What’s Really Happening In Iran Right Now?

As I wait in Dubai for my Iranian visa application to be processed, I’ve been watching the events portrayed in the international media of Iran’s elections and subsequent demostrations with a certain amount of frustration.

I have deeper ties than most to the country. Not only did I spent several weeks travelling in Iran last year, but I did so with a girl who spent the first twenty-four years of her life growing up in Tehran, and to whom I’m now engaged.

Cafe in Tehran, Iran

Having access to her very personal perspective on current events and the historical context that created them, as well as my own first-hand experience of the views and lifestyles of a wide section of Iranian society – from the rural poor to the urban intelligensia to the ethnic minorities – I have witnessed, germinating in front of my very eyes, the very epitomy of the Western propaganda machine itself.

It is a testament to the terrible power of the media that, without ever publishing an openly fallacious statement or doctored image, the coverage of Iran’s elections has motivated millions of outsiders, who until a fortnight ago were entirely disinterested in the complexities of Iranian internal affairs, to lend their support to a single facet of a fractured society – the facet which, in present times, offers the most in terms of opportunity for Western governments to get what they’ve long desired from Iran. How?

By focusing entirely on those reformists who are sufficiently motivated to take to the streets against the election results, the digital town-criers to whom we hasten for news on the big, bad world out there have painted Iran as “a nation in chaos”. In this one-dimensional behemoth characterized by corruption and violence, the Iranian people are battling bravely against a power-hungry religious dictatorship that pulls the strings of peasants and presidents alike.

Saeed Mohammedi's Bike Shop, Tabriz, Iran

What none of the reports mention is that a win for conservative Ahmadinejad was actually quite likely. Of course, it wouldn’t look that way if you asked passers-by in Tehran. The capital is the natural home of the educated, middle-class liberal. But Iran is more than just Tehran. The conservative population – those who elected Ahmadinejad in the first place and who could quite realistically have voted him in for a second term – is enormous. But these people are also the ones without access to mobile phones, internet connections, and, of course, Twitter. Does this mean their opinions are worthless?

It is outstandingly obvious from a brief glance at the #IranElection Twitter channel that practically all of the information coming out of this online shouting match is from pro-reformist users. Those unaware of the true nature of Iranian society could be easily forgiven for being overwhelmed and thinking they were listening to a country entirely at odds with its rulers.

The last ten days have highlighted the fundamental flaw of the system – not just Twitter but new media in general: Rather than facilitating the free distribution of objective information, it has facilitated the free distribution of the views and experiences of a minority demographic who have access to it. If you’re reading this, you’re probably part of that demographic yourself.

Why do news editors and faraway observers alike assume that Twitter represents the voice of Iran? Are we psychologically equipped to deal with globally-sized paradigms? Has the light-speed progress of the Information Age left good old evolution trailing in its wake?

Commentators such as the BBC have wasted no time in embroidering the canvas that they’ve been helping to build over the last few decades. An Australian girl who I met here in Dubai was surprised to hear my stories from the country. She’s always assumed it was just “some twisted place that was making nuclear weapons”. This was someone who’d never needed or wanted to take any particular interest in Iran, but had grown up around the ‘background noise’ that we’re all exposed to every time we absent-mindedly put on the six-o’clock news or glance at a headline as we walk past the newsagent. It wasn’t an unusual comment to hear. Is that ‘background noise’ accidental, or the result of years of nurturing?

New Mosque Building in Tabriz, Iran

The BBC clearly has an agenda. Its articles are carefully seeded – count how many times we are reminded that the Assembly Of Experts can “in theory remove [the Supreme Leader] if he is deemed incapable of fulfilling his duties” – a minor theoretical postulation which, repeated often enough, is designed to lead us to believe that there is a real chance that the current regime is about to topple.

And notice that Ahmadinejad himself is credited with being “a founding member of the student union that took over the US embassy in Tehran in 1979” – a statement carefully designed to vaguely link the man with a famous hostage-taking incident, despite the fact that a critical reading of the sentence would reach no such conclusion. This, in the BBC’s opinion, is important enough to form the thrust of the first of four short paragraphs describing Ahmadinejad’s role in Iranian politics in their ‘who’s who‘ primer on the BBC News website.

Why is it in the BBC’s interest to espouse the ‘selective truth’ like this – an act which is, in my opinion, just as subvertive as outright lying? It would be naive to forget that intelligence agencies and media have long been in each others’ pockets. The BBC itself broadcast the ‘go’ signal for Operation Ajax, in which the MI6 and CIA orchestrated the overthrown of Iran’s newly-elected prime minister in 1953.

