Politics & Policy

How Not to Report on Iran

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2008 (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)
The ayatollahs’ attempt to blame protests on the CIA gets a boost from a familiar apologist for the regime: the New York Times.

Anti-government protests in Iran continued this past week, and along with it a rising toll of demonstrators who have been killed and injured by security forces seeking to suppress dissent. But while the protesters appear motivated by disgust over the regime’s corruption and the way the country’s wealth is being spent on foreign military adventures, terrorism, and strengthening the hold of clerics on power, the regime made it clear there was only one possible motive for dissent: a plot by the CIA and its Saudi and Israeli allies.

That the Iranian government should promote this line is not a surprise. The success of the Islamic revolution in 1979 was rooted in grievances, both real and imagined, about Western responsibility for the tyrannical and corrupt monarchy then in power in Iran.  Since then, Iran’s theocrats, every time they feel threatened by dissent, have resurrected the memory of the 1953 coup in which the CIA helped put the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, back in power. The security of their dictatorial regime rests on feeding a belief that their country and Shiite Islam are under siege by malevolent outside forces. They know that so long as Iranians are solely focused on the “great Satan” of America, the “little Satan” of Israel, and Sunni forces led by Saudi Arabia, they will continue to let their rulers get away with murder.

But while the mullahs’ motive for spinning the protests and their bloody efforts to suppress them in this fashion is clear, the reasons for the willingness of the New York Times to bolster this argument are less obvious.

The Times was slow to cover the Iran protests in their first week but then promoted one of its first articles on the subject on Twitter by saying that “Iranian authorities have clamped down on Tehran after demonstrators across the country ignored calls for calm.” That tweet reflected the tone of much of their coverage, in which the onus for the problem was on those with the temerity to protest against a tyrannical regime, not on the forces of repression. It then went on to allege that the protests were merely economic in nature and not, as other reports from the country made clear, just as much about the Iranian people’s dissatisfaction with a government whose priority was a quest for regional hegemony and maintaining the clerics’ monopoly on power, with the help of their thuggish allies in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

But a week into the protests, the Times went further with its pro-regime spin, with an article headlined, “Iranians, Like Their Leaders, See Foreign Hand in Protests.” Yet this assertion wasn’t backed up by any evidence that most ordinary Iranians agreed with their clerical masters that the mass protests spreading to dozens of cities were inspired by foreign intelligence agencies.

This is hardly the first time the Times has sought to paint the regime in a favorable light. In 2009, columnist Roger Cohen authored a series of articles in which he sought to deny the blatantly anti-Semitic nature of the regime. A mix of travelogue hype about the beauties of the country and cringe-inducing interviews with the small number of Jews remaining there who clearly feared for the lives, Cohen’s work provoked comparisons to Walter Duranty, the Times’ Russia correspondent during the 1930s who won a much-disparaged Pulitzer Prize for articles denying the reality of the terror famine in Ukraine that killed millions, and who subsequently also acted as an apologist for Stalin’s purges.

The work of the Times’ current correspondent in Tehran, Thomas Erdbrink, has prompted similar comparisons. A Dutch journalist who has been based in Tehran since 2002, he served as the Washington Post’s Iran correspondent before being replaced by Jason Rezaian, who was subsequently arrested by the regime on fallacious espionage charges. The Post pulled out of the country after Rezaian’s 2014 imprisonment, but the Times, with Erdbrink representing them, stayed put and Erdbrink has given the government little reason to worry about his dispatches.

Erdbrink was a major prop in what an Obama administration deputy national-security adviser boasted was a media “echo chamber.” He has authored numerous articles backing up President Obama’s assertion that the accession of Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency indicated a genuine desire by the regime to embrace moderation or to “get right with the world.” That served to justify the arguments for the Iran nuclear deal. But it also served the Times’ financial interests, given that the newspaper has been running expensive tours to the country, which are premised on the notion that the theocratic tyranny is an ideal travel destination for those seeking a window to exotic ancient Persia. While Erdbrink’s unwillingness to push for stories that expose the dark truth about the country may stem from his own motives rather than his employer’s “Journeys” travel business, the tone of many of his articles has seemed more like that of a tour guide than that of a tough-minded foreign correspondent in what even the Obama State Department labeled as the world’s leading state sponsor of international terrorism.

The tone of many of Erdbrink’s articles has seemed more like that of a tour guide than that of a tough-minded foreign correspondent in what even the Obama State Department labeled as the world’s leading state sponsor of international terrorism.

Outside of the Times, there has been little support for the regime’s conspiracy theories or the idea that most of Iran’s citizens accept their government’s lies about the protests. Given the ruthless nature of the Islamist leadership and their IRGC henchmen, it’s likely that they will use as much force as is needed to suppress this budding revolt. But the fact that so many Iranians in so many different places are willing to brave the bullets and the truncheons of their oppressors speaks volumes about their frustration and anger at the state of their country.

That frustration with the mullah’s misrule is a story that the New York Times, the one major American publication that has maintained a Tehran bureau in recent years, has largely missed as it spared no effort to support the Obama administration’s assumptions about Iran both before and after the nuclear agreement was concluded. Perhaps if it had been willing to use its resources to tell the truth about Iran, President Trump’s attempt to drum up support for the protesters would seem less like an outlier position than the liberal mainstream media has claimed. But no matter what happens in the coming weeks, or how far Trump is willing to go to press Iran on human-rights issues or to renegotiate the nuclear deal to end the sunset clauses that will ensure it gets a bomb, the notion that the Times is a reliable source of news about Iran has once again been exposed as a sad joke.


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