The following article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Extra!, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting's monthly magazine.
Spinning Iranian election results to maintain an official enemy
By Nima Shirazi
With the surprise election (CNN, 6/15/13) of moderate pragmatist Hassan Rouhani as the next president of Iran, and the attendant departure of the West’s favorite bogeyman, outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, from the political stage, U.S. elite media have had to rapidly adapt the collective narrative in order to maintain their alarmist depiction of the Islamic Republic.
For the past eight years, references to what is perceived as Ahmadinejad’s bombastic rhetoric abounded in political speeches and were readily parroted by the press (Extra!, 6/12). He was routinely presented as a megalomaniacal, apocalyptic madman, hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons in order to annihilate Israel (e.g., New York Daily News, 9/23/11).
While Iran’s political and religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has always had final say over the direction of Iran’s nuclear program—one which, despite a decade of intrusive inspection, has never been found to have a military dimension (Reuters, 2/22/13)—this fact is only now deemed noteworthy without Ahmadinejad to kick around anymore. For years, the media produced report after hysterical report (Jerusalem Post, 5/10/06; NBC News, 9/25/07; Fox News, 9/11/12) on the Iranian nuclear program without mentioning Khamenei (Foreign Policy, 11/9/09; Christian Science Monitor, 11/8/11; AFP, 10/8/12).
With Ahmadinejad’s coming departure and an election on the horizon, government officials, commentators and reporters alike had been tactfully pivoting away from placing any emphasis on the Islamic Republic’s elected executive, focusing instead on the office of the supreme leader. This way, regardless of how the vote turned out, the Iranian leadership would appear stagnant, the election written off as “meaningless” (National Review, 6/13/13), and the established perception of a threatening, intransigent Iran would go unchallenged.
The neoconservative opinion editors of the Washington Post eagerly led the charge. A pre-election editorial (6/12/13) determined that “the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ensured that only conservative regime loyalists were allowed to enter Friday’s first round of elections,” and that, regardless of who succeeds Ahmadinejad, “all authority over foreign policy will lie with the ayatollah.” The Post definitively declared, “Mr. Rouhani, who has emerged as the default candidate of Iran’s reformists, will not be allowed to win.”
When the dust settled from the Iranian ballots, and Rouhani had in fact won, the Post’s editors (6/18/13) were unfazed. Suddenly, “there was good reason” why Khamenei “chose to accept [Rouhani’s] victory.” After all, they wrote, Rouhani—with his “more moderate face”—was “a reliable follower of the supreme leader” who could well make it easier for Tehran to resist sanctions and other international pressure without slowing its progress toward a nuclear bomb, its intervention in Syria’s civil war or its sponsorship of terrorism.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board (6/17/13) agreed. “Expect Mr. Rouhani to go along for the talks, but mainly to ease Western sanctions and buy more nuclear time,” they wrote.
Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has accused Ahmadinejad of “expanding a fanatic doctrine of genocide” and “developing nuclear weapons to achieve it” (AP, 9/25/07), declared after Rouhani’s victory (Washington Post, 6/20/13) that the nuclear program is “guided and controlled by Khamenei. He remains committed to pursuing the path of arming Iran with nuclear weapons, and I’m afraid the elections are not going to change that.” Israeli officials are reportedly frustrated that Rouhani’s election makes the chances of a U.S.-led military strike even more remote than it already was (Ha’aretz, 6/18/13).
While before the election, Rouhani was viewed as presenting too much of a challenge to the Iranian regime to be permitted to win, the predominant line afterwards was that he was, at best, an ayatollah-approved figurehead signaling a clever change in the Iranian leadership’s public relations campaign (New York Times, 6/17/13) —and proving that the crippling sanctions regime was working (Washington Post, 6/17/13; AP, 6/20/13).