Those with such an agenda must be cackling in glee at the Twitter frenzy – it’s doing their job for them, and it’s doing it incredibly well. One of my favourite travel blogs – from Canada – has seen fit to publish two articles in recent days urging its readers to support the activists. The premises are based solely on limited secondary sources. Neither author has ever visited Iran. How legitimate can such opinions possibly be, when they are based on highly convincing yet highly biased reporting?

What explains the absence of self-criticism of the achievements of propaganda in today’s media, and the perverse way in which media channels report on stories concerning themselves in the third person and without comment, as if doing so is somehow an instrinsic act of redemption? “A spokesman said foreign media were “mouthpieces” of enemy governments seeking Iran’s disintegration”, I read on the BBC website this morning. Come on. This is old news.

How many people are there with a vague, disinterested misconception of the “twisted place” called Iran – one for which they aren’t at all to blame? If there’s one thing I learnt in two years of travel, it was that everything I’d heard about other countries was wrong. It’s certainly not just Iran that’s suffered this blackened image, either. That’s what I mean by the terrible power of the media. And it’s against this backdrop that the current events have been played out.

Covered Bazaar, Tabriz, Iran

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not taking a stand against the protests, or against the principle of a fair and just election. But it’s important not to confuse the complaints of the few with the wishes of the many. There may well have been hundreds of thousands of people on the streets in Tehran a week ago, and there may well have been discrepancies in the ballot – it wouldn’t be the first time or the first country in which it’s happened.

But this is a country of nearly 80 million people. The protests of a few thousand of them are being used, for whatever reason, to represent all of them. And, if we’re true believers in democracy, they all have an equal right to choose their leader – whether or not their circumstances have afforded them a digital voice. In the absence of proof of election-rigging and in the complete dearth of objective reporting, the best we all can do is keep our mouths shut and withhold judgement until the evidence is in.

When does foreign support become foreign meddling? How much of our opinions is truly our own? Can we trust the media to portray global events objectively? Can we ever truly understand the intricacies of any of the world’s problems just by reading about them?

Can we admit that sometimes we just don’t know?

The journey recounted in this archived post is now the subject of the award-winning documentary film Janapar: Love, on a Bike.

Click here to watch the trailer in a new tab →

16 Responses to “What’s Really Happening In Iran Right Now?”

  1. Clean Conscience

    You seem to be writing this with an eye towards getting that Visa from the Iranian government. Calling the BBC biased for innocent remarks is a bit much.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Hello Clean Conscience. I always encourage debate on my articles. Would you mind clarifying what you mean here – are you suggesting that the Iranian government are checking my blog, and that what I wrote above will influence their decision to give me a visa? I can assure you that this was not my intention!

      Reply
  2. Fanny

    i definitely believe you are desinterested!
    I think your analyse is fair and objective.
    I thought you already had your visa but it was apparently a misunderstanding…
    Wish you good luck then, and be safe!

    Reply
  3. Fanny

    I just found out on facebook you got your visa… 🙂 Bonnes route et bonnes retrouvailles!!!
    Be safe still!

    Reply
  4. Chris

    Even if you are right and the foreign media is misrepresenting the vote, can't we agree that it is unacceptable that their response to peaceful protests has been to beat and murder these people who disagree?

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Hi Chris. Yes, of course I think it is unacceptable. It is still a minority of incidents, but unacceptable nonetheless. But as a critic I must point out that it doesn't logically follow that the militia were under government orders to shoot peaceful protestors. In the majority of cases it's not known what these protestors were doing to provoke such an action in the first place (one case at least excepted).

      As Dillon mentions below, British police brutality happens more and more regularly. When it's on our home turf, we don't assume that they do so under orders from above, because that's just too painful to think about – we assume that the officers in question are overstepping their duties on an individual level. Just because Iran is a few timezones away doesn't mean the situation there is any more Draconian than that. Again I believe that we should withhold judgement on such ambiguous situations and steer clear of 'filling in the gaps' in our knowledge ourselves.

      Incidentally I have my Iranian visa now and I'm going to be in Tehran in a few days. It will be interesting to see if and how the place has changed since I was last there.

      Reply
  5. Dillon

    British police have recently been caught on film beating peaceful protesters whilst hiding their identity numbers. One man was killed (not murdered) at the recent G20 protests, and others have been beaten. Two women were arrested for taking photos of the police (who were hiding their numbers), only to be released four days later without charge (it's not illegal to take photos after all).
    I think it's safe to say we all agree that peaceful protests should be allowed to take place without beatings & murders etc… in all countries.
    I can't speak from experience, I've not been to Iran, but I still think Tom makes a good point with regards the western media, I think it's always wise to question what you're fed, no matter what the source.

    Reply
  6. Yann

    Wow!

    Finally something intelligent written on the subject… I don't agree with the failure of "new media" bit, but other than that… right on!

    I get so tired of complete lack of critical thinking that seems to be the norm. The whole "solidarity" thing on Twitter is so superficial and hypocritical that I get angry… Where was your "solidarity" when not too long ago Iran was called an "axis of evil"… where is your solidarity NOW for the Iraqi people still getting killed everyday… Or the Peruvians being massacred by their government for trying to protect their forests against American/Canadian corporations?

    The whole Twitter thing looks more like a really sick version of Saint Patrick's Day than anything else…

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      I agree with your frustrations, Yann, and that's why I wrote this piece. My question is – why? How much of this phenomenon comes from the individual, and how much from the institution? Whose responsibility is it to encourage critical thinking? Could critical thinking become another bandwagon itself?

      Reply
  7. saman

    if the millions of people of Tehran and other big cities of Iran who for the first time after the revolution of 57 took to the streets are a minority, then tell me WHY does the government stop the text messaging system even after more than 2 weeks (exactly since ahmadinejad won!!!! the election) and has cut off the mobile phones for several nights????(do you know how much this costs for the government?!) why are so many people in jail…. i mean a president who says he has won by 63% (24 million votes) need to act like this? why would he be threatned by just a minority????think!

    Reply
    • djpeanut

      Hi Saman. Maybe you have the answers to these questions?

      Millions of people did not take to the streets, as even the most sensationalist reports would tell you. The revolution happened in '79 (a small point but let's go for accuracy, shall we?).

      If the government wished to stop the arrangements of further minority protests, shutting down the text messaging system sounds to me like an effective (if heavy-handed) way to do it. How many people are in jail compared to not in jail? Clearly the thing being threatened is urban peace and stability, which the determined minority have already demonstrated they can upset. Nothing's going to change in terms of the outcome.

      Where are you from? I'm in Tehran, so if you want to meet to discuss things it would be a pleasure to hear another point of view.

      Reply
  8. What's Really Happening In Iran Right Now? | Ride Earth world … | Iran Today

    […] more from the original source: What's Really Happening In Iran Right Now? | Ride Earth world … Tags: country, first, tehran, Travelling, years […]

    Reply
  9. saman

    thank you tom if you are in tehran maybe you'd better know that by 57, i mean 1357 (Iranian year) and NOT 1957!!!!! and if you are in Iran i am sorry that you do not know that all of the MOSHAREKAT party leaders are in jail and under torture right now plus many many more…. and even so why should anybody be in jail for expressing their thoughts on the fraud election which clearly all the world (except for you…very strange!)can understand?
    i am in tehran and i am an iranian, but sorry from i think i would rather discuss things with my fellow iranians who are in distress and feel the pain that we iranians have in our hearts by being decieved another time by this dictatorship. we have hope and will fight .and you will see that we will be FREE, with or without the western media that you think is blowing up the whole thing.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Hi Saman, thanks again for your comments.

      I don't think you understood the article. It wasn't a judgement on the legitimacy of the elections, nor the right of the people to protest against it.

      It was about how the rest of the world sees your country through their media, and I wrote it for non-Iranians to read (that's why I used the Georgian calendar year of 1979, because few non-Iranians know that in Iran the year now is 1388, not 2009). Of course you are upset and angry but I don't think you understand how the average Westerner sees Iran.

      I am in Tehran listening to people shouting Allahu Ahkbar at night, staying near Haft-e-Tir with one of your fellow Iranians and her family, and I am interested to understand the situation as well as I can. Again it would be good to meet you and to interview you for the film I am making about my travels. You can call me on 09362887329; I will be here for 2 weeks.

      I could also explain how the West views your country and you may better understand why I have written this article.

      Reply
  10. Centralize Your Self « Justin S. King Official Website

    […] For a moment I felt stuck. (Wrong way of thinking because the interruption put me in the wrong frame of mind.) I couldn’t get away from this demonstration.  I can’t really know what is going on there. But I thank the people for their passion and bringing the situation to my attention. I don’t watch the news nor follow it on twitter. (Those living in NC, USA, Australia are the ones saying they live there and know what is going on.)  I have no real way of knowing what is going on in Iran. I hope things there will find a balance. But the demonstration did bring to my attention that people are frustrated and angry. And I understood it had little to do with the election. For one view of what is happening in Iran click here. […]

    Reply

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