From the Archive: When the U.S. news media adopts a “conventional wisdom,” it is hard to dislodge, as the narrative of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “stealing” the 2009 election shows. Though still politically pleasing to Big Media, the storyline was never supported by evidence, Robert Parry reported in 2010.
By Robert Parry (Originally published on Feb. 27, 2010)
Many in the West may agree that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an unpleasant politician with a rhetorical tendency to bluster about Iran’s power and to foolishly question the historical accuracy of the Holocaust, but that doesn’t answer the crucial question of whether he was democratically reelected.
Despite what you may have read in the New York Times and the Washington Post, the available evidence is that Ahmadinejad did win the June 2009 presidential election and that efforts embraced by nearly the entire U.S. news media to oust him amount to yet another case of seeking the removal of a democratically chosen leader.
Though widely ignored by the major American news media, a recent study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found little evidence to support allegations of fraud, nor to conclude that most Iranians view President Ahmadinejad as illegitimate.
PIPA analyzed multiple polls of the Iranian public from three different sources, including some before the June 12, 2009, election and some afterwards. The study found that in all the polls, a majority said they planned to vote for Ahmadinejad or had voted for him. The numbers ranged from 52 to 57 percent just before the election to 55 to 66 percent after the election.
“These findings do not prove that there were no irregularities in the election process,” said Steven Kull, director of PIPA. “But they do not support the belief that a majority rejected Ahmadinejad.”
To address the possibility that some poll data collected within Iran might have been fabricated, PIPA matched up patterns of responses collected inside Iran to those obtained by calling into Iran and found the patterns so similar “that it is hard to conclude that these data were fabricated,” Kull said.
Regarding the possibility that Iranians felt intimidated, PIPA noted that responses to other poll questions such as criticism of the Islamic Guardian Council and the Interior Ministry showed Iranians willing to express less than favorable views about powerful institutions.
And, further undercutting the U.S. news media’s cheerleading for “regime change” in Iran, PIPA’s analysis noted that none of the polls supported such a radical step. Large majorities and even most supporters of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi endorsed the Islamist character of the regime, such as allowing Islamic scholars to veto laws that violate principles from the Koran.
“Our analysis suggests that it would not be prudent to base U.S. policy on the assumption that the Iranian public is in a pre-revolutionary state of mind,” Kull said.
Beyond PIPA’s analysis, other U.S. media claims, which supposedly supported the theory of massive election fraud, have collapsed under closer examination. For instance, one fraud assumption was that Azeris would have voted heavily for one of their own, Mousavi, instead of for Ahmadinejad, who nevertheless carried that region in the official results.
However, a pre-election poll, sponsored by the New America Foundation, found a 2-to-1 breakdown for Ahmadinejad among Azeris. Part of the reason appeared to be that Ahmadinejad had poured government resources into that area. So, the assumption of Azeris automatically lining up behind Mousavi proved false.
Another frequent charge from the Western press was that Ahmadinejad’s claim of victory came too fast, but that ignored the fact that Mousavi was out with a declaration of victory before any votes were counted. The first partial results, showing Ahmadinejad in the lead, came out hours later.
The reason why Ahmadinejad might have really won the election by something like the 2-to-1 margin in the official tallies was that his support was concentrated among the urban and rural poor who benefited from government food giveaways and jobs programs and who tend to listen more to conservative clerics in the mosques.
Generally speaking, Mousavi had the backing of the urban middle class and the well-educated, especially in the more cosmopolitan capital of Tehran where universities became a center for protests against Ahmadinejad.
The president’s policies and his sometimes offensive remarks have created hardships and embarrassment for this middle-class voting bloc, which has found it hard to travel abroad and do business in the face of Western sanctions and restrictions.
So, the election outcome could be explained simply by Iran’s middle class and intellectuals voting for Mousavi, while larger numbers of poor and conservative Muslims favored Ahmadinejad.
Mousavi seemed to acknowledge this point when he released his supposed proof of the rigged election, accusing Ahmadinejad of buying votes by providing food and higher wages for the poor. At some Mousavi rallies, his supporters reportedly would chant “death to the potatoes!” in a joking reference to Ahmadinejad’s food distributions.
Yet, while passing out food and raising pay levels may be a sign of “machine politics,” such tactics are not normally associated with election fraud. And if the central principle of democracy holds one person, one vote then the ballot of a poor uneducated Iranian in the countryside should count as much as one cast by a wealthy college-educated Iranian in the capital.
Dangerous Conventional Wisdom
But the major U.S. news media, led by the New York Times and the Washington Post, has been unwilling to accept this analysis or even consider it a plausible explanation. In editorial after editorial, the big newspapers dismiss the Iranian election as “fraudulent,” without qualification or substantiation.
The oft-repeated assumption has congealed into Washington conventional wisdom, what all the important pundits just know to be true. Richard Haass, president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” pronouncing the Iranian election a “fraud” and drawing only nods or silence from others around the table.
Yet, this dubious certitude is not without consequence. It cuts into President Barack Obama’s political maneuvering room for engaging Iran in serious negotiations; it justifies covert operations aimed at destabilizing the Tehran regime; ultimately, it could give a moral rationale to a military assault on Iran.
There also are troubling parallels between the way the U.S. news media has reacted to the Iranian election as well as the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program and how many of these same news outlets helped stampede the American people into war with Iraq.
For instance, the Washington Post’s neoconservative editorialists declared flatly in 2002 and early 2003 that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Only later, after the U.S. invasion and the discovery of no caches of WMD did the Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt concede that maybe the Post should not have been so categorical.
“If you look at the editorials we write running up [to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction,” Hiatt said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. “If that’s not true, it would have been better not to say it.” [CJR, March/April 2004]
Yet, despite the deaths of more than 4,300 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Hiatt is still directing the Post’s editorial page and spoiling for a new confrontation with another Muslim nation, Iran, in part by touting as “flat fact” that Iran’s election was “fraudulent.”
The New York Times and its senior editors have matched the Post’s hysterical coverage of Iran, much as they also contributed to the rush to war in Iraq. Since last June, the Times has run many editorials and news stories that reflect a deep-seated bias against Ahmadinejad and his government.
When the Times executive editor Bill Keller assigned himself to cover Iran’s election, he co-authored a front-page news analysis that began with an old joke about Ahmadinejad having lice in his hair.
Since then, the Times has consistently published one-sided articles about both the election and the nuclear dispute. For instance, while decrying Iran’s alleged nuclear-bomb ambitions, the Times almost never mentions actual nuclear states in the region, including Israel, Pakistan and India.
Ducking a Recount
The Times editorialists even cheered as Mousavi turned his back on the last real hope for definitive evidence that might have proved Ahmadinejad’s victory was fraudulent. Mousavi rebuffed offers for a partial recount, instead seeking an entirely new election.
Mousavi’s position was supported by the New York Times’ top brass. “Even a full recount would be suspect,” the Times wrote in an editorial entitled ”Iran’s Nonrepublic.” “How could anyone be sure that the ballots were valid?”
But one reason for a recount is that examining ballots can unearth evidence of fraud, especially if ballot-box stuffing was done chaotically or if the tallies were simply fabricated without ballots to support them, as some Western observers have speculated regarding Iran.
Mousavi’s unwillingness to exploit the recount opportunity might have left an objective observer with another suspicion: that Mousavi believed he actually did lose and recognized that maintaining the uncertainty was better for him than a conclusive judgment confirming his defeat.
That uncertainty about election fraud was then transformed by the U.S. news media into conventional wisdom accepting the certainty of fraud and indeed has proved valuable for those supporting both internal and external opposition to Ahmadinejad’s government.
However, if Iran’s election truly was legitimate, then the American news media is helping to create a political climate favoring the removal of a democratically elected government.
A similar situation occurred in Iran in 1953 when the United States and Great Britain helped overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who was nationalizing Iran’s oil resources. The CIA undertook a propaganda campaign to depict Mossadegh as unstable while also passing out millions of dollars to rally big crowds demanding his ouster.
Given that history, it would not be unreasonable for the Iranian government to suspect that the United States, possibly with its UK junior partner and the help of Israeli intelligence, is conducting a new covert operation today.
Prior to the 2009 election in Iran, it was well known and widely reported that President George W. Bush had signed a covert action finding targeting Iran’s Islamic government with propaganda and political destabilization.
In the July 7, 2008, New Yorker magazine, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote that late the previous year, Congress had agreed to Bush’s request for a major escalation in covert operations against Iran to the tune of up to $400 million.
“The Finding was focused on undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change,” one person familiar with its contents told Hersh. The operation involved “working with opposition groups and passing money,” the person said.
Other news organizations reported similar facts, with Bush administration officials even citing the aggressive covert action as one reason why the Israelis should tamp down speculation about launching a military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites.
Down the Memory Hole
Yet, when the Mousavi campaign took on the appearance of a “velvet revolution,” with Mousavi claiming victory before any ballots were counted and then organizing mass demonstrations when the official vote count went against him, the U.S. press corps mocked any suggestion from Ahmadinejad’s government that foreign operatives might have had a hand in the disruptions.
Not to say that Mousavi’s campaign definitely was orchestrated from outside Iran nor to suggest that it didn’t speak for genuine grievances inside Iran but the U.S. press corps behaved as if it had forgotten its own earlier reporting about the CIA covert operation.
Truly objective journalism at least might have included some historical facts about the three chief opposition leaders and their longstanding (often secret) ties to the West.
In the 1980s, then Prime Minister Mousavi was, in effect, the control officer for Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian agent who hooked up with neoconservative activist Michael Ledeen for the clandestine Iran-Contra weapons shipments that involved both the United States and Israel.
In November 1985, as one of the missile shipments via Israel went awry, Ghorbanifar conveyed Mousavi’s anger to Ronald Reagan’s White House.
“On or about November 25, 1985, Ledeen received a frantic phone call from Ghorbanifar, asking him to relay a message from the prime minister of Iran to President Reagan regarding the shipment of the wrong type of HAWKs,” according to Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s Final Report.
“Ledeen said the message essentially was ‘we’ve been holding up our part of the bargain, and here you people are now cheating us and tricking us and deceiving us and you had better correct this situation right away.’”
Ghorbanifar also had dangled the possibility of Reagan’s national security adviser Robert McFarlane meeting with high-level Iranian officials, including Mousavi. In May 1986, when McFarlane and White House aide Oliver North took their infamous trip to Tehran with the inscribed Bible and the key-shaped cake, they were planning to meet with Mousavi.
Another leading figure in Iran’s 2009 opposition, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, also sat at the center of the web of arms deals that Israel arranged for Iran in its long war with Iraq. Rafsanjani, who was then parliamentary chairman, built his personal fortune, in part, as a war profiteer benefiting from those lucrative deals with Israel. [For more on the arms deals, see Ari Ben-Menashe’s Profits of War.]
A third key opposition leader, Mehdi Karoubi, and his brother Hassan also were linked to the secret arms deals. Mehdi Karoubi has been identified as an intermediary as early as 1980 when he reportedly had contacts with Israeli and U.S. intelligence operatives and top Republicans working for Ronald Reagan. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
The brother, Hassan Karoubi, was another Iran-Contra figure, meeting with Ghorbanifar and Ledeen in Geneva in late October 1985 regarding missile shipments in exchange for Iranian help in getting a group of U.S. hostages freed in Lebanon, according to Walsh’s report.
Normally, such an unusual line-up of opposition leaders might be expected to raise some eyebrows in the U.S. press corps. If the CIA or Israeli intelligence were trying to achieve regime change in Iran, they might reasonably reach out to influential figures with whom they’ve had prior relationships.
But all that history, as well as the media’s prior knowledge of Bush’s covert operation seeking “regime change” in Iran, disappeared into a memory hole, not to be mentioned in the volumes of reporting about the 2009 election.
Ironically, in December 2000, when there was clear and convincing evidence that George W. Bush grabbed the U.S. presidency through a brazen power play relying on his brother’s political allies in Florida and his father’s political chums on the U.S. Supreme Court the same American newspapers mostly retreated into silence or rallied behind Bush out of a sense of patriotism.
The relatively few Americans, who took to the streets to protest Bush’s election theft, were met with the taunt, “Bush won, get over it!” In the Iran case, when there is no similar evidence of election fraud, it might finally be time to say, “Ahmadinejad won, get over it!”
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.