Who’s Really Misreading Tehran?
Wishful thinking and bad analysis has inflated Iran's Green Movement into something it certainly is not: a viable alternative to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
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. Such misinterpretation has had a deeply corrosive effect on the debate about America’s Iran policy.
The series starts with an egregious misstatement of reality in the introduction setting up the articles that follow: "When Iranians took to the streets the day after they cast their ballots for president, the Western media was presented with a sweeping, dramatic story…. 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 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.
Poor coverage of the election paved the way for even worse coverage of the "Green Movement" that followed. The description of Western reporting on the so-called "Twitter Revolution" offered in one of the articles in the "Misreading Tehran" series (Golnaz Esfandiari’s "The Twitter Devolution") zeroes in on the kind of journalistic and analytic malpractice that characterized much of the Western coverage of the Green Movement:
"Before one of the major Iranian protests of the past year, a journalist in Germany showed me a list of three prominent Twitter accounts that were commenting on the events in Tehran and asked me if I knew the identities of the contributors. I told her I did, but she seemed disappointed when I told her that one of them was in the United States, one was in Turkey, and the third — who specialized in urging people to ‘take to the streets’ — was based in Switzerland…. Western journalists who couldn’t reach — or didn’t bother reaching? — people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets posted with tag #iranelection. 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."
Why did no one wonder? Perhaps taking note of that fact would have gotten in the way of an otherwise exciting story line. An apparently similar dynamic drove the failure of Western journalists and analysts to take note of the Green Movement’s obvious decline — until it reached a point earlier this year when even Reza Aslan, other ardent Green Movement partisans, and their fellow travelers in the media started to have difficulties publicly explaining the movement’s increasingly manifest inability to marshal meaningful public displays of its strength.
If one were actually prepared to look soberly at facts on the ground, this trend was readily discernible from early on. We correctly predicted the Green Movement’s decline in a Politico article in late June 2009, barely two weeks after the election. We continued to chart the Green Movement’s decline in a September 2009 New York Times op-ed, multiple blog posts during the fall, and another New York Times op-ed in January — in which we correctly predicted that the Feb. 11 anniversary of the Islamic Republic’s founding would be a bust for the opposition. Any one of the journalists and commentators who, even on the eve of Feb. 11, were confidently predicting that massive protests that day would mark the "beginning of the end" of the Islamic Republic could have gotten this story right. But they would have to have cared more about reality and analytic truth than in promoting a personally preferred political outcome or story line.
Now, even in the context of what is supposed to be an exercise in self-criticism, Green Movement partisans in the media and commentariat are constructing artful arguments asserting they did not actually get anything wrong. In the "Misreading Tehran" series, Fathi finally acknowledges the Green Movement’s "lack of ability to muster large protests as it did last summer" and its lack of "leadership and a political agenda," while Aslan admits that the movement failed "to do what we wanted." Nevertheless, Fathi and Aslan continue to argue that these things do not call into question the movement’s political significance. Fathi and Aslan are entitled to their opinions, but we challenge them and others with similar views to explain why the ability to marshal popular support, define a coherent agenda, and pursue that agenda in an effective manner should not be the essential standard for assessing the significance of a social movement purporting to seek fundamental political change — in Iran or anywhere else.
Such skewed analyses of the Green Movement and the Islamic Republic’s internal politics have had a profoundly corrosive effect on the Obama administration’s Iran policy, derailing what was, even before June 12, 2009, a shaky and strategically amorphous interest in engaging Tehran. Indeed, since manufactured claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction led the United States to invade Iraq in 2003, no analytic line has had a more damaging impact on U.S. foreign policy than ungrounded assertions about fraud in Iran’s 2009 presidential election and the Green Movement’s supposedly inexorable momentum.
Three weeks before the Iranian election, in another New York Times op-ed, we argued that U.S. President Barack Obama’s professed interest in engagement was at risk of implosion. More specifically, Obama’s fledgling engagement policy was at risk because he was unwilling to take tangible steps — e.g., publicly renouncing regime change, calling off covert-action programs launched under his predecessor George W. Bush to destabilize the Islamic Republic, and privately communicating U.S. willingness to accept uranium enrichment in Iran as part of an overall settlement of the nuclear issue — that would demonstrate his seriousness about realigning U.S.-Iranian relations. Obama would not even respond to a congratulatory letter from Ahmadinejad (which, Ahmadinejad has told us, was "unprecedented" and "not easy to get done" on his side), instead sending a vague and nonsubstantive letter to the supreme leader — another iteration, in a failed pattern dating from Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, of U.S. administrations trying to create channels to individual Iranian leaders rather than dealing with the Islamic Republic as a system.
Widespread misreporting of the Iranian election and almost universally inaccurate portrayals of the Green Movement undercut those in the Obama administration who wanted to put more substance behind Obama’s rhetorical outreach to the Iranian leadership. As a result, the White House has retreated to a public posture claiming that it tried to engage Tehran but Tehran was not interested — as evidenced by its "rejection" of the so-called Baradei proposal (named for former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei) for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor, put forward in October 2009. But Tehran did not "reject" the Baradei proposal; the Iranian government said authoritatively and publicly that it accepted the proposal in principle, but wanted to negotiate specific details. It was, in fact, the Obama administration that defined the Baradei proposal as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition — something that ElBaradei himself said publicly should not have been done. The administration has just pushed a new round of sanctions through the U.N. Security Council, even though no one in the administration thinks these sanctions will constructively affect Iranian decision-making.
Flawed analysis of Iranian politics also created the illusion of an alternative to serious, strategically grounded diplomacy with the Islamic Republic — an illusion that the Green Movement would somehow produce an Iranian political order that would be much easier for Washington to deal with. (That "regime change" would be easy and strategically transformational was, of course, also part of the bill of goods sold to the American public about Iraq.) Once everyone is forced to admit that the latest round of U.N. sanctions and further unilateral measures by various national governments are not stopping Iran’s nuclear development, Obama and his advisors may well decide that the only politically defensible alternative to military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets is formal adoption of regime change as the goal of America’s Iran policy.
It is still possible to stop such a tragic repetition of history — but only if people are prepared to abandon self-gratifying or self-serving illusions about Iran and face reality square in the face.