One year after post-election protests in Iran captured the world’s attention, a number of Iranian-American journalists are taking stock. Was the reporting accurate? Were U.S. news consumers left with an accurate sense of the protest’s impact? Has Iran changed? Reza Aslan, Iranian-American journalist and author, holds the media and himself accountable.
[MUSIC FADE] BROOKE GLADSTONE: The news this week was the passage of tougher sanctions against Iran, but it was hard not to see the symbolism in the timing, almost exactly a year after disputed elections in Iran sparked massive protests that captured the world’s attention. Last summer, the images of protesters, members of what was dubbed the Green Movement, roused American sympathies, for a while. But by the New Year the images and the stories seemed to fade away. Now, a year later, many journalists, especially Iranian-Americans, are taking stock. Reza Aslan is one such reporter, author most recently of Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization. He argues that the U.S. media got the story wrong. How they got it wrong depended on who was doing the reporting or analysis.
REZA ASLAN: It almost became a Rorschach test of sorts for the media. If you were on the conservative side of the spectrum then you saw this as the best hope that the United States had in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If you were on the liberal side you saw this as young secularists finally standing up to the theocrats that ruled that country. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. It was actually quite a diverse, eclectic movement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So break it down for me, all these different people with different aims in mind when they took to the streets.
REZA ASLAN: We had young secularists from North Tehran and the rich suburbs of Isfahan. But, at the same time, you had very conservative people from Mashhad and from Qom, the religious capital. You had the business class, the merchants who felt as though the international isolation that has become so much worse under Ahmadinejad had really taken a bite out of their profits. You had the traditional clerical establishment, who felt as though the rapid militarization of Iranian politics had pushed aside the religious fabric of society. And what they all had in common with each other is this fundamental agreement that the Islamic Republic as it exists today was neither Islamic or a republic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you talked about the commentators and the pundits who each ran with a particular thread-
REZA ASLAN: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - and built their entire narrative around it. What was your thread, and did you get it right?
REZA ASLAN: So many of us Iranian-Americans were so deeply affected by what we were seeing, I have to say we were just as swept along in the, the excitement and the revolutionary fervor about what was happening in our own country. And for myself who actually lived through the Revolution in 1979, it was quite easy to see the parallels.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But in the simplest terms, the average news consumer was told that there was this great movement in the street and that perhaps the Iranian regime could fall. Was it ever a possibility?
REZA ASLAN: It was never a possibility, and it’s still not a possibility. That was never really a goal of the Green Movement. It was to delegitimize the regime so that it could be reformed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if many in the U.S. had the impression that the regime was teetering on the brink then, of course, comes the backlash. It didn't. Therefore, the movement is dead. And that’s the narrative that we hear quite a bit right now.
REZA ASLAN: That's right. I mean, once the Green Movement didn't do what we wanted it to do, what we thought it would do, then it was very easy to just simply declare it dead, and move on. The truth is, is the Green Movement has been remarkably successful in delegitimizing the Iranian regime, in its current iteration, in the eyes of the vast majority of Iranians. And it’s time for Iran’s leaders to decide are they going to continue to pretend the people have a voice in their government or are they going to be become a full-scale military dictatorship? This is a government that is deathly afraid of its people. It is, after all, a government that came into power on the heels of a popular revolution.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think anything has changed one year on about how Iranian politics is covered in the U.S.?
REZA ASLAN: Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Green Movement is that it’s finally proven to Americans and to the mainstream media that Iran is an incredibly complex political society. And, more than anything else, it showed that the old view of Iran being run by a single man in a turban simply does not work anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So where do you think interested news consumers can find all of those different voices, so they can put together a nuanced, contextual picture of what’s going on there?
REZA ASLAN: Well, I think that the average consumer of news is going to have to figure out a way to broaden the access that they have to different sources. Imagine if 20 years ago those Chinese kids who gathered by the thousands in Tiananmen Square, imagine if they had Twitter. In 1989, the Chinese government was able to simply create a complete media blackout. But even after the Iranian government kicked out every single foreign journalist, we knew exactly what was happening in Iran, who was being arrested, who was being killed. We knew what was going on in the back room discussions in the Parliament, thanks to the people on the ground who were giving us this information, not just through Twitter but through emails, through mobile phone exchanges. The only way that the Iranian government ultimately was able to control the flow of information out of Iran was to literally pull the plug, including government access to the Internet. That is unsustainable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Reza, thank you so much.
REZA ASLAN: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Reza Aslan is the author, most recently, of Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization.