he anti-government protests that broke out in Iran on December 28, 2017, came as a surprise. And not just to the Iranian authorities, who scrambled to contain the revolt as it spread throughout the country and threatened to destabilize the theocratic regime. Observers in the West were taken aback, too. It’s worth asking why.
The self-evident answer is the general contingency and unpredictability of global politics. Anyone who has been sentient during the past two years is painfully (or gleefully) aware of that fact. But when the subject is the Islamic Republic, there are other factors that distort our expectations and twist the dominant media narrative. One is the authoritarian nature of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the rest of Iran’s corrupt and imperious political class. Another is the continuing prominence of former Obama administration officials and their allies in nongovernmental organizations and press outlets who see everything that happens in the Middle East through the lens of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and are committed to preserving it.
These tendencies play off one another because the Iranian government, which represses press and media freedoms, and polices and blackmails foreign correspondents, is also invested in maintaining the agreement that provided sanctions relief, a green light for regional expansion, and no restrictions on nuclear development in the not-so-distant future. The ayatollah and his functionaries are thus more than happy to shift discussion from the illegitimacy of his government to what President Trump has done or might do. And Western media are happy to help.
Not that the preferred storyline is immutable. In the months before the protests, conventional wisdom held that Trump’s hawkishness was having the perverse effect of encouraging Iranian solidarity.
When the president mistakenly referred to the Persian Gulf as the “Arabian Gulf” during his remarks decertifying Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal, Time magazine correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie took the gaffe as a win for the mullahs. “Aided by Trump’s tendency to go off-script,” Serjoie wrote, “the official motto here in Tehran has become ‘unity and solidarity.’” An errant phrase completely divorced from daily life in Iran took on a grand meaning: “The upshot is that, no matter what decertifying of the nuclear deal might mean, Trump may have strengthened the hand of the Islamic Republic in internal politics.”
No matter how terrible economic and social and political conditions in Iran might be, the argument went, Iranians are willing to put up with it because Trump is so much worse. “Most Iranians don’t like the fact that Iran’s hard-liners, who lost at the polls, still manage to block most reforms their government tries to implement—but they will sit silent if that elected government is forced to concede that on the United States, at least, the hard-liners were right,” wrote pro-deal journalist Hooman Majd in the October 27, 2017, Washington Post.
A month later, the New York Times published a lengthy article by its Tehran bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink, with the headline, “Long Divided, Iran United Against Trump and Saudis in a Nationalist Fervor.” A Dutch national, Erdbrink lives in Tehran and is married to an Iranian. The couple is under constant threat of denied access, harassment, and even imprisonment if Erdbrink writes or says or tweets something offensive to the regime.
“After years of cynicism, sneering, or simply tuning out all things political,” he wrote, “Iran’s urban middle classes have been swept up in a wave of nationalist fervor.” Iranians, Erdbrink went on, “now believe they have something to be proud of, with Iranian-led militias playing a central role in defeating the Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq, increasing Iran’s regional influence in the process.” The biggest celebrities in the country, he reported, are Quds Force commander General Qassem Suleimani and the author of the nuclear deal, foreign minister Javad Zarif. “’Many Iranians now cheer when a missile is tested,’ said Hamidreza Jalaeipour, a professor of sociology and a leading reformist.” Isn’t that dandy.
In a tweet promoting his story, Erdbrink wrote, “For many years many Iranians were cynical about their leaders, but that is changing thanks to Trump and the Saudi crown prince.” Within a month, Iranians proved him wrong by taking to the streets.
Of course, he didn’t happen to be in the country at the time. Close readers noticed that there was no dateline on Erdbrink’s first article on the protests when it appeared on December 29. The oddly passive and detached piece, headlined, “Scattered Protests Erupt in Iran, Over Economic Woes,” began, “Protests over the Iranian government’s handling of the economy spread to several cities on Friday, including Tehran, in what appeared to be a sign of unrest.”
Appeared? You think? If Erdbrink had covered the American Civil War, he would have written that the firing on Fort Sumter “appeared to be a sign of hostility between North and South.”
Later, after the article was roundly criticized and mocked on social media, the editors appended the following note: “Thomas Erdbrink reported from Niseko, Japan, and Nilo Tabrizy contributed reporting from Vancouver, Canada.” Which is about as far from Iran as you can get. It would be like reporting on the fall of the Berlin Wall from Maseru, the capital of Lesotho.
What matters more to liberal editors and politicians than the location where stories are filed is whether those stories defend the Iran deal and its stakeholders from President Trump. When the president and his administration began to tweet and speak in support of the protesters, the very people who had mistakenly assumed renascent support for the Iranian government only a few months before quickly denounced him.
Some asserted an offensive moral equivalence between American democracy and Islamic theocracy. “A lot of nations and their populations, no matter how they feel about their governments in particular, do perceive the United States as not really having a moral leg to stand on,” said CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon during a December 30 panel discussion. “Our moral authority in the world has been drastically diminished,” ABC’s Matthew Dowd said the following day on This Week. The only person diminished by that statement was Dowd.
The more popular anti-Trump angle is to claim that support for the protesters is futile. “Experts say President Trump’s tweets won’t help Iranians,” said NBC correspondent Matt Bradley in late December. The New York Times op-ed page, in its headline for a piece by former Obama State Department official Philip Gordon, told Trump to “be quiet.” But it was clear from the article that Gordon’s real concern wasn’t the protesters. It was preserving the nuclear deal. “If Mr. Trump blows up the deal and re-imposes sanctions,” he wrote, “he will not be doing the opposition a favor but instead giving Iranians a reason to rally to—rather than work against—the government they might otherwise despise.”
CBS journalist Major Garrett must have been referring to Gordon and other former Obama aides during the December 31 Face the Nation, when he told Lindsey Graham, “Some have said that would be the wrong thing to do because that would give the regime an enemy to point at us again.” A December 31 Los Angeles Times piece made the same point: “Iran’s leaders already are casting Trump’s increasingly effusive expressions of support for the demonstrators as opportunistic meddling and are painting the demonstrators as foreign pawns, adopting a strategy that some analysts say could jeopardize the legitimacy of the protests.” True. On the other hand, I say those analysts are full of baloney. Who’s to decide?
Not the people of Iran, apparently, who are denied agency by both their rulers and a Western chattering class more committed to the defense of President Obama’s legacy than the spread of democracy and freedom.