What We Got Right

Against terrible odds, the foreign media did a remarkable job covering the last year's turmoil in Iran.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Ten days after last summer’s presidential election, I received a call from a sympathetic member of the Basij, the pro-government militia force, warning that I would be shot by snipers if I continued going out. Sixteen agents were already outside my apartment building, where they stayed for three days until I finally decided to leave the country. Those threats and intimidation were part of a concerted campaign by the Iranian government, as chaos descended after the election, to prevent information from leaving the country and reaching the outside world. Visiting journalists were expelled; resident journalists were barred from stepping outside their offices. Those who disobeyed, as I did, faced frightening consequences. All of us watched as our sources — the roster of sympathetic Iranian analysts and insiders — were rounded up and jailed. And the regime spared nothing in amplifying its own propaganda, declaring the post-election protests a plot masterminded by outside enemies.

But despite those all the obstacles put in its way, 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. The country is polarized and the regime’s legitimacy has been compromised. All of this, the Western media — at least, those of us who had any real experience covering Iran — got largely right.

We managed to do so because so many of the most important developments were observable from afar. For instance, when former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani openly allied with top candidates Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karrobi (and against incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his backer, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) in the run-up to the election, experienced reporters knew to pay attention.  Rafsanjani, a man described by a fellow regime insider as "one of the two owners of the revolution, along with Ayatollah Khamenei," has long had the reputation of being one of the most reliable barometers of Iran’s prevailing political winds.

When Rafsanjani, at the Friday prayer services he lead in July, withheld his condemnation of the protests, to the delight of the Green Movement and in defiance of Khamenei, the Western media knew this was a sign of a deep division in the ruling establishment. (Rafsanjani has subsequently faced the wrath of regime hard-liners, who have issued an arrest warrant for his son, summoned his daughter to court, jailed other members of his family, and threatened to dismiss him from his post atop the Assembly of Experts, the council that has institutional authority over Khamenei.)

The unprecedented cracks in the rulings elite revealed themselves in other ways, if you knew where to look. Informed Iran-watchers knew that Khamenei had reason to harbor deep personal antipathy for the Green Movement. He and Moussavi, the movement’s ostensible leader, had a bitter rivalry throughout the 1980s, when Mousavi served as prime minister and Khamenei was president. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic founder of the revolution, often intervened in their disputes to support Moussavi. He even blocked Ayatollah Khameni from ousting Moussavi in 1985.  Both before and after the election, outlets like the Financial Times and the Economist explored the tension and rivalry between the two men.

Of course, Iran’s ban on on-the-ground reporting — and its jailing of veteran analysts — meant that certain important aspects of the burgeoning Green Movement were inaccessible to the Western media. The Western media was often late or absent in reporting on the positions of and discussions among senior clerics, which are often shrouded in secrecy. The foreign media did report the increasing gap between senior moderate clerics in Qom with Ayatollah Khamenei. But it failed to report a February trip by Grand Ayatollah Abdolkarim Moussavi Ardebili, a senior cleric and head of the judiciary after the 1979 revolution, from Qom to Tehran to visit Ayatollah Khamenei. Persian language websites later reported that Ardebili himself emphasized it was the first time in 17 years that he had made such a trip. "Your failure is the failure of the revolution, Islam and the Shiites," Ardebili was quoted as saying. Ayatollah Khamenei’s refusal to accept the grand ayatollah’s two requests — to release the political prisoners and to distance himself from the hard-liners around Ahmadinejad — was understood among clerics as a rebuke to moderates in Qom and an endorsement of the arrests of nearly a dozen of the children and grandchildren of senior clerics there last summer. By contrast, Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpaygani, one of the most influential clerics in Qom, has hosted dissident clerics repeatedly in recent months at his home. These were important testimonies to how critical the political situation had become, but the Western media missed them.

Going forward, the West should try to avoid making a final misreading. The movement’s lack of ability to muster large protests as it did last summer does not mean the movement is dead. Yes, the movement lacks leadership and a political agenda. But it has retained its vitality in the past year in the face of increasing brutality. Even if the government manages to end the protests, in the same way that it suppressed the student protests in 1999 and 2003, they will only emerge again on a larger scale.

In this way, Western commentators should not be so dismissive of all the Iranians around the world trying to make a difference. The Iranian diaspora, for the first time in three decades, has become politically engaged. Many of these Iranians are in contact with relatives back home and get important first-hand information. And they have raised funds to help activists who were forced to flee the country and have formed networks like United4Iran to publicize human rights violations by the government. In the long term, these are things that can make an important difference.

Western journalists were right last summer in insisting that the events in Iran were a momentous event. They would still be right if they claimed the same thing today.

 Twitter: @nazilafathi

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