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.