War on Iran?

Iranians welcome their president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Beirut in October 2010. (Matthew Cassel)

History was repeating itself. At least that’s what I was beginning to think a few months ago. The US media, like in 2003, was using all its strength to bang the drums of war, although this time in Iran. It was non-stop, every morning I’d wake up to find an article about why Israel and the west had to take action to stop Iran.

Unlike during the lead up to the war with Iraq, this time I was a journalist and not a student activist. I had been planning to go to Iran last month to cover the elections, the effects of sanctions and to gauge feelings about a potential western strike and, of course, to take pictures in that beautiful country. But alas, I was never granted a visa and any visit to the IRI was put on hold.

The below are a couple piece I was able to do from outside Iran. In the first piece I look at a very small yet telling sample of English-language media and how it’s been covering Iran. Fortunately, it seems cooler heads are prevailing and the calls for war, while still very much ongoing, have quieted down somewhat:

Media roundup: An imminent strike on Iran?

In the article I quote Colin Kahl, who responded to claims that Israel’s 1981 of Saddam Hussein’s alleged nuclear sites actually stopped Iran from developing the bomb. Kahl wrote:

“By demonstrating Iraq’s vulnerability, the attack on Osirak actually increased Hussein’s determination to develop a nuclear deterrent and provided Iraq’s scientists an opportunity to better organise the programme. The Iraqi leader devoted significantly more resources toward pursuing nuclear weapons after the Israeli assault.”

In the second piece I had the honor of speaking to Hooman Majd, one of my favorite contemporary writers on Iranian affairs. Majd has written two books on Iran in recent years, both of which I’ve read and highly recommend (one and two).

I remember reading his first one which was published just a year before the contested 2009 elections and subsequent protest movement. Majd captures a certain level of nuance that I previously thought all English-language media had been somehow allergic to.

Here is a quote taken from the interview, Hooman Majd on Iran and sanctions:

“(For) the average Iranian it’s hard to see what comes next if you have these crippling sanctions, if you try everything to destroy the Iranian economy, which is what basically America is set out to do. And President Obama said himself that (Iranians) are going to hurt, and that’s the idea to continue trying to do that. But to what end? To try to get Iran to capitulate on its nuclear programme? Well, like I said before that’s not going to happen.”

It is my own personal feeling that a strike on Iran, a country already sandwiched between two US-occupations, by Israel or the west would immediately spiral into something much bigger that would easily encompass the entire Middle East and other areas. And this region already has enough people dying from the wars and occupations at present, it doesn’t need any more.

An American not in Tehran

Tehran, where Danny Postel is not writing from (image: matthew cassel)

After publishing my article “An American in Tehran” in In These Times, one commentator named Danny Postel wrote a critical response from Chicago and brought in a bunch of his friends to support his positions. One of his friends even dismisses my article as “propaganda” and a “sham.”

In a strange move for most publications, the popular Tehran Bureau website, which calls itself “an independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora” and has a partnership with the American Public Broadcasting Service, republished Postel’s already published response to an article on a completely different site. Postel’s response, which Tehran Bureau editors cleverly titled “Pretzel Logic on the American Left,” is a few hundred words longer than my original piece. One would think it only fair that Tehran Bureau then give me the space to respond, however, after an initial email exchange weeks ago where I asked to be given the chance to defend myself I’m still waiting to hear back. Unfortunately, it seems that few outside Iran are willing to take part in a discussion around the diverse “Green Movement” if it means portraying individual activists as anything other than “Gandhiesque.”

I’m pasting the text of my response which you can also find published below Postel’s response in In These Times here.

Contrary to Danny Postel’s claims, I did not intend to portray the Basij or Ahmadinejad government in a sympathetic light. Rather, my aim was to lend nuance to a complex reality in Iran that has been oversimplified by nearly all media outlets in the United States, from Fox News to commentators like Postel.

Unlike Postel, I do not attempt to make sweeping generalizations about the ideology of a diverse opposition movement that includes Iranians from all walks of life. Nor would I ever attempt to make such generalizations from the other side of the globe. I traveled to Iran to gain a better understanding of what was happening there.

Perhaps from my hometown Chicago, where Postel writes from and which I left years ago — knowing that I couldn’t accurately cover the Middle East without actually being here — I might share his naive assessment of the situation. But the fact is, on the ground in Tehran, I found a reality that doesn’t coincide with Postel’s illusions.

