Who's Really Misreading Tehran?

Wishful thinking and bad analysis has inflated Iran's Green Movement into something it certainly is not: a viable alternative to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Foreign Policy's seven-part series, "Misreading Tehran," is, for the most part, a disappointing example of the phenomenon it purports to explain -- inaccurate interpretations of Iranian politics surrounding the Islamic Republic's June 12, 2009, presidential election. Such misinterpretation has had a deeply corrosive effect on the debate about America's Iran policy.

The series starts with an egregious misstatement of reality in the introduction setting up the articles that follow: "When Iranians took to the streets the day after they cast their ballots for president, the Western media was presented with a sweeping, dramatic story.... It was a story that seemed to write itself. But it was also a story that the West -- and the American media in particular -- was destined to get wrong in ways both large and small."

It is certainly true that much of the American media -- including some of the writers featured in the "Misreading Tehran" series -- got the story of Iranian politics over the last year spectacularly wrong. But that was hardly destiny. That so many got it so wrong is not the result of a "proverbial perfect storm of obstacles in producing calm, reasonable reporting about the events in Iran," as the prologue suggests. The real culprit was -- and, unfortunately, still is -- willfully bad journalism and analysis, motivated in at least some cases by writers' personal political agendas.

In fact, it was possible to get the story right, and some did so. (At the risk of seeming immodest, we count ourselves among them.) It was also entirely possible for those who got the story so wrong to have gotten it right -- but, to do so, they would have had to care more about reality and analytic truth than their personally preferred political outcomes or having a "sexier" story to sell.

From literally the morning after the election, the vast majority of Western journalists and U.S.-based Iran "experts" rushed to judgment that the outcome had to have been the result of fraud. These journalists and commentators largely succeeded in turning the notion of a fraudulent election in Iran into a "social fact" in the United States -- just as journalists like Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times, and "experts" like Kenneth Pollack, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, helped turn myths about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction into "social facts" before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But there has never been a shred of hard evidence offered to back up the assertion of electoral fraud. For many, a "preliminary analysis" of the official results by University of St. Andrews Iranian studies professor Ali Ansari and two collaborators, published by Chatham House nine days after the election, was taken as scholarly ratification for an already dominant Western narrative about what had happened. But the extent of the evidentiary and analytic flaws in the Chatham House report is breathtaking. Don't just take our word for it. We refer anyone who is interested to two impressively meticulous and thorough reviews of the 2009 election process and results. One, by two Iranian scholars living outside the Islamic Republic, systematically goes through all the points adduced by Ansari and his collaborators -- alleged irregularities and anomalies in voter turnout, the sourcing of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's votes, the alleged underperformance of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi (an ethnic Azeri) in Azeri-majority provinces and his fellow disappointed presidential hopeful Mehdi Karroubi in his home province, perceptions of statistical anomalies in the official results, etc. -- and offers devastatingly persuasive rejoinders on every point.

The other paper, by Eric Brill, an American lawyer, also offers a powerful refutation to Ansari and his colleagues about the official results. But Brill goes on to review the various complaints about the electoral process and results that have been widely alleged -- though never in any formal or documented way -- by Mousavi and his supporters: registered observers turned away or later ordered to leave, Mousavi votes thrown away, ballot boxes stuffed with Ahmadinejad votes, pens with disappearing ink, and vote counts either misreported from the field or altered once they reached the Interior Ministry in Tehran.

Brill dismantles all these allegations. He also underscores a critically important point: To this day, Mousavi has not identified a single polling station where any of this supposedly occurred. During our most recent visit to Tehran earlier this year, we spoke with Iranians who said they had voted for Mousavi (one had even worked for Mousavi's campaign) and, when Mousavi charged afterward that there had been electoral fraud, turned out to protest in the first few days after June 12, 2009. But, when Mousavi failed to produce evidence substantiating his public claims, these people lost faith in him.

