Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei casting his ballot in Tehran

Western media struggles to grasp the reality of Iran

Tuesday, 07/09/2024

As Iran’s new president, Masoud Pezeshkian, was elected, most Western media outlets not only reported the news but willingly accepted the veracity of the election, once again provoking criticism from many Iranians.

Using terminology that fails to apply to Iran’s complex political landscape, the vast majority of news media appeared to miss the significance of this moment in the country’s history and neglected the voice of the Iranian people.

For many years, Western media have grappled with the reality that the facade of democratic elections in Iran, orchestrated by the Islamic Republic, cannot be reported in the same manner as an election in a Western country.

Reports, however, quickly began to parrot the numbers provided by the Iranian state’s propaganda networks—the same networks that have been sanctioned over aiding in the denial of the state’s plethora of human rights violations and run forced confessions of dissidents.

The portrayal of voter turnout and election results without context further obscures the true nature of Iran's electoral processes, which are heavily controlled by state authorities.

Few reports addressed the crucial fact that the President, significantly subordinate to the Supreme Leader, wields no real power over critical issues like foreign policy or the mandatory hijab enforced on Iranian women.

Pezeshkian (R) with former foreign minister Zarif

Few—if any—outlets mentioned that Iranian citizens from various cities and towns, including Tehran, sent dozens of videos and photos of empty polling stations to Iran International TV or posted them on social media. There are no independent media, journalists, or election monitors inside Iran.

In any other context, the media would likely highlight the unverifiable accuracy of these numbers rather than leading with misleading headlines. Of 61.5 million eligible voters, state-controlled media claimed that 16 million Iranians voted for Pezeshkian. Accepting these numbers at face value would suggest that roughly 26% of those who allegedly voted supported Pezeshkian.

While the reported figure already seems low, there are indications it may be inflated. Some sources, including the Think Tank of Iranian Affairs, suggest statistical manipulation of voter turnout and candidate votes, with actual numbers potentially being tripled.

Yet, the Wall Street Journal’s headline read: "Iran’s Voters Elect Their First Reformist President in Two Decades"—suggesting a resounding yes-vote by the Iranian populace craving a reformist candidate. Another headline claimed that the “fear” of a hardline alternative drove “higher turnout” for Pezeshkian.

To be fair, CBS News did include a line in its report saying that online videos “purported” to show some polls empty while a survey of several dozen sites in Tehran saw light traffic amid a heavy security presence. Protesters from the Woman Life Freedom movement within Iran have also publicly voiced their stance on boycotting the election, deeming it a farce.

One New York Times journalist, who has faced substantial criticism from the Iranian diaspora and prominent dissidents in Iran for previous coverage, alleged in a post on X that there was "voter apathy." The same terminology was used in Canada in 2021 when the country experienced one of its lowest voter turnouts at approximately 60%, with the most frequently cited reason for not voting being a lack of interest in politics.

But applying this term to Iran's context is not just misleading; it's a gross mischaracterization. While it is true that Iranians no longer have faith in an electoral system widely believed to be engineered and predetermined, can this be attributed to a lack of political interest? Since the inception of the Islamic Republic 45 years ago, Iranians have repeatedly taken to the streets at great personal risk to demand their basic human rights, only to face brutal crackdowns, murder, sexual violence, and torture. This is not a sign of political apathy; it is a clear indication of an intense desire for real political change.

This raises the question of whether this simplistic view and approach by the media is intended to make stories on Iran more comprehensible for a Western audience. Or do Western media believe their audience is incapable of understanding the complexities of Iran's political landscape?

The labeling of Pezeshkian as a "reformist"

Labeling him a “cautious reformer,” the Wall Street Journal was among many to hastily apply this tag to Iran’s new President-elect. However, Masoud Pezeshkian, an unaffiliated political member of parliament, has never identified himself as a reformist nor officially belonged to any reformist faction.

Yet, the characterization persisted. Many Iranians immediately voiced their outrage, criticizing the notion propagated by Western media that the election of a so-called "reformist" or "moderate" president in Iran would lead to significant changes in their daily lives.

But what is reform, and what does “reform” look like in the 45-year-old Islamic Republic?

Unlike the era of former President Mohammad Khatami, whose presidency ended 19 years ago and is widely regarded as a genuine period of potential reform, the current political landscape in Iran has changed drastically.

The vast majority of Iranians no longer believe in reform—a sentiment that has accelerated since 2017, as frequently highlighted by prominent intellectual Majid Tavakoli, who is currently imprisoned for the "crime" of contemplating regime change.

