TEHRAN, Iran—I’ve begun to wonder about all the so-called “Iran experts” in the West. As Feb. 11, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic republic’s founding, approaches, many of the reports about the imminent demise of the Iranian regime read like wishful thinking. On the flip side, those who claim the theocracy will survive as is also seem off the mark. Here in Tehran, things are much murkier.
The stakes are higher than ever, especially now that opportunists of every stripe are doing their best to fill the gaps in the green movement. Many groups oppose the current government, but few can agree on what a nontheocratic Iran will look like. The lazy and, sadly, most common mantra is, “Anything would be better than this.” But looking at some of the alternatives, I’m not so sure. If the millions of Iranians dissatisfied with the current system are not careful, they might soon look back nostalgically on the last 30 years in much the same way in which many now regard the shah.
A number of figures from Iranian history are currently vying for attention, all dreaming of taking power in a post-Islamic republic era. Each offers vague promises of a freer, more democratic Iran.
There is a growing schism between people battling for change inside Iran and those based outside the country. Individuals and groups operating outside Iran’s borders hold little sway with the domestic protesters. A 25-year-old graduate student and office worker in Tehran told me, “I think most of those who have left forget about those of us here very quickly. I can’t think of one person speaking on behalf of Iran who I believe is out for anything besides their own gain.”
Nevertheless, she expressed a strong belief in the validity of the protest movement. “We exist. We’re not sure what we are yet, but we’re struggling to find out. And we keep growing in numbers. Ultimately, though, it’s up to us who are here. We wish the world would respect that and just encourage us.”
The spokespeople in exile refuse to honor this request, and some are attempting to capitalize on the work of the internal Iranian opposition.
Recently, Reza Pahlavi, the last shah’s son, has inserted himself into the fray, turning his tired call for a constitutional monarchy into a crowd-pleasing appeal for secular democracy. Even if this is what most Iranians ultimately want, he, like many of the self-anointed green leaders, doesn’t have enough support inside the country to help foster democracy in Iran.
For months now, Mohsen Sazegara has been a fixture on Voice of America’s Farsi network. He also created a YouTube channel dedicated to disseminating protest news. As a self-proclaimed “founder of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard,” Sazegara has become a favorite interview subject, as well as a spokesman for nonviolent resistance. Anything’s possible, I suppose, but so far his biggest contribution to the struggle has been talking up the “currency campaign,” in which bank notes—many millions of them by his estimation—were defaced with pro-green-movement slogans. But as anyone in Iran will tell you, it never caught on. Still, Sazegara has been so vocal about it that many Iran experts now point to the currency campaign as a prime example of the ingenuity of the greens. While Sazegara’s international profile has risen, he is fading inside the country. Indeed, many Iranians compare him to Ahmad Chalabi.
The Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or “People’s Mujahedin of Iran”—also known as MEK and PMOI—is now taking credit for much of the unrest. No political group—or terrorist organization, according to the U.S. State Department—is more hated inside Iran. It is practically impossible to find anyone in the country who has anything positive to say about the MEK. The group was founded in the 1960s to seek the ouster of the shah, but in the 1980s, it sided with Saddam Hussein in Iran’s war with Iraq, effectively destroying any popular support it still had in Iran. The Iranian authorities have accused some of the protesters they have arrested, including one of the young men hanged last month, of being MEK agents. The group’s leadership, long on the fringes of Iranian politics, are surely patting themselves on the back for sticking around long enough to capitalize on the sacrifices of others.
These three examples—and there are more—show the level of opportunism at work. The lack of reliable information from Iran is dangerous, and we should be wary of a media that fails to distinguish between individuals who have little or no credibility with the Iranian people and those who still retain popular support. More attention should be paid to organizations that are trying to promote dialogue among disparate groups—as well as with the West—rather than those simply seeking to topple the regime in Tehran.
Reading foreign news coverage of the Iranian protest movement, I can see why the regime is so concerned about the “soft war” it claims the West is waging against it. Since most international media outlets are not currently permitted to report from Iran, many of their reporters rely on sources who tell them what they want to hear about the imminent demise of the Islamic state.
The truth is, no one knows whether the theocracy is doomed by its rigid adherence to a system much of its constituency doesn’t accept or whether it will evolve into a truly modern society. (Incidentally, the original leaders of the green movement—presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karoubi, and former president Mohammad Khatami—have all championed change within the current system, not the end of the system they helped to establish.)
In the battle of world opinion, the Islamic republic has done itself no favors. Last month, Iranians were banned from having contact, let alone working with, more than 60 U.S. and European organizations that the regime claimed were working for the overthrow of the government. Still, there are signs of some softening, perhaps signaling reconciliation between the regime and its domestic opponents. In January, state-run television launched a weekly live political debate show—it has since undergone a change of format—that touched on many of the most sensitive topics in post-election Iranian society, especially abuses of power in the wake of the election. Many of the participants stated on the air that they believed the effort made to promote internal dialogue was too little, too late.
The job of reporting from Iran has never been an easy one. Those of us who are now working in Iran have been asked by some of our Iranian colleagues abroad to refrain from reporting certain events. Revisionism, propaganda, and accusing those journalists who have yet to be arrested of being somehow complicit with the regime isn’t an effective way of keeping the world informed about events inside Iran.
The line between journalism and activism has always been blurred here, but failing to paint a clear and complete picture of what is really happening—admittedly a difficult task, given all the current restrictions—can only impede the world’s understanding of a complex situation, even if it isn’t always exactly what we would like it to be.
With sporadic executions and assassinations, routine detainment of dissidents and journalists, and ever-changing positions regarding domestic politics or nuclear issues, the situation in Iran is bizarre and volatile enough that it needs no exaggeration. Unfortunately, if foreign journalists continue to rely on unverifiable sources in the diaspora, it is only a matter of time before they will realize they’ve been had.