Why did the overwhelming majority of Western reporters covering the election and its aftermath not write about this? Why did most Western Iran "experts" not deem these facts worthy of inclusion in their analyses? We would suggest that the lack of evidence of electoral fraud did not fit with the narrative that these reporters and analysts preferred -- that the election had been "stolen" from a resurgent reform movement and handed to the deeply unpopular incumbent, backed by a supreme leader whose authoritarian bent was now clearly on display. Some might have preferred that narrative because it fit their own political preferences, others because it garnered more attention than a straightforward "Ahmadinejad seems to have a popular base after all" narrative would have attracted. In any event -- and notwithstanding Nazila Fathi's curious assertion of the Western media's "remarkable job in properly identifying the enormity of the past year's events" -- simply following normal practices of evidence-based reporting and analysis would have produced very different coverage of the election than we got from most Western media outlets and commentators.


Poor coverage of the election paved the way for even worse coverage of the "Green Movement" that followed. The description of Western reporting on the so-called "Twitter Revolution" offered in one of the articles in the "Misreading Tehran" series (Golnaz Esfandiari's "The Twitter Devolution") zeroes in on the kind of journalistic and analytic malpractice that characterized much of the Western coverage of the Green Movement:

"Before one of the major Iranian protests of the past year, a journalist in Germany showed me a list of three prominent Twitter accounts that were commenting on the events in Tehran and asked me if I knew the identities of the contributors. I told her I did, but she seemed disappointed when I told her that one of them was in the United States, one was in Turkey, and the third -- who specialized in urging people to 'take to the streets' -- was based in Switzerland.... Western journalists who couldn't reach -- or didn't bother reaching? -- people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets posted with tag #iranelection. Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi."

Why did no one wonder? Perhaps taking note of that fact would have gotten in the way of an otherwise exciting story line. An apparently similar dynamic drove the failure of Western journalists and analysts to take note of the Green Movement's obvious decline -- until it reached a point earlier this year when even Reza Aslan, other ardent Green Movement partisans, and their fellow travelers in the media started to have difficulties publicly explaining the movement's increasingly manifest inability to marshal meaningful public displays of its strength.

If one were actually prepared to look soberly at facts on the ground, this trend was readily discernible from early on. We correctly predicted the Green Movement's decline in a Politico article in late June 2009, barely two weeks after the election. We continued to chart the Green Movement's decline in a September 2009 New York Times op-ed, multiple blog posts during the fall, and another New York Times op-ed in January -- in which we correctly predicted that the Feb. 11 anniversary of the Islamic Republic's founding would be a bust for the opposition. Any one of the journalists and commentators who, even on the eve of Feb. 11, were confidently predicting that massive protests that day would mark the "beginning of the end" of the Islamic Republic could have gotten this story right. But they would have to have cared more about reality and analytic truth than in promoting a personally preferred political outcome or story line.

Now, even in the context of what is supposed to be an exercise in self-criticism, Green Movement partisans in the media and commentariat are constructing artful arguments asserting they did not actually get anything wrong. In the "Misreading Tehran" series, Fathi finally acknowledges the Green Movement's "lack of ability to muster large protests as it did last summer" and its lack of "leadership and a political agenda," while Aslan admits that the movement failed "to do what we wanted." Nevertheless, Fathi and Aslan continue to argue that these things do not call into question the movement's political significance. Fathi and Aslan are entitled to their opinions, but we challenge them and others with similar views to explain why the ability to marshal popular support, define a coherent agenda, and pursue that agenda in an effective manner should not be the essential standard for assessing the significance of a social movement purporting to seek fundamental political change -- in Iran or anywhere else.

Such skewed analyses of the Green Movement and the Islamic Republic's internal politics have had a profoundly corrosive effect on the Obama administration's Iran policy, derailing what was, even before June 12, 2009, a shaky and strategically amorphous interest in engaging Tehran. Indeed, since manufactured claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction led the United States to invade Iraq in 2003, no analytic line has had a more damaging impact on U.S. foreign policy than ungrounded assertions about fraud in Iran's 2009 presidential election and the Green Movement's supposedly inexorable momentum.

Three weeks before the Iranian election, in another New York Times op-ed, we argued that U.S. President Barack Obama's professed interest in engagement was at risk of implosion. More specifically, Obama's fledgling engagement policy was at risk because he was unwilling to take tangible steps -- e.g., publicly renouncing regime change, calling off covert-action programs launched under his predecessor George W. Bush to destabilize the Islamic Republic, and privately communicating U.S. willingness to accept uranium enrichment in Iran as part of an overall settlement of the nuclear issue -- that would demonstrate his seriousness about realigning U.S.-Iranian relations. Obama would not even respond to a congratulatory letter from Ahmadinejad (which, Ahmadinejad has told us, was "unprecedented" and "not easy to get done" on his side), instead sending a vague and nonsubstantive letter to the supreme leader -- another iteration, in a failed pattern dating from Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal, of U.S. administrations trying to create channels to individual Iranian leaders rather than dealing with the Islamic Republic as a system.

Widespread misreporting of the Iranian election and almost universally inaccurate portrayals of the Green Movement undercut those in the Obama administration who wanted to put more substance behind Obama's rhetorical outreach to the Iranian leadership. As a result, the White House has retreated to a public posture claiming that it tried to engage Tehran but Tehran was not interested -- as evidenced by its "rejection" of the so-called Baradei proposal (named for former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei) for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor, put forward in October 2009. But Tehran did not "reject" the Baradei proposal; the Iranian government said authoritatively and publicly that it accepted the proposal in principle, but wanted to negotiate specific details. It was, in fact, the Obama administration that defined the Baradei proposal as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition -- something that ElBaradei himself said publicly should not have been done. The administration has just pushed a new round of sanctions through the U.N. Security Council, even though no one in the administration thinks these sanctions will constructively affect Iranian decision-making.

Flawed analysis of Iranian politics also created the illusion of an alternative to serious, strategically grounded diplomacy with the Islamic Republic -- an illusion that the Green Movement would somehow produce an Iranian political order that would be much easier for Washington to deal with. (That "regime change" would be easy and strategically transformational was, of course, also part of the bill of goods sold to the American public about Iraq.) Once everyone is forced to admit that the latest round of U.N. sanctions and further unilateral measures by various national governments are not stopping Iran's nuclear development, Obama and his advisors may well decide that the only politically defensible alternative to military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets is formal adoption of regime change as the goal of America's Iran policy.

It is still possible to stop such a tragic repetition of history -- but only if people are prepared to abandon self-gratifying or self-serving illusions about Iran and face reality square in the face.

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Don't Panic, Go Organic

Be not troubled by Robert Paarlberg's scaremongering. Organic practices can feed the world -- better, in fact, than wasteful industrial farming.

In May 2004, Catherine Badgley, an evolutionary biology professor at the University of Michigan, took her students on a research trip to an organic farm near their campus. Standing on the acre-and-a-half farm, Badgley asked the farmer, Rob MacKercher, how much food he produces annually. "Twenty-seven tons," he said. Badgley did the quick math: That's enough to provide 150 families one pound of produce every single day of the year.

"If he can grow that quantity on this tiny parcel," Badgley wondered, "why can't organic agriculture feed the world?" That question was the genesis of a multi-year, multidisciplinary study to explore whether we could, indeed, feed the world with organic, sustainable methods of farming. The results? A resounding yes.

Unfortunately, you don't hear about this study, or others with similar findings, in "Attention Whole Foods Shoppers," Robert Paarlberg's defense of industrial agriculture in the new issue of Foreign Policy. Instead, organic agriculture, according to Paarlberg, is an "elite preoccupation," a "trendy cause" for "purist circles." Sure, sidling up to a Whole Foods in your Lexus SUV and spending $24.99 on artisan fromage may be the trappings of a privileged foodie, but there's an SUV-sized difference between obsessing about the texture of your goat cheese and arguing for a more sustainable food system. Despite Paarlberg's pronouncements, Badgley's research, along with much more evidence, helps us see that what's best for the planet and for people -- especially small-scale farmers who are the hungriest among us -- is a food system based on agroecological practices. What's more, Paarlberg's impressive-sounding statistics veil the true human and ecological cost we are paying with industrial agriculture.