CNN anchor Jim Sciutto weighed in on the issue, noting the frequent use of terms like “moderate” and “reformist” when discussing Iran. He observed that these labels often refer to different shades of the same hardliners.

Today's small collection of "reformists," predominantly consisting of educated individuals from the upper and middle classes, seem to prioritize better economic relations with the global community while refraining from addressing the human rights issues faced by their compatriots. These reformists are not advocating for regime or systemic change. Their efforts are typically limited to what they deem safe, including what they believe will improve Iran's economic outlook.

However, achieving such improvements would necessitate substantial changes in foreign policy and a reduction in domestic oppression—objectives that again fall under the influence of the Supreme Leader, not the President.

Despite the immense risks faced by dissidents, including Bahareh Hedayat—who, while on medical furlough from her jail sentence, condemned the so-called reformists for abandoning the Iranian people during the presidential election and aiding the government in boosting turnout—Western media largely disregarded the voices of the population. Iranians have tirelessly tried for years, and more vocally since 2022, to make it clear to the media that they are not merely disillusioned or apathetic about voting. They fundamentally reject the notion of reform, often viewing those who promote this supposed agenda as traitors.

The illusion of changing women’s rights under the Islamic Republic

As many pointed out, Pezeshkian's presidency is all but certainly not a response to the Iranian people's demands but instead could be a tactical move by the state to facilitate its diplomatic interaction with the West.

According to the Economist, however, Pezeshkian wants “women to have the right to dress as they choose.”

In response to this narrative, Iranians published a video of Pezeshkian bragging about being one of the first to enforce the mandatory hijab onto Iranian women—before it was even made into law after the Islamic revolution.

As the WSJ itself suggested, Pezeshkian being allowed to run at all suggests that the Iranian establishment considered him to be a safe choice.

A “safe choice” in the context of the Supreme Leader’s ideology would imply maintaining the pillars of the Islamic Republic—of which the mandated hijab is a key element. Without mandating the Islamic dress code on women and allowing women freedom like those in the West, the Islamic Republic would no longer exist.

UN Special Rapporteur Javaid Rehman also recently said that due to systemic issues within Iran's judicial system, a change in presidency is unlikely to improve the country's human rights situation.

Some have also pointed out that despite the media's focus on a vague campaign promise from Pezeshkian to "do what he can in support of women's rights," his past statements reveal a different stance.

Pezeshkian, who served as health minister and was involved in covering up the brutal murder and torture of Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi in 2003, also insisted that women in his classes adhere to "proper hijab" as a professor.

He has also previously blamed the regime for failing to make women accept the veil and instead of speaking out against the actual mandatory law of the hijab – has criticized the brutal enforcement of it.

The establishment, however, headed by the Supreme Leader, has shown no indication that the hijab or the many other restrictions that women face will change.

CNN noted that Pezeshkian is taking the “helm” of a country that has “internal discontent” among other issues, while burying much lower the fact that the final say lies with the Supreme Leader.

And while experts say a more moderate face in the presidency could facilitate dialogue between Iran and Western states – primarily alluding to another nuclear deal which could potentially see sanctions lift –

Many Iran observers, basing their assessment on the state’s past behavior, believe it is unlikely that Iran will cease its nefarious and terrorist activities in the region and abroad, which originally led to the imposition of sanctions.

Ahead of the elections, however, Supreme Leader Khamenei condemned those seeking improved relations with the West and Pezeshkian has publicly stated that he would defer to Khamenei on matters of foreign policy, so Zarif’s appointment is far from assured.

Tehran’s nefarious activities and terrorism in the region and abroad will not cease – as indicated by Pezeshkian’s pledge of allegiance to Hezbollah just days into his presidency.

The West, however, will find a more "agreeable" partner in Tehran compared to the mass-murder-embroiled cleric Ebrahim Raisi – should Khamenei decide to make some small concessions to keep the cash flowing for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

These concessions for a new nuclear deal will, in all likelihood, fail to benefit the Iranian people or significantly improve the mismanaged economy. Even if inflation marginally drops or living costs stabilize slightly, it will be far from sufficient for the populace to forgive the immense crimes committed by the regime.

The Iranian people have consistently voiced their demands for freedom, justice, and a secular society—not to be abandoned in exchange for minor economic relief under continued Islamist rule. Meanwhile, Western media will undoubtedly continue to cover these potential superficial changes at length, while the true voices and desires of the Iranian people are drowned out once again.

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