In Other Words

Misreading Tehran

Leading Iranian-American writers revisit a year of dreams and discouragement.


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. After a vigorous election campaign, the country saw an unprecedented turnout of voters on June 12, 2009. When the government announced a prohibitive winner — the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — just after the polls closed, millions of Iranians who felt their votes hadn’t been counted took to the streets to protest. The government responded with violence and sweeping arrests. The leading opposition candidate former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who had spent the campaign trying to prove his reformist bona fides, suddenly embraced the role of civil rights leader, urging his supporters not to back down. The protests continued for months, as did the crackdowns: Dozens were killed, hundreds were placed before show trials, and many were thrown into prison and tortured. With the entire world watching, Iran faced its greatest crisis since the 1979 revolution.

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.

Journalists faced the proverbial perfect storm of obstacles in producing calm, reasonable reporting about the events in Iran. Soon after the election, the Iranian government revoked all the press passes of visiting foreign reporters, forcing them to leave the country immediately. Some journalists with permanent residences in Tehran were told not to leave their offices, while others were arrested seemingly at random. The government slowed Internet access to a crawl and shut down the country’s cell phone and telephone networks for long stretches at a time. Meanwhile, audiences in Washington have proven to be less receptive to hearing nuances of Iran’s internal debates, as the tense nuclear standoff between Ahmadinejad and the West has dominated all discussion, often drowning out street-level stories about the long-term viability of the Green Movement or the social and cultural aftermath of the past year’s brutal crackdown.

With a full 12 months now between us and the election, the time is ripe to start revisiting the hype and hope in a year of writing: which stories were overblown, what stories were missed entirely, and what can be gleaned about Iran’s annus horribilis from a more thorough understanding. FP asked seven prominent Iranian-Americans, deeply immersed in both the English- and Persian-language media, to look through the fog of journalism at what actually happened in Tehran — and why so many of us got it so wrong.


“What the West Isn’t Hearing About,” By Azadeh Moaveni
To understand the big stories of the last year in Iran, we need better access to the little stories.

“What We Got Wrong,” By Reza Aslan
How the media both overestimated and underestimated the Green Movement.

“Iran’s Hidden Cyberjihad,” By Abbas Milani
Taking a cue from the Soviets, the regime is creating a new Iron Curtain — online.

“A Forgotten Civil Society,” Azar Nafisi, Interview by Britt Peterson
Reading Lolita in Tehran‘s Azar Nafisi discusses Iran’s cultural crisis — and how the West got it wrong.

“What We Got Right,” By Nazila Fathi
Against terrible odds, the foreign media did a remarkable job covering the past year’s turmoil in Iran.

“The Real Impact of the Elections,” By Haleh Esfandiari
Far from being a wipeout, the Green Movement was a historic success. Too bad no one was watching.

“The Twitter Devolution,” By Golnaz Esfandiari
Far from being a tool of revolution in Iran over the last year, the Internet, in many ways, just complicated the picture.

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