Since most of us aren't well-versed in the minutia of this debate, we can't be blamed for falling for Paarlberg's scaremongering, which suggests that by rejecting biotech and industrial agriculture, we are keeping developing countries underdeveloped and undernourished. Paarlberg suggests that we could eliminate starvation across the continent of Africa were it not that "efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided ... advocacy against agricultural modernization."

It's a compelling argument, and one industry defenders make all the time. For who among us would want to think we're starving the poor by pushing for sustainability? (At a Biotechnology Industry Organization conference I attended in 2005, a workshop participant even suggested pro-organic advocates should be "tried for crimes against humanity.")

But the argument for industrial agriculture and biotechnology is built on a misleading depiction of what organic agriculture is, bolstered with shaky statistics, and constructed by ignoring the on-the-ground lessons of success stories across the globe.

For a start, Paarlberg doesn't get what it means to be organic. "Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals," he writes, "so their food is de facto organic." In contrast, industrial agriculture, as he sees it, is "science-intensive." But as Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, "modern organic practices are defined by much more than just the absence of synthetic chemicals"; it's knowledge-intensive farming. Organic farmers improve output, less by applying purchased products and more by tapping a sophisticated understanding of biological systems to build soil fertility and manage pests and weeds through techniques that include double-dug beds, intercropping, composting, manures, cover crops, crop sequencing, and natural pest control.

Biotech and industrial agriculture would in fact more aptly be called water, chemical, and fossil-fuel-intensive farming, requiring external inputs to boost productivity. Industrial agriculture gobbles up much of the 70 percent of the planet's freshwater resources diverted to farming, for example. It relies on petroleum-based chemicals for pest and weed control and requires massive amounts of synthetic fertilizer. In fact, in 2007, we used 13 million tons of synthetic fertilizer, five times the amount used in 1960. Crop yields, by comparison, grew only half that fast. And it's hardly a harmless increase: Nitrogen fertilizers are the single biggest cause of global-warming gases from U.S. agriculture and a major cause of air and water pollution -- including the creation of dead zones in coastal waters that are devoid of fish. And despite the massive pesticide increase, the United States loses more crops to pests today than it did before the chemical agriculture revolution six decades ago.

The diminishing returns of industrial agriculture are one reason why organic agriculture comes out ahead in all the comprehensive comparative studies. In Badgley's study, for instance, data from hundreds of certified-organic, industrial, and low-input farms around the world revealed that introducing agroecological approaches in developing countries led to between two and four times the productivity as the previous practices. Estimating the impact on global food supply if we shifted the planet to organic production, the study authors found a yield increase for every single food category they investigated.

In one of the largest studies to analyze how agroecological practices affect productivity in the developing world, researchers at the University of Essex in England analyzed 286 projects in 57 countries. Among the 12.6 million farmers followed, who were transitioning toward sustainable agriculture, researchers found an average yield increase of 79 percent across a wide variety of crop types.

Even the United Nations backs those claims. A 2008 U.N. Conference on Trade and Development report concluded that "organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and ... is more likely to be sustainable in the long term."

In the most comprehensive analysis of world agriculture to date, several U.N. agencies and the World Bank engaged more than 400 scientists and development experts from 80 countries over four years to produce the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The conclusion? Our "reliance on resource-extractive industrial agriculture is risky and unsustainable, particularly in the face of worsening climate, energy, and water crises," said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a lead author on the report.

Too bad we don't hear these success stories from Paarlberg. Instead he claims that without industrial food systems, "food would be not only less abundant but also less safe." To build his case, he points to improvements in food safety in the United States, such as the drop in E. coli contamination in U.S. beef. He neglects to mention that the virulent form of E. coli, a pathogen that can be fatal in humans, only emerged in the gut of cattle in the 1980s as a direct consequence of industrial livestock factories -- precisely the model he would export overseas. Meanwhile, Paarlberg conveniently ignores the diet-related illnesses spawned by industrial food in the United States, where the health-care system is now crippled with these preventable diseases. Hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes have all been linked in part to diet.

