Opinion - Anti-regime protests are spreading across Iran again. The unrest stems from a 10-story building collapse in the south-western city of Abadan.
Iranians are blaming the death toll of almost 30 people on the ruling regime’s corruption and mismanagement, the permanent features of the Islamic Republic’s governance model.
But you wouldn’t know about the protests from the news. Coverage of Iran in the West has been dominated by nuclear negotiations, but there’s always been another story—about the Iranian people’s yearning for freedom.
Iranian People v. Iranian Regime
Over the 43 years of its existence, the Iranian regime’s ineptitude has affected every Iranian. Failure to pay salaries has spawned protests by truckers, teachers, oil industry workers, and many other laborers. Students have held rallies to reject “Stone Age” restrictions at universities. Construction of hundreds of dams and water rerouting schemes have dried out many water sources, depriving Iranian farmers of a living and driving them to the streets in thirst and desperation.
Each flare up of popular unrest has been distinctly characterized by anti-regime sentiments. Chants of “Death to the dictator,” “Shame on Khamenei, let go of the country,” “Mullahs get lost,” and “Our enemy is here; they lie that it is America!” have routinely conveyed the people’s anger at the revolutionary government’s broken promises. And each prominent protest has been brutally crushed.
In 1988, the regime massacred more than 5,000 dissidents. In 1999, Iran’s version of “Tiananmen Square” ended with seven dead, 200 wounded, and 1,400 detained. 2009 brought the “Green Movement,” which resulted in more than 100 deaths. Then, in a span of a few days in November 2019, 1,500 Iranians were mowed down by the regime’s security forces. The victims included at least 17 teenagers and about 400 women.
Now, thousands of Iranians are back on the streets, risking their lives. But do protests really happen if no one hears about them?
Media Blackout of Iranian Protests
The Islamic Republic of Iran is perennially designated as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. Yet, deadly protests in Iran rarely get reported in the Western media.
You’ve probably heard of the Russian lawyer Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned and imprisoned by Putin, but have you heard of Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian lawyer who was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for defending women who object to the Islamic Republic’s compulsory hijab laws?
The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was front-page news for months. Not the kidnapping and murder of Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam. Nor the torture and execution of wrestler Navid Afkari. Nor the arrest and death of environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami.
A prominent Iranian blogger and Internet freedom activist Hossein Ronaghi became so fed up with this phenomenon he risked his freedom to condemn the Western media for “failing the Iranian people.” Ronaghi wrote: “In Iran, we protest as loudly as possible and post videos online, but the reality is not reflected in most Western media reports.”
Why are Oppressed Iranians Invisible in the West?
One explanation may be the Islamic Republic’s repressive environment for journalists. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls Iran one of the world’s ten worst countries for press freedom. It’s nearly impossible to report critically about the government of Iran from Iran. This is a double-edged sword that compromises the truth. It not only leads to more favorable coverage of the theocratic regime, but also more critical coverage of Western governments that respect press freedom.
Another possible reason is the Western media’s “JCPOA bias.” In the lead up to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka the Iran nuclear deal), many purportedly objective publications cheered the Obama Administration’s marquee foreign policy initiative. Then Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes even bragged about the media “echo chamber.” That Faustian bargain came at the expense of the “Green Movement,” which President Obama sacrificed at the altar of the Iran deal.
Today, history is repeating itself. As President Joe Biden is negotiating the latest version of the JCPOA, many in the media who supported the original deal want him to succeed, and are reluctant to draw attention to anything, like the protests, that may sabotage those efforts.
Hossein Ronaghi, the Iranian blogger, was arrested following the publication of his first article. After a stint in prison, he doubled down with a plea to the West: “This is our message from inside Iran: Don’t enrich our torturers, don’t capitulate to our captors. You would be sacrificing your own national security and selling out the Iranian people at the same time. And when the regime shuts down the internet during our protests and tries to murder us under the cover of darkness, don’t stay silent.”
Len Khodorkovsky is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Senior Advisor to the U.S. Representative for Iran.
Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of Iran International