Rather than acknowledging his election as a democratic choice by an engaged and informed populace with its own national, cultural and societal interests, according to many, Rouhani had simply been permitted to triumph by the supreme leader (Foreign Affairs, 6/16/13; New York Times, 6/17/13). As Time managing editor Richard Stengel said to Bob Schieffer on 'Face the Nation' two days after the vote (6/16/13), “Ayatollah Khamenei runs everything, basically, so he allowed this to happen.”
For those pushing military action on behalf of Israel, however, Rouhani is deemed a pathetic pawn of the mullahs, Khamenei’s hand-picked Trojan Horse—a “tool,” as leading neoconservatives Reuel Marc Gerecht (New York Times, 6/17/13) and John Bolton (Fox News, 6/18/13) each wrote. Despite the massive voter turnout and subsequent public celebrations in the streets of Iranian cities and towns, the election was cited as further proof that the Iranian people have no voice or representation in their own government (Foreign Affairs, 6/16/13; New York Times, 6/17/13; Weekly Standard, 6/20/13).
Bill Neely, writing for NBC News (6/18/13), noted that Rouhani is a “wily negotiator” who, between 2003 and 2005, “kept Iran’s nuclear program going without sanctions being imposed and without Iran being referred to the United Nations Security Council.” Rouhani “presents Israel with a challenge,” Neely explained. “Repeating the same phrases about the clock ticking and military options won’t be enough for Israel now—it may have to find another way to check Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”
In the meantime, efforts to demonize Rouhani himself were well underway. His academic bona fides were questioned (New York Times, 6/17/13), only to have the Scottish institution from which he received his Ph.D. issue a statement on his behalf.
Rouhani was also accused of duplicity during his tenure as nuclear negotiator (Atlantic, 6/17/13; Reuters, 6/19/13) and implicated by the Wall Street Journal (6/20/13) in terrorist attacks that occurred in the 1990s. Both allegations have been effectively debunked (LobeLog, 6/25/13; Times of Israel, 6/24/13; National Interest, 6/28/13).
At the beginning of July, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to President Obama making sure that, just because Ahmadinejad’s term is up, Iran must not cease to be villainized, threatened and bullied. “Iran’s election unfortunately has done nothing to suggest a reversal of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capacity,” it read. “President-elect Rouhani, who served as a nuclear negotiator for Iran at a time its illicit program was well underway, indicated his support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions in his first post-election press conference.”
The letter, which, like most Iran-related correspondence and legislation, was reportedly drafted by AIPAC staffers (LobeLog, 7/2/13), continued, “Indeed, there appears nothing ‘moderate’ about his nuclear policies,” and noted, “Moreover, decisions about Iran’s nuclear program and foreign policy rest mainly in the hands of Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei.” As a result, the House members insisted, “Iran must face intensifying pressure” in the form of more sanctions.
But neither AIPAC nor its friends in Congress needed to worry about the media, which had already fully absorbed the message.
During a broadcast of 'Good Morning America' (6/16/13) shortly after the election, co-anchor Dan Harris spoke with ABC News White House correspondent Jonathan Karl about the prospects of improved relations between the United States and Iran.
After describing Ahmadinejad as “one of the most controversial people on Earth” and someone who “helped push Iran’s nuclear program,” Harris asked Karl whether the election of “a much more moderate successor, Hassan Rouhani,” would “make any difference for Americans? Can we worry any less about the possibility of a conflict with Iran now?”
“Well, maybe a little less, Dan,” Karl replied, noting what he described as Rouhani’s campaign platform of “a more conciliatory approach with the West and more freedom at home.”
“But remember,” Karl quickly added, “those clerics control everything in Iran, including the nuclear program. And Ayatollah Khamenei is still the man in charge and, make no mistake, he is avowedly anti-American and pro-nuclear Iran.”
Not to be outdone, Harris interjected, “And this new president-elect is also pro-nuclear Iran.”
“Absolutely,” Karl replied.
Nima Shirazi is an editor at the online magazine Muftah and writes the political blog Wide Asleep in America.