The Blog

The Media’s Magical Thinking About Iran

Why do Western elites act like credulous children when it comes to the Islamic Republic?

10:01 AM, Oct 3, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts
Amanpour  Christiane

Blame it on Rouhani Fever. Earlier this week, Foreign Policy’s website reported that for the first time in decades an Iranian official used the word “Israel”—“not Zionist entity,” “not occupying regime”—to describe the Jewish state. Later acknowledging their story was wrong (“Death to Israel” after all is the Islamic Republic’s best known slogan), the editors ran a correction, which is more than Christiane Amanpour can manage.

She continues to claim that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani condemned the Holocaust in his CNN interview with her even though the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page contracted for an independent translation that showed Rouhani never said anything of the sort. Instead, according to the Journal, Rouhani skirted the issue, explaining that he was not a “history scholar,” and made vague reference to “crimes against Jews and non-Jews.” Also pushing back against the Amanpour version is the Iranian news agency Fars, which contended that CNN had falsified the translation and denies that Rouhani said anything about the Holocaust. Amanpour’s response to the fact that these very different media organizations intersected at reality was to tweet: “Stunned by willingness of @WSJ ed page and others to jump into bed with Iranian extremist mouthpiece like Fars.”

To understand why when it comes to Iran Amanpour and other segments of the media seem to be publishing and broadcasting so much mendacity, it is important to have a basic grasp of the worldview of Western elites. Call it junior-year-abroad sociology. From this perspective, all societies are basically alike—sure, they may have different customs, clothing, and foods, but everyone sees the world the same way and wants the same things. Problems arise in the world not because different societies clash, but rather because certain segments of every society are in conflict, for every society is also composed of moderates and hardliners.

All around the world, the moderate people of reason want to raise their families in peace, find meaningful labor, and take intellectually rewarding vacations. The hardliners however are universally interested only in power. Because the clearest path to power is through fear—particularly fear of the other, the foreigner who, from this benighted perspective, threatens “our way of life”—the hardliners have to make the masses fearful so that they will beg to be protected from the foreign threat. Because the merchants of fear will stop at nothing to win power for themselves, even if it means sending their neighbors’ children to war, those desirous of peace need to defend their societies against the hardliners. Sometimes that might mean cutting certain corners—not exactly lying, but saying things that while true in spirit, and are not entirely true to the letter.

Accordingly, from Amanpour’s perspective, Rouhani might not have condemned the Holocaust in so many words, but given the nature of the man he obviously would condemn it. After all, it’s well known that Rouhani is a moderate. To argue that Rouhani didn’t say it, as the Wall Street Journal does, only gives more ammunition to the hardliners--the kind of people who read the Wall Street Journal editorials, as well as the extremists in Iran, including the kind of people who run Fars. With enough of this kind of ammunition, the hardliners from the United States and those from Iran will push our two societies to war. Christiane Amanpour is not just preventing this war, by attributing statements to Rouhani that he never made, she’s also cultivating peace.

Our moderates’ ardent desire for an accommodation with the Islamic Republic explains what might otherwise seem like magical thinking—or the stories and accounts in the Western media of events, statements and ideas concerning Iran for which there is little to no evidence and which therefore have no relationship to what typically passes for real journalism in a free society. There have been a proliferation of such accounts of late, no doubt owing to Rouhani Fever.

A few weeks ago, Der Spiegel reported that Rouhani was offering to shut down a uranium enrichment facility at Fordo—and then an Iranian official explained to the Tehran Times that Iran had no plans to close Fordo. Maybe Rouhani had to walk back his offer in fear of the hardliners. The Western press say that’s why he didn’t meet with Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. As the New York Times explained, a photo with the American president “could have inflamed hardliners in Iran who were already wary of his outreach to the United States.” Apparently, those Iranian hardliners can’t read, so they’ll never hear about Rouhani and Obama’s 15-minute phone call, even though the conversation was, according to Reuters, “historic.”

Phone chats are one thing, but Rouhani seems to do his best work with the new social media where, according to Western press reports, he has ushered in an era of freedom in Iran. As the New York Times’s Thomas Erdbrink tweeted two weeks ago from the Iranian capital, “Is Iran's Berlin Wall of internet censorship crumbling down? I am tweeting from Tehran from my cell without restrictions.” Social media liberties could only be the work of the country’s new moderate president. Erdbrink reported that one adoring Iranian tweeted, “Thank you, Rouhani!” However, Erdbrink was later forced to entertain another possibility— maybe what seemed like freedom was just an oversight. “The government has sometimes let the firewall blocking Facebook and Twitter slip open briefly by mistake,” the Times’s man in Tehran concluded glumly, and this opening, too, “might be just a glitch.”

Nonetheless, Rouhani is breaking ground with his own Twitter feed, which he used to send happy new year’s greetings to Jews around the world on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. And yet a few days later, Rouhani adviser Mohammad Reza Sadeq told Fars that Rouhani didn’t say anything of the sort, and in fact didn’t even have a Twitter account. Nonetheless, Western media outlets continued to report that Rouhani was behind the message, with one investigative reporter explaining, “Iranian officials confirm that the Tweets are his thoughts, even if the keystrokes aren't.” Exactly which Iranian officials corroborated the story is irrelevant; it doesn’t even matter if the Tweets were sent, for instance, by some French PR firm hired to handle the Rouhani account—the important thing is that they’re Rouhani’s thoughts, and he’s a moderate.

As it turns out, there are moderates in all sorts of places throughout the clerical regime—moderates driven to extremism by American hardliners. Consider for instance Qassem Suleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guards external operations unit, the Qods Force. To be sure, as Dexter Filkins shows in his excellent profile, Suleimani is responsible for all sorts of terrorism targeting Americans and U.S. allies, but according to retired American diplomat Ryan Crocker, Suleimani also cooperated with the United States—until George W. Bush ruined it by including Iran in his January 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech. One of Suleimani’s men told Crocker that the Qods Force chief was “in a tearing rage” after Bush’s speech. Why the Iranian should have been so upset by the rhetorical flourish is unclear, especially given the fact that his regime colleagues have led chants of Death to America (and made their words reality by killing Americans) since 1979, but Crocker sees this as a real missed opportunity. “We were just that close,” he told Filkins. “One word in one speech changed history.”

Indeed, history is a chronicle of the United States misunderstanding the nature of Iran’s clerical regime. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said he is against nuclear weapons—he even wrote a fatwa against them! American hardliners and their hardline Israeli allies say they can find no evidence that the fatwa really exists, but they of course have a vested interest in claiming that the regime is using diversionary tactics to keep the White House on the hook. Obama sees the fatwa as a hopeful sign, just as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did.

Sure, it’s confusing, because if there’s really a fatwa then it’s not obvious why the president of the United States is making such a big deal out of negotiations over a nuclear program that Khamenei’s fatwa supposedly says Iran can’t have in the first place. If there’s a fatwa, then that solves everything. If Iran doesn’t really want a weapon of mass destruction, then folks like Christiane Amanpour can rest easy because there’s not going to be a war launched by the U.S. and/or Israel, over Iran’s nuclear program—because the guy who is the Supreme Leader said Iran can’t have a nuclear weapons program. If Khamenei is to be taken at his word that a nuclear bomb is un-Islamic, then there’s no more need to negotiate about anything. Poor Rouhani—just when we were getting to know and love him, it turns out he’s totally superfluous.

Rouhani says of the Islamic Republic that, “We have never chosen deceit as a path.” But what if Western elites in the press and academy have? What if Rouhani Fever, the fatwa, and all the rest are just parts of an informal campaign managed by a cadre of Western elites who, because they have anointed themselves stewards of peace, lied to their own societies on behalf of a gang of obscurantist thugs, anti-Semites, rapists, torturers, and murderers who have targeted Americans since 1979? If only we had such hardliners as our moderates fear, hardliners intent on protecting and defending the United States from the depredations of moderates such as Iran’s. 

Recent Blog Posts