'Caveat Lector,' or Reader Beware: Cutting Through the Media White Noise to Make Sense of Iran

The information coming out of Iran is raw, and sporadic. Mainstream press coverage is simplistic. Be careful what, and how, you read. Here’s what to do.

Why is it so confusing?

Both information and disinformation arrive in fragments and in waves. The fragmentation reflects myriad goings-on coupled with regime’s censorship and disruption of communications. The wave-like nature of the raw feed reflects the ebb and flow of the protests: planning and then action, planning and then action.

Eye-witness accounts are first-hand, but partial. Twitter and YouTube bring us breathless updates, along with warnings that some Twitter usernames have been co-opted by the regime and relay false information. “Leaked” documents and the informant-of-the-day offer uncertain and conflicting information.

Who is involved and what’s at stake may be changing. In July, the issue was electoral irregularities. Now, depending on what you read, the protesters are young and old, liberal and conservative, and the argument(s) are about which players will the levers of power within the Islamic Republic, or how the Islamic Republic should work, or whether there should be an Islamic Republic.

Then there are the regime’s atrocities. These are undeniable, and the impact of the images is visceral.

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Apologists, even Europeans, now admit that what we are dealing with here is Stalin and Beria in turbans, with nukes. And those nukes, tucked away in tunnels in obscure parts of the country, flavor everything.

The final source of distortion: how it looks depends on where you sit. Every player is looking through a different lens, and hearing a different question to which there is only one answer. For an Israeli: “Should we let these apocalyptic death-loving-terror-mongers get the Bomb?” No way. For an Iranian: “Shall we once again relinquish control over our own energy-generation to exploitive, deceptive, imperial powers?” Nope. Been there. Done that.

The need for a clear “story.”

Given the high stakes and fast-moving events, there is fierce pressure on the western media to make things clear, to give readers and viewers some kind of grip. That desire for a simple coherent story has, of course, created some.

There is the Imminent “Color Revolution” that is accelerating the demise of the tyrants and the rise of a free and democratic Iran. The protesters in the streets are the children of Thomas Jefferson and Voltaire.

Iran protestors

There is the Great Schism Among the Clerics, in which we find the “Evil Supreme Leader” and his unholy minion, Ahmadi-nejad, opposed by the “Enlightened Reformists” who would re-shape Iran in a way more conducive to “our” interests.

Finally, there is Realpolitik As Usual, an ongoing, deeply sober assessment of the degree to which state control is gradually wearing down a fragmented and unorganized resistance. There is sufficient information to support the construction of all of these stories. At the moment, none of them are wholly valid. However, once a journalist (or an intelligence analyst) has struggled to a certain point of view, he or she will tend to see and collect confirming data. Which is where the problem comes in: if you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust?

How to Read, Listen, and Watch

“Understanding” the “truth” about what’s going on in Iran requires a heroic attention span. One needs background. One needs to seek information, and then to seek contrary information. One – you – needs sophisticated radar for nuance, and a high tolerance for uncertainty. You require the fortitude to change lenses. These are not qualities ordinarily found in the mainstream media.

With these qualities in hand, pay attention to the main components of regime stability:

(1) The Nature of the Protest Movement

Given the degree of brutality facing the protesters, simply looking at the numbers of people in the street is insufficient to gauge the breadth and gravity of the resistance. Ask:

Who is protesting? The composition of the protesters has changed since July. The non-violent movement was spread vertically and laterally: down and up through layers of Iranian society, and outward and away from Tehran. The state of the opposition movement is strong, and recent arrests have included relatives of name-brand officials of the regime.

What are the protesters’s demands? A ballot recount? Free speech and assembly? A cessation of violent repression? That Allah replace Supreme Leader Khamanei with someone else? A return to the “pure” governance of 1979? A secular state? There is a huge projective danger here, a mirror at work: we want what they want to be what we want them to want.

Is there cohesion among the protesters? Are their interests aligned? Is there a Next Step well-planned and waiting in the wings? Or, is this 1979 again, with diverse groups in opposition and a different set of clerics well-organized and ready to step in?

(2) Cohesion Among the Clerics

Let’s be clear: the stakes for the clerical regime have to do with political and economic power. Theological “legitimacy” matters, but only as it is critical to supporting the acquisition and retention of money and influence.

Clerics are people, too. Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami, Moussavi, and the other Turbaned Ones each have individual (and familial) security, political, and economic interests to advance and protect. So do Ahmadinejad and high-ranking officials in the IRGC (Sepah) and Basij. Each player or faction is maneuvering to optimize these interests in light of present and possible future configurations of the republic.


Grand Ayatollahs like Sistani in Najaf, Iraq and the late Montazeri, have great influence over factions within the clerical community. And all of this is opaque, especially to those without a thorough understanding of the theological establishment and without fluent Farsi.

(3) The Alignment of Coercive Capability, or Who Has the Guns and Which Way Are They Pointing?

“It’s the military vs. the people” is way, way too simple. The IRGC and Basij are not monolithic. Neither is the Army, the police, the prosecutors, the judiciary, or the prison system. And don’t forget Hezbullah and Hamas.

Individually and collectively, members of the IRGC want to preserve their economic interests and their ability to influence government. Within all of these groups there are hard-core regime supporters.


There are others who have shifted their allegiances already. Some have refused to fire on protesters:

Iran: Police Refused Orders To Shoot – Rahesabz

December 27, 2009 | 1247 GMT

Iranian opposition Web site Rahesabz said Dec. 27 that Iranian police refused orders to shoot at protesters during clashes, Reuters reported. The site said police are refusing their commanders’ orders to fire at demonstrators in central Tehran, or are shooting into the air when pressured by their commanders.

And others are waiting to see which way the wind blows, prepared to evade culpability or claim advantage.

When the Army turned on the Shah, he was finished. At the moment, the situation is murky: watch the gun-holders carefully.

What to do.

We must keep a bright light on events in Iran, and, loudly and evenly, hold the regime accountable for not only those brutal acts that violate our “Western” idea of human rights, but also those that explicitly violate its own laws–the Qur’anic, Constitutional, and Parliamentary laws of Iran. [We must do this not only because it is the right thing to do, but because the regime’s internal behavior has always been an indicator and predictor of its external behavior.

We need to respect the Iranian people. These are not illiterate savages, dwelling in caves. Ill-informed words and deeds can undermine the legitimacy of their protests and the pride they have in their own power. A sophisticated culture is having a brutal conversation about its future. And, despite the blood and treasure the U. S. has invested to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranians are ahead of that curve.

That said, we must also prepare thoroughly for the different types of scenarios that may emerge from the current upheavals in Iran, bearing in mind that whoever is in power in Iran, whatever type of government rules in Tehran, Iran’s fundamental interests will not change. It will demand its rightful, historical hegemony in the region. It will protect its technological and energy independence, its freedom of action, and its role in the world. These interests are unlikely to change. What may change is how it will pursue them.

A complex and rich civilization is moulting again, and we need to be thoughtful in our response. Urgent and well-informed diplomatic, economic, and military–yes, military–planning is required. Partial information and simple stories are dangerous.

Azadi monument Tehran-730831Azadi monument in Tehran


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