visit, end up occasionally producing pieces like one that recently appeared on the website of this magazine by Hooman Majd (who served as the official interpreter for Ahmadinejad during his 2006 United Nations visit). His oddly anesthetized dispatch from Tehran argued that the government enjoys widespread support in its quest for nuclear energy. But this is an unreasonable assertion — and one that would have been much harder to make in the days when independent writers were able to gather Tehran ground truth for themselves. I remember well, for example, the reaction when Ahmadinejad launched his "nuclear energy is our absolute right" slogan in 2005: Mocking graffiti enumerating all the other things that were Iranians’ "absolute right" went up across the low-slung walls of Tehran. My favorite example: the "right" to Danish pastry (the government had renamed this ubiquitous confection "Flower of Mohammad" pastry after the Danish cartoon furor). Few today have the opportunity to make even such a modest reality check. Instead, we are left with pieces like Majd’s, which feed right into Washington’s dominant national-security establishment view of the Green Movement as a mere distraction from the more pressing nuclear crisis.
With reporters on the ground so compromised by self-censorship, our ability to get a decent read of public opinion in Iran, let alone any smart, rigorously reported insight into domestic politics — the opposition’s strategy, the displeasure of the ayatollahs in Qom, the establishment’s discomfiture at the prospect of sanctions — is nonexistent. Even small, telling stories have become too sensitive to report, like the post-election defection of young journalists from Press TV (the government’s English-language TV network) or the distressing rise of so-called "experimental hires" as firms exploit young people’s desperation for jobs to extract months of unpaid work under the false premise of a trial period. Reporters for the Western media in Tehran have either failed to notice these stories or declined to cover them for the sake of retaining their credentials. I heard about them from a journalist friend in Tehran. I hope he’s saving his notes.
On-the-ground reporting, of course, isn’t the only way to tackle what’s happening in Tehran. Reporter Borzou Daragahi recently argued in the Los Angeles Times for the supreme value of being there — without noting that his own significant stories (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) were mostly written from outside the country. Indeed, only from datelines like Toronto and Beirut did we learn about the government’s involvement in the killing of a suspected whistle-blower, an official campaign to terrorize dissident university students, and the rape and torture of protesters detained at Kahrizak prison.
But distance journalism has its risks too, as we saw immediately after the demonstrations. A rush of breathless stories in the early summer of 2009, written by journalists like the Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan, predicted a "Twitter Revolution," overlooking the opposition’s lack of real leadership and its supporters’ widely diverging aims. 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. The Western media’s failure to examine why the powerful force of those early protests diminished so steadily led to oversized expectations for turnout on the 22nd of Bahman, the February anniversary of the 1979 revolution. Analysts like the Daily Beast‘s Reza Aslan went so far as to suggest that Iran might be "on the brink of civil war." This hype meant that the real significance of the anniversary for the Green Movement — that so many people turned out at all, despite the massive lockdown of Tehran by security forces — was lost in a sense of anti-climactic bewilderment.
So who do we trust? The closest reflection of what is happening on the ground may be the independent Persian-language media, which despite some ideological biases tend to be more subtle and uncompromising than the Western press. Some of these, like Voice of America, BBC Persian TV, and news websites like Rooz, are based outside Iran; the handful of news sites operating in Iran that are linked to the opposition or the reformist minority in parliament play a delicate game with the authorities, who frequently shut them down. The most immediately noticeable difference in the dominant Persian-language coverage is that it takes for granted the opposition’s relevance and scale: While alternative viewpoints are explored, the need to repeatedly question the basic premise that the opposition is broad and strong does not arise.
Of course, this might be partly because Persian-language media outlets have their own interests. The outside TV networks often rely on interviews with journalists inside Iran whose reporting blurs the line with political activism. Still, the Persian-language media are the only place to read about opposition events that do not always rise to the level of international news: the ongoing crackdown on the group Mourning Mothers, women who assemble peacefully to demand state accountability for their children, detained or killed in post-election violence; the bold criticism of the regime recently launched by Iran’s most important and beloved musician, Mohammad Reza Shajarian. These stories have had enormous impact inside the country, alerting Iranians to the tenacity of the anti-government resistance, even in the cultural mainstream. If they were read more widely in the West, the slow moral erosion of the government in Iranians’ eyes might be clearer. But they are drowned out by more dramatic stories about protests and nuclear confrontations.
It is perhaps understandable that Western readers are less interested in granular details from Iran than in the broad geopolitical sweep of the last year. But the loss of these stories is still a travesty, for it obscures the extent to which the spirit of the opposition still rules Iran. Certainly, the Islamic Republic knows better than to underestimate the scale and depth of people’s disillusion and the swiftness with which inchoate grievances can be transformed into running street battles. A year after events so extraordinary that staid Tehran matrons found themselves setting fire to the barracks of Iran’s feared Basij paramilitary, it would be unfortunate indeed if Western journalists, with whatever good intentions, faltered in their understanding of Iran, when it is so obvious that the regime itself acknowledges the power of its foes.