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Time for reflection on unrest in Iran

It was after midnight on December 31 and I was checking the latest news about protests in Iran on twitter when one post attracted my attention. It claimed the “Iranian regime lost control of the central city of Kashan” –my hometown– and that “people have taken control of police stations and military installations in the city”. The writer of that post, who is the political editor of a very popular tabloid in Germany, further speculated in another post that this could be the beginning of “syrification of the conflict” in Iran!

By the time that gentleman decided to do some fact checking and deleted the fake news from his page, it was already retweeted nearly 600 times, allowing falsehood to proliferate in public discussion.

This was just one small example of distortion of reality regarding the unrest in Iran. But now that the dust of the protests has settled, it is time for some serious reflection on what happened.

The demonstrations began on December 28 in Iran’s second largest city, Mashhad, over alleged corruption, economic hardships and high unemployment and swept to other cities and towns. The number of people that were arrested in days of protests remains disputed. Iran’s judiciary spokesperson said “a total of 400 people were detained and 25 killed”. Other less official sources have given a higher number.

Post truth, information, and emotion

The news about the protests quickly spread on social media and in turn was picked up by foreign-based satellite channels. On the same outlets exiled journalists and activists living in their own bubble, urged people inside Iran to engage in civil disobedience with absurd actions which drew ridicule from many inside Iran.

In the midst of turmoil, the striking point was the coverage of major foreign media outlets from the U.S. to France and Germany seeking to hype the situation by disseminating sensational information, and assertions under the guise of news reporting.  Their coverage was for most part one-sided comprising reports and interviews with foreign observers, exiled journalists and activists who were repeating the same old, emotional and gibberish narrative against the Iranian government.

This setting is a central part of the “post-truth” world which Oxford Dictionary defined as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

The “post-truth” concept is not a new phenomenon and has been around for a while. But its usage spiked in 2016 both with the populist Brexit movement, resulting in the UK’s vote to quit the European Union, and Trump’s rise to the presidency.

Author Ralph Keyes in his book, The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, defines post-truth era as a time when “borders blur between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and nonfiction. Deceiving others becomes a challenge, a game, and ultimately a habit.”

Of course trying to mislead the public is nothing new but in the case of Iran one can hardly think of any other country where the outbreak of protests leads observers to reach for their revolutionary theory and hyperbole and “the fall of regime”.

What was different this time?

The latest demonstrations in Iran were different from most protests that have previously roiled the country since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Firstly, despite the geographical scale, the number of demonstrators was small and limited. While mostly ordinary working class people with contradictory slogans were taking part in the protests, middle class in large population centers stayed at home because they were not sure about the outcome. Moreover, this was not an authentic civic movement for change because it lacked clear goals and leadership that naturally turned chaotic in several provinces and towns when thugs and mobs set fire to state-owned buildings and damaged public properties.

Secondly, let’s not forget, just seven months ago more than 41 million people turned out in the presidential election with over 57 percent of them voted to continue Hassan Rouhan’s government of “hope and prudence”. That’s why it was highly unlikely that such overwhelming show of support and hope suddenly disappear.

What comes after is important

The unrest was a convenient pretext for anti-Iran opposition warmongers in the U.S. and elsewhere to exploit it for their own purpose of promoting regime change and substitute Iranian exiles as representatives of people who were protesting in the streets. Foreign media outlets gave some coverage to the remnants of the old monarchist Pahlavi regime but it was the notorious Mojahedin-e Khalq terrorist Organization (MKO) that received the most coverage on Fox News, Voice of America and other outlets.

Just as a side note, during a week of turmoil, the Voice of America Persian service “set an all-time traffic record with their coverage of the Iran protests with 5.5 million Facebook video views & nearly 3 million site visits,” Amanda Bennett, the head of VOA, wrote in a tweet on January 2.

Other major outlets misleadingly used propaganda pictures of rallies organized by MKO in the United States and Europe to distort perception of protests in Iran. MKO fought alongside the Iraqi army in Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The group also carried out numerous bombings and assassinations after the Islamic revolution in 1979. The group was until 2012 on the U.S. terrorism list and now is pushing for sanctions against Iran. That’s why the group has no support among Iranians.

It is important to note that people of Iran are political savvy and while many may want a more liberal and Western like society, they hate U.S. antagonism and have reasons to distrust the United States. They have also seen the outcome of U.S. regime change policies in places such as Syria and Libya. Therefore, no sensible and intellectually honest Iranian takes MKO, monarchists, or other opposition groups and activists outside Iran as viable alternative to the current government.

Blindness to evidence

Gradual changes are taking place from Iran’s political development, social freedoms, human and minority rights, government accountability and transparency to even people’s style of living. One might argue for those changes in the merits but the truth is that foreign meddling in Iran has always adversely affected these developments.

Some people may not like history but they should be reminded that in 1953, the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the CIA and British intelligence service. The U.S. and Britain backed Saddam Hussein in the war against Iran and over the past decades, Washington has imposed punishing economic sanctions on Iran, threatened it with war and funded anti-government opposition groups.

When Iran signed a landmark nuclear deal with six world powers in 2015, many Iranians had expectations that their economic situation would improve. Even part of Rouhani’s electoral appeal stemmed from expectations that the accord would bring foreign investment and jobs.  Iran’s economy has recovered since, but because of U.S. sanctions such recovery was not enough to match the expectations or alleviate growing inequality.

Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has stepped up efforts to isolate Iran — adding the country’s handling of protests to its list of reasons. The Trump administration’s support for unrest, regime change and encouraging social unrest including political statements of condemnation and biased media coverage to undermine the legitimacy of the government is definitely an obstacle to Iran’s democratic progress.

Post-truth era is characterized by “willful blindness to evidence and appeal to emotionally based argument,” and when it comes to covering Iran, misrepresentation of facts can really be harmful.

Mohammad Hashemi,

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