The Media and the Myth of the Moderate Mullahs

(Note: This post was updated on March 3, 2016 to note alleged election turnout figures)
Many major U.S. print news outlets keep searching for—and frequently referring to—“moderates” in the theocratic, authoritarian regime that rules the Islamic Republic of Iran. In so doing, they overlooked evidence contradicting the idea that “moderates,” as the term has been understood in the Western-liberal political tradition, gained influence in the country’s February, 2016 elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts.
During negotiations leading to the July, 2015 deal between the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Iran over the latter’s alleged illegal nuclear weapons program, many major U.S. news outlets frequently referred to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his allies in government as “moderate.” Some media uncritically repeated suggestions from policymakers and pundits that the nuclear deal would help move the Islamic Republic away from internal repression and its external role as the leading state sponsor of terrorism.
A more proper analogy

However, as a CAMERA Op-Ed noted at the time (“Iran becoming a responsible player—the mother of all mirages,” The Hill, July 8, 2015) this overlooked Rouhani’s record. Among other actions, he has claimed that United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001 after passengers resisted an al-Qaeda take over, were “shot down by the United States Air Force.” Rouhani also has endorsed the use of illegal chemical warfare. He served as first secretary of the Supreme National Security Council when the regime decided to bomb Israel’s embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina, in 1992 and 1994, respectively. While in this position he oversaw operations to target and murder dissidents living in exile, such as Iranian Kurdish leaders assassinated in a Berlin, Germany restaurant in 1992.

Rouhani is a long-time servant of the regime that came to power as the result of the revolution that overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979—and has served it loyally ever since, including during the brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters opposed to the apparently rigged 2009 presidential election. If a Western-based analogy must be made, Rouhani is to the regime what Herman Goering was to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich; sharing the same aims, but perhaps more pragmatic in means to achieve them.

According to an unofficial tally by Reuters news agency, out of 290 seats, “conservatives” won 112 seats, “reformists and centrists” 90 and “independents and religious minorities,” 29 (“Election results show Iranians want end to confrontation—Rouhani,” BBC News, March 1). However, in January the unelected Guardian Council disqualified around 60 percent of the candidates who sought to run for the parliament, including 99 percent of the reformist candidates, among them nearly 50 already-sitting parliamentarians.

The Guardian Council also excluded 80 percent of the candidates who applied to run for the Assembly of Experts (“Iran disqualifies most candidates in elections for clerical body,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 26, 2016). As Adam Kredo of the Washington Free Beacon online newspaper has noted, the “moderates” allowed to run included Ghorbanali Dorri-Njafabadi, a former intelligence minister “believed to be behind the killing of Iranian dissidents,” and Mohammed Emami-Kashani, who has blamed the United States and Israel for creating the al-Qaeda terrorist group (“Iran Elects Hardline Officials Accused of Murder,” February 29).
He who holds the gun holds the power
Misapplied Western labels used by many in the media to describe election winners also overlooked the nature of regime itself. The Islamic Republic is a dictatorship in which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council, a group of Islamic jurists and theologians, chooses which candidates can run for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, which choose the Supreme Leader in case vacancies occur. Iran is not a Western-style democracy and such terms or comparisons, implicit or otherwise, are unwarranted and often misleading. Dissent is not permitted and would-be reformers, if not murdered or imprisoned are kept under house arrest, like two former regime members who sided with mass anti-government protests in 2009.
Iran remains a country with deep anti-Western views. Foreign policy analyst Ilan Berman has noted that a new University of Maryland survey of Iranian public opinion found that 71 percent of Iranians hold an unfavorable view of the United States (An Ominous Election in Iran, US News and World Report, March 1, 2016). 

Since approving the nuclear agreement, Iran illegally detained U.S. sailors on Jan. 12, 2016, violating the Geneva
Convention by using images of them for propaganda purposes. The regime also has permitted the reassertion of a pledge to reward anyone who assassinates British author Salman Rushdie, who wrote a novel the regime called “blasphemous” in 1989.

Nevertheless, writing for Tribune Newspapers,(including The Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune) Shashank Bengali and Ramin Mostaghim (“Iranian elections to test Rouhani,” The Baltimore Sun, Feb. 25, 2016), claimed the nuclear deal “has fundamentally reshaped the country’s relationship with the West” and that Rouhani was “moderate.” Yet, in one of many media displays of apparent cognitive dissonance, they also write that the elections are “not very” free, noting:

“The Guardian Council, a group of jurists and theologians who supervise the elections, disqualified more than half of the roughly 12,000 candidates who had registered to contest parliamentary seats. The vast majority of those thrown out were reformists who oppose the religious hard-liners’ four-decade grip on politics. In three-quarters of constituencies’ nationwide, the reformist camp was left without names to put on the ballot, forcing it into an alliance with moderates.”

According to an online magazine, The Tower, published by The Israel Project, “99 percent of all reformers were disqualified from running.” Of those remaining, Saeed Ghasseminejad, an associate fellow with Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a D.C.-think tank, tweeted that the Rouhani camp saw it “could not win the AoE [Assembly of Experts] election so it decided to announce those who win are moderate and reformist even if they say they are not (“Praise for “Moderate” Victory in Iran Elections Ignores Disqualified Reformers and Dissidents,” February 29).”
From hardliners to moderates

Yet, in a latter report (“Moderates may make moderate gains in Iran,” The Baltimore Sun, February 28) Tribune Newspapers’ Mostaghim and Bengali omit such information. Other outlets, while sometimes noting this sweeping pre-vote disqualification of reported moderates, seem unable or unwilling to draw the obvious conclusions.

The Washington Post‘s Carol Morello noted (“As Iranian’s vote Friday, most moderate candidates were left off ballots,” February 25) that “almost every would-be candidate advocating reform was barred from running.” However, The Post failed to dig deeper as to what this may have said about the regime. The newspaper reports that the Guardian Council disqualified “more hopefuls than ever before in the 37 years since the Islamic Revolution” but then failed to connect the dots or question whether such terms as “moderate” or “hard-liner” as the West understands them, have any utility when describing the regime in Tehran.

The Post also quoted, without providing context, Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). As CAMERA’s Special Report (“The National Iranian American Council; Tehran’s Best Friend in Washington,” Nov. 24, 2015) details, NIAC has a history of whitewashing the regime’s actions, tarring its critics while expounding conspiracy theories or ahistorical narratives that soften Tehran’s image.

Post-election coverage by the paper (“Moderates in Iran win majority in parliament,” March 1) claimed that the results “appear to cement a surprising surge in favor of Rouhani and his supporters despite the disqualification of many pro-reform candidates by Iran’s election gatekeepers.” The Post did not elaborate on this discrepancy.

New York Times reporting did not fare better. In more than 1,000 words, reporter Thomas Erdbink (“Iranian President and Moderates Appear to Make Strong Gains in Elections,” February 29) included only one sentence, near the bottom, to note that “original reformist leaders who have pleaded for radical changes…are either in jail or not allowed to participate in the political process.” No deeper reflection on what this may mean is offered. Similarly, USA Today also claimed that “Moderates gain control of Iran parliament” (February 29). This article only briefly noted the disqualifications, failing to detail the nature of Iran’s regime.
Another USA Today article (“Five Take-Aways From Legislative Elections in Iran,” March 2)  asserted that 60 percent of eligible voters “cast ballots.” Yet, this only repeats regime claims regarding turnout—claims that can’t be verified as no independent observers were allowed, FDD Iran analyst Amir Toumaj told CAMERA. Toumaj notes that although there have been no claims of election tampering, “They did not have to tamper this time. They had rigged the elections before the ballots even opened.”

In its coverage, the Associated Press seemed to invent categories to classify those that the mull
ah’s approved as candidates, filing them under “principalists,” “moderate conservatives” and “reformists” (“Political factions competing in Friday’s Iranian elections, Associated Press, February 26). AP categorized two Iranian politicians, Ali Larijani and Alaeddin Bouruojerdi as “moderate conservatives”—yet it previously considered Larijani a “trusted figure within Iran’s hard-line ruling Islamic establishment” and Boroujerdi a plain old “conservative” (“Ahmadinejad arrives for New York Visit, USA Today, Sept. 24, 2007). Post-election coverage by the AP came under the headline “Hard-liners lost clout in parliament, clerical group” (March 1) but no mention was made of the preceding disqualifications of supposed “moderates.”

What changed to merit this political re-categorization? The wire service does not say. Certainly the regime in Tehran has not.

Despite reporting facts that dispel the image of Iranians casting ballots among moderates, reformers, conservatives and hardliners, many media outlets seemed unwilling or unable to read the Persian tea leaves. When sifted they revealed very little “moderation.”

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