The majority of the opposition activists with whom I spoke seemed to not be as concerned with this idea of “nonviolence” as Postel and his friend from Columbia University. To impose this label upon them is absurd and offensive to those activists who don’t necessarily agree that the only justifiable form of resistance is one of “nonviolence.” Most activists I met were angry and ready to fight. One woman even expressed how she wishes Hezbollah (which she wholeheartedly supports) didn’t have such a close relationship with her government so that she could return to Lebanon with me and be trained in guerrilla warfare to use against the state.

Another activist, who expressed sympathies for the former Shah, told me a story about how her and her friends had to dive on top of a friend from South America during the June 2009 protests to protect him from dozens of raging opposition protesters who attacked him chanting “Basiji” just because of — as she explained it — his darker skin and beard. Such events prove the tremendous diversity in political and tactical strategy among the protesters.

To pretend that there is one ideology that unites the opposition couldn’t be further from the truth. This, along with the massive pro-government rallies since the elections that I pointed out and which Postel conveniently omits in his critique, are exactly why I conclude that what’s happening in Iran is not necessarily the makings of a new revolution.

Last year’s controversial elections have, however, sparked a new wave of political activity in Iran, and because of the sensitivity of the situation my sources all asked to remain anonymous. My article in no way apologizes for the Iranian government’s brutal repression of opposition activists. Postel, on the other hand, apologizing for Mousavi’s role as prime minister in the 1980s, shows the utter hypocrisy of many on the “left” who are no less guilty than the right for trying to prevent a more realistic portrayal of what’s happening in Iran from reaching people in the United States.

An American in Tehran

Tehran. (image: matthew cassel)

An American in Tehran
The ‘Green Revolution’ won’t come as soon as we think it will.
by Matthew Cassel

I awoke as the plane’s wheels touched the ground. Two women in the row ahead of me secured their scarves over their heads, and I popped some gum into my mouth to cover up any lingering scent of alcohol on my breath. Pulling up to the gate, I glimpsed the red, white and green flags with the distinctive “Allah” logo in the middle, welcoming me—I hoped—to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I was going to Iran in the midst of ongoing protests that began following last June’s contentious presidential elections. As an American journalist who has worked in the region for years, I was invited to give a talk at a media conference on the Western media’s coverage of the Middle East.

Juice boxes and Persian patriots

Azadi Square and Azadi Tower, Tehran (image: matthew cassel)

Azadi Tower is one of my favorite architectural structures anywhere in the world. I’m still not sure if my attraction to it is for purely aesthetic reasons or because of the fascinating history behind it. It’s definitely a combination of the two.

Azadi Tower was built by the Shah of Iran in 1971 to commemorate 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy. Originally called the King Memorial Tower, it was built as part of a series of nation-wide lavish events celebrating the anniversary that were heavily criticized by the Shah’s opponents, namely Ayatollah Khomeini in exile at the time. Eight years later the monarchy would be no longer. Khomeini and others, from Leftists to Islamists to workers to academics, overthrew the Shah and henceforth Iran became the Islamic Republic of Iran and King Memorial Tower became Freedom (Azadi in Farsi) Tower.

I stood with an Iranian friend, a dedicated opposition activist, in the middle of the huge square marveling at the tower with the mountains outside Tehran off in the distance. We took a seat off to the side and spoke about Iran, politics, life, and a number of other issues inspired by the tranquil square surrounded by a bustling metropolis. She laughed pointing at the freshly painted base of the tower that had previously been marked with green graffiti by opposition protesters when they gathered at Azadi Square during the large protests last June. It was an important time for her and many others in Tehran when their opposition movement seemed to have reached a critical mass.

After a while of talking under the sun we got up and I asked my friend if there was a place where we could get a drink. We brushed the grass and dirt off of our pants and looked around, nothing. I can’t remember if I said it out loud or not, but I certainly wished in my head that there was a NYC-style hot dog vendor or the Iranian equivalent at the square so we could get some quick and cheap refreshments. In any case, we got in a taxi and headed back into the city.

Months after the opposition, Azadi Square would again host large numbers of placard bearing Iranian demonstrators. On February 11, 2010, like on most February 11s since 1979, hundreds of thousands if not millions of Iranians came out to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the Iranian revolution. The below is a link to my critique of the Western media’s coverage of the anniversary and the ongoing internal conflict in Iran for the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

Not all Iranians hate their regime
by Matