There’s plenty of news on Iran. But is it real news? Or does news reporting aimed at Westerners often confirm what they want to believe—and think they already know—about this foreign foe? And doesn’t the churning of news from the United States only serve to reinforce perceived and orchestrated fears that most Westerners have of the Islamic regime? With all too much of the coverage, the answer, at least to the last two questions, regretfully is yes.
In the context of the worldview that most Americans have, the Iranians are the bad guys, while the good guys are, always, themselves, followed by others in the West. Because of this narrow focus, the Iranian government is able to successfully exploit tensions with the United States and internally crack down on dissent by accusing its opponents of working for the American government.
Consequently, real news from Iran—along with much coming out of the Middle East—gets lost and is distorted and spun beyond repair. Iran is portrayed as a threat, especially now that it is said to be on its way to acquiring nuclear weapons. And its leaders provide plenty of provocative and sensational sound bites to illustrate this image, while at the same time insisting that the intent of its nuclear program is peaceful. So, of course, do Western leaders issue provocative statements, but their words are rarely challenged even though some of their more sensational sound bites have turned out to be lies they’ve told their own people.
Accepted by the press, for example, without essential skepticism, were claims of Western officials when they insisted in 2007 that the 15 British sailors and Marines were seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iraqi waters. At the time, Iran’s assertion that the seizure took place in its territorial waters was considerably downplayed. Nor was much, if any, attention paid a year later when British Ministry of Defence documents revealed that the Britons were actually seized in internationally disputed waters. Turns out the incident had occurred because the U.S.-led coalition designated a sea boundary for Iran’s territorial waters without telling the Iranians where it was.
More recently, the press coverage of President Obama’s overture about the possibility of the two nations having some level of engagement—delivered on the occasion of Norouz in March—and Tehran’s response to it demonstrate how the Western news media are still trapped in their old mindset. According to most of the reporting about this exchange, the Iranians “rebuffed” or “dismissed” Obama’s message. But this is not the real news. Western news accounts failed to challenge the legitimacy of any of the demands that President Obama made of Iran; nor were there news stories of what Khamenei said in a speech he gave soon after the Obama message when he listed major complaints Iranians have with U.S. policies.
Nor do Western news media miss an opportunity to pick up every warning U.S. officials give of Iran’s advancing nuclear program. Yet these same news organizations give little weight to reports by experts in the field such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or even to findings by the U.S. intelligence that downplay the imminence of this threat. Rarely, if ever, is Iran’s plausible desire to obtain nuclear arms out of a belief that it needs them as a deterrent against continuous U.S. threats for regime change ever well explained. Nor is coverage given to the possibility that Iran’s nuclear strategy might be due to its geopolitical location: Its neighbors include nuclear Pakistan (and India is not too far away), and it is surrounded by U.S. military bases in Turkey, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and, of course, Iraq. The Persian Gulf is controlled by the U.S. fleet. Iran’s interest in being recognized as a regional power is also another key factor that receives scant attention in the Western press.
Iranian leaders don’t seem to be bothered by the negative portrayal in the Western media. In fact, they want to be seen in the Muslim world as defying the United States and thus use this as a badge of honor. And it’s a diversion that can be helpful domestically. Iranian officials must be grateful, for example, that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s incessant denial of the Holocaust has served to overshadow any reporting about the mysterious death of 25-year-old blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi in an Iranian jail in March. So it was, too, with the death of 49-year-old political activist Amir-Hossein Heshmat Saran, also in March, after five years in detention. The lengthy list of political prisoners who’ve died—Valiollah Faiz-Mahdavi and Abdolreza Rajabi, among them—has been lost as well in the blur of the West’s all-too-predictable coverage of Iran.
The government’s brutal crackdown of women’s rights groups, students, journalists, scholars and even teachers and other laborers who strike for better pay hardly registers a headline in Western publications. Attention is roused slightly in the United States when Iranian-Americans are detained in Iran, but unfortunately these situations are presented, for the most part, in the context of Iran’s hostility toward America. “They hate our civilization” is what seems to anger Westerners, not the Iranian government’s inhumane treatment of thousands of its citizens, including those who hold dual citizenship.
What makes news in the West are Iran’s “menacing” actions in Iraq or words against Israel, with such stories told in a similar narrative, encased in little context and with a shortage of evidence. Every time President Ahmadinejad calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, the story is repeated as if it is new news, even though reporters (and policymakers) recognize the threat as rhetoric for the consumption of domestic and regional audiences. Seasoned journalists, at least, should know that such remarks are primarily targeted at the Muslim world, where they have a huge appeal. Do credible people truly believe that Iran will or can destroy Israel? To ordinary Iranians, including those who oppose the regime, support for its nuclear program emerges out of a sense of pride and because of how it bespeaks the defiance they want to express in the face of American bullying.
Journalists who have a deep understanding of Iran know that despite its ideological nature—and its leaders’ rhetoric—the Islamic Republic is, at its core, a pragmatic state. Attacking Israel would be strategically unwise, and Iranians know this. Yes, Hizbullah in Lebanon receives help in its fight against Israel, but Americans provide strong financial, military and political support for the Israelis. And the extent of Iran’s support for Hamas is routinely exaggerated as the reporting too often relies on Israeli and American sources and thus conveys their viewpoints.
By giving too much credit to Iran’s militarism and threats—with an implicit focus on misplaced fears—Western news reporters serve to strengthen the regime’s position in the Muslim world and hamper democratic strides being made inside the country.
Reporting from the BBC’s Web site about the release of British sailors by Iran.
Scheherezade Faramarzi, a 2009 Nieman Fellow, is a longtime correspondent with The Associated Press based in Beirut, Lebanon. Born in Iran and educated in the West, she has reported on the 1979 Islamic Revolution and its aftermath, the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Iran, and more recent events involving Iran and Middle East conflicts.