The international media has a poor record in reporting protests and uprisings in the wider Middle East since 2011. These complex struggles were presented as simple battles between good and evil, like a scene out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Surprise and anguish were expressed when the supposed dawning of freedom and democracy in Libya, Syria and Yemen instead produced savage civil wars while Egypt and Bahrain became strikingly more authoritarian and repressive than before.
Whatever the causes of the failure of news organisations to understand developments in these countries, they had clearly got something very wrong about what was happening.
The recollection of being so very wrong about the likely direction of the Arab Spring should make the foreign media warier in reporting the demonstrations in Iran; which started in the city of Mashad on 28 December and swiftly spread all over the country. The Iranian government claims that its security forces have suppressed the protests or they are fizzling out, but there is evidence of fresh outbreaks, though at a reduced level. The slogans shouted and the limited number of interviews with protesters suggest that they are motivated by poverty, unemployment, rising prices and reduced subsidies for food and fuel, combined with rage against the greed and corruption of the ruling elite.
Many commentators downplay the protests as unlikely to have a long-term effect on Iran, on the grounds that they have no leadership, organisation, plan or coherent set of demands. But journalists tend to overrate the need for such neat organisational structures in order to confront the state; they are frustrated by the absence of identifiable leaders and spokespeople whom they can quote and interview.
Some compare the demonstrators negatively, in terms of size and potential impact, with the mass rallies and marches in Tehran in 2009. This may be true, but the absence of an organised structure also makes suppression more difficult for government security forces, who find it easier to arrest opponents who are properly labelled and identifiable.
On the contrary, I find the lack of organisation, unpredictability and geographically widespread nature of the outbreaks of unrest a persuasive sign that they are genuine and express widespread discontent. Had they really been organised by the CIA and Mossad using Saudi money, as alleged by the Iranian chief prosecutor Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, journalists would probably be dealing with a slick PR operation producing graphic images of police brutality and injured protesters.
As it is, there are many videos taken by smartphones in dozens of provincial cities and towns showing angry crowds chanting anti-government slogans. But the pictures I have looked at are mostly blurry and it is impossible to tell what sort of people are protesting, their numbers or even if they are men or women. This amateurism is convincing evidence for me that we are not dealing with a put-up job, because those who fabricate or manipulate video film often give themselves away because the images they produce are too compelling to be true.
If one was looking for signs of the involvement of the CIA, or of exiled Iranian opposition groups connected to foreign intelligence services, one would find their footprint in a more professional handling of publicity. I was in Tehran in early 2011 when there were some demonstrations seeking to emulate the Arab Spring, but they never gained momentum. In my hotel I could bring up plenty of exciting film on YouTube of protesters throwing stones at the security forces, but when I went out they were nowhere to be seen. I complained about this to local Iranian journalists who worked for the foreign media but had had their press credentials suspended by the government. They laughed and said the protests had dwindled to nothing because of the massive presence of riot police, but even if they had been allowed to report this, they would not have been believed because the carefully edited videos being pumped out by exile groups were setting the agenda.
It was mid-winter in Tehran, but some film of rioting had trees in full leaf in the background. One should not be naive about this and assume it is just opposition groups that get up to such tricks: government intelligence agencies in the Middle East certainly try to discredit video evidence of dissent by posting demonstrably phoney film of demonstrations.
Genuine difficulties frustrate journalists reporting popular protests and uprisings which are, by their very nature, incoherent and ignite suddenly in unexpected places. Visas for journalists to stay in Iran are difficult to obtain, and, once there, there are restrictions on travelling around the country. A vacuum of information is created which, at a moment of intense international interest, is going to be filled with dubious stories from partisan sources. Governments hypocritically claim that they are being unfairly demonised when it is they themselves who have created the vacuum being used by their enemies.
There may be no evidence on the ground of a hidden American or Saudi hand behind the demonstrations at this stage, but they will presumably try to take advantage of them. The former US ambassador to the UN and neo-conservative John Bolton says firmly that “our goal should be regime change in Iran”, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has in the past called for intervention inside Iran.
President Trump is draining the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran of any benefit for the Iranians and is unlikely to recertify next week that Iran is sticking by its terms. He is trying to use the protests to justify toppling the deal, but the crudity of his anti-Iranian tweets may make it difficult for him to garner support when the UN Security discusses the protests on Friday afternoon.
It is right to criticise journalists who overstrain the evidence when it comes to Syria, but their sins are nothing compared to “experts” in think tanks or universities who this week were happily joining up dots that may not even exist and drawing broad conclusions on the strength of a few slogans shouted by some anonymous figure on a video of unknown provenance. For instance, one chant of “No Gaza, no Lebanon, our lives for Iran,” and another of “Leave Syria alone, think about us” immediately led some talking heads to conclude that Iranians in general oppose intervention abroad.
Such conclusions are dangerous because they are based on no real evidence, and the news that the rising Iranian regional superpower has feet of clay is exactly what many in the US and Saudi governments would like to hear. It is doubly welcome because it comes at the very moment when Iran’s allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are in the ascendant and have emerged victorious from six years of war.
Governments should ask – as they did not do in Iraq, Libya or Syria – if the academic or think tank specialist so sure about what is happening in Iran has recently visited the country or knows much about it. They should recall that only a few years ago similar experts were predicting the break-up of Iraq and the inevitable fall of President Bashar al-Assad.