Paarlberg defends his case by pointing to a staggering death toll in Africa where, he claims, 700,000 people die every year from food- and water-borne diseases compared with only 5,000 in the United States. But he's deceptively comparing apples and oranges: Those U.S. figures are only for food-borne illnesses. And the lack of an industrial food system isn't responsible for most of that high death toll in Africa. The World Health Organization attributes much of this tragic toll to unsanitary drinking water contaminated with pathogens transmitted from human excreta, causing a massive spike in cholera that year. Oh, and pesticide poisoning, too. Yes, that would be pesticides from industrial chemical farming.

Paarlberg's praise for industrial practices is similar to the biotech industry trumpeting its technology for saving us from famine, farmer bankruptcy, blindness, disease, poverty, even loss of biodiversity. Back in 1994, Dan Verakis, a spokesman for the industrial agricultural firm Monsanto, claimed that biotech crops would reduce herbicide and pesticide use, in effect reversing "the Silent Spring scenario." In 1999, Monsanto said it had developed genetically engineered rice to be a vital source of vitamin A, reducing blindness caused by its deficiency. That same year, then Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro boasted that GM technology would trigger an "80 percent reduction in insecticide use in cotton crops alone in the United States."

Few of these promises have borne fruit. Instead, commercialized biotech crops have fostered herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant pests, while reducing biodiversity. "In the past, farmers used a variety of chemical controls and manual labor, making it unlikely that any weed plant would evolve a resistance to all those different strategies simultaneously," explains gene ecology expert, Jack Heinemann, another IAASTD author. "But as we oversimplify -- as we industrialize -- we make agriculture more vulnerable to the next problem." Already, examples of herbicide resistance are popping up from canola fields in Canada to farms in Australia.

Another cause for concern is that industrial agriculture and genetically modified crops dangerously reduce biodiversity, especially on the farm. In the United States, 90 percent of soy, 70 percent of corn, and 95 percent of sugarbeets are genetically modified. Industrial farms are by their very nature monocultures, but diverse crops on a farm, even weeds, serve multiple functions: Bees feast on their nectar and pollen, birds munch on weed seeds, worms and other soil invertebrates that help control pests live among them -- the list goes on.

So are farmers in southern Africa, across India, in villages throughout the developing world really waiting for biotech and industrial agriculture to feed them, as Paarlberg suggests? "No," says Sue Edwards, a British-born botanist who works at the Institute for Sustainable Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. "Farmers we work with don't hold much hope" for these technologies; they see hope in their fields.

Starting in 1996, Edwards and colleagues engaged smallholder farmers in drought-prone regions in Ethiopia to investigate whether resilient food systems could be fostered by tapping ecological agriculture, building farming skills, emphasizing crops indigenous to the continent that had evolved to be drought resilient. They enlisted farmers in field trials, comparing crops grown using ecological methods like composting with those raised with chemical fertilizer or without any inputs at all. (That'd be what Paarlberg calls "de facto organic.") The results are conclusive: By 2006, they were finding significantly higher yields in the ecological test sites of every single crop compared with the chemical-fertilizer plots and even more dramatic benefits compared with the no-input plots.

Among the pitfalls in Paarlberg's analysis, two stand out. First, the benefits of his approach are speculative, at best; at worst, his assertions are disengenous, based on cherry-picking evidence and misrepresenting data. We need only compare his claims with Edwards's work and similar research around the world that demonstrates that agroecological approaches can protect natural resources and increase yields. Not in five years; not in 20. But right now -- today.

Second, his approach ignores power relationships that ultimately determine who will benefit from any technology. In agroecological approaches, farmers gain knowledge, including knowledge about ways to adapt to changing climate and to share their knowledge with each other. Farmers become less dependent on distant, centralized suppliers of high-priced biotech seeds and chemical inputs and therefore less vulnerable to their notoriously unstable prices. Though perhaps harder to measure, this independence may be the most critical advantages of agroecological farming.

Take away Paarlberg-esque mythologizing -- along with the government handouts, international financial institutional backing, tax breaks, and externalized environmental and human costs that prop up industrial agriculture and biotechnology -- and industrial agriculture would go the way of the Hummer: an overhyped footnote in the history books.