The Iran That the Western Media Don’t Want You to See

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Lebanon last week, attracting huge crowds and what seemed like an overwhelmingly positive public response, many Western analysts dismissed the trip as a kind of cheap political trick, meant to distract attention from Ahmadinejad’s allegedly unpopular standing at home.  But, after returning from Lebanon, Ahmadinejad made a trip to Ardabil, one of Iran’s three Azeri-majority provinces.  One of our readers provided a link to photos of the crowds that greeted Ahmadinejad in the provincial capital (also called Ardabil), which we very much appreciated.

That Ahmadinejad could attract this sort of popular response in Ardabil is particularly noteworthy.  According to the official results of the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election, Ahmadinejad won a majority of the votes cast in two of Iran’s Azeri-majority provinces, Ardabil and East Azerbaijan.  His chief opponent in the election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, won the majority of the votes cast in the third, West Azerbaijan.  Many Western critics of the election pointed to these outcomes as clear evidence of fraud.  How could Ahmadinejad have won two of the three Azeri-majority provinces against Mousavi, who is ethnically Azeri?  Among the more absurd observations that Karim Sadjadpour has made about Iranian politics during the past year and a half was his observation that this was about as plausible as John McCain winning the African-American vote in his 2008 presidential contest against Barack Obama.

But that kind of fact-free analysis ignores Ahmadinejad’s long, personal history in Iran’s Azeri-majority regions.  Ahmadinejad was a provincial official in West Azerbaijan early in his career and served as governor of Ardabil during 1993-1997.  In the second round of the Islamic Republic’s 2005 presidential election, a run-off contest between Ahmadinejad and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad won substantial majorities of the votes cast in all three Azeri-majority provinces.  In 2009, Ahmadinejad’s margin of victory in Ardabil and East Azerbaijan was smaller than in 2005, and he narrowly lost the popular vote in West Azerbaijan (Ahmadinejad’s percentage of the vote there was roughly 47 percent).

Thus, the official results indicate that Mousavi attracted a higher percentage of the vote in Azeri-majority areas (and also in Baluchistan) than he did across the country as a whole.  But the results also indicate that Ahmadinejad retained a significant level of popular support in Azeri-majority areas.  The reception he received in Ardabil a few days ago would seem to confirm that reading.  By arguing that Ahmadinejad has a substantial base of genuine popular support we do not mean to imply that he does not face opposition.  We judge Ahmadinejad to be, in his political context, a uniquely effective populist leader.  But he is also a deeply polarizing figure.  That part of the Iranian body politic which dislikes Ahmadinejad seems really to dislike him.  Nevertheless, the available evidence indicates that popular support for Ahmadinejad is greater than dedicated opposition to him.  And, of course, the vast majority of those who might be counted among Ahmadinejad’s political opponents have no interest in undermining the Islamic Republic’s fundamental integrity and stability.

Unfortunately, Western media coverage of/commentary about Iranian politics seems unable, for the most part, to take account of inputs from sources outside of north Tehran and expatriate supporters of the Green Movement.  As part of our work on over the past year, we have tried to highlight instances where high-profile Western media outlets seemed to abandon normal standards of journalistic rigor and perhaps even integrity in their coverage of Iranian issues.  For example, we critiqued a number of stories by Nazila Fathi of the New York Times along these lines (see here and here).  In our critique, we identified specific instances in which Ms. Fathi sought to pass off un-sourced assertions as factual claims.  In other instances, Ms. Fathi sourced apparent claims of fact only to opposition or other anti-Islamic Republic websites, but without identifying those sources as such.  In one instance, we even found that Ms. Fathi’s link to a particular website did not substantiate the claim for which she was using it as a source.  And, in an especially egregious lapse, Ms. Fathi neglected to inform her readers that the “Kurdish rebel group” to which five Kurdish activists executed in Iran had belonged — PJAK — had been formally designated by the Obama Administration as a terrorist organization.  (The five Kurdish activists were executed as a consequence of having been convicted of criminal charges stemming from their alleged participation in lethal terrorist attacks inside Iran.)  After we wrote about these agenda-driven lapses in journalistic professionalism, we noticed more of an effort to have Ms. Fathi’s stories source particular points in a more credible, or at least transparent, way.  Then, we noticed that the New York Times was no longer running her “reporting” on Iran from her outpost in Toronto and we thought that might represent a real step towards accountability.  But, instead, she has been rewarded for her past performance with the opportunity to spend the 2010-2011 academic year at Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow.

But the problem, of course, goes well beyond one journalist at one newspaper.  That was affirmed for us by a story this week by the Christian Science Monitor‘s Scott Peterson.  Scott Peterson’s coverage of Iranian politics over the last year and a half has regularly exhibited deficiencies in adherence to normal standards of journalistic professionalism similar to those observed in Ms. Fathi’s work, prompted by a similarly “pro-Green” outlook.  Just last week, Peterson offered his own take on Ahmadinejad’s Lebanese trip, entitled, “Ahmadinejad Visit to Lebanon Brings Little Rapture Back Home.”  In his article this week, about the visit of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Qom, Mr. Peterson ignores the crowds that turned out to support Khamenei (for video of the mass crowds in Qom for Khamenei, see below) and focuses instead on a sourcesless claim that “Iran’s senior clerics were divided by the June 12, 2009, presidential vote, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was anointed president for a second term amid credible charges of fraud.”

Perhaps we should count it as progress of a sort — and possibly even a marginal indicator of our impact — that Mr. Peterson now depicts assertions that the June 2009 election was fraudulent as “credible charges of fraud.”  But Mr. Peterson offers absolutely no substantiation for this depiction.  What are the charges of fraud?  Who made these “credible charges of fraud”?  And what, exactly, made their charges credible?

For those who care about objective assessments of the available evidence, there is no better place to look than two papers written by regular readers of Eric Brill (see here); and Reza Esfandiari and Yousef Bozorgmehr (see here).  Unless one can refute the analyses presented in these two papers, then there are no “credible charges of fraud” regarding the June 2009 presidential election.  There is only agenda-driven assertion.

Regrettably, agenda-driven “journalism” continues to distort discussions of Iran-related issues in the United States and other Western countries, helping perpetuate dysfunctional policies toward the Islamic Republic which should have been discredited and discarded long ago.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 20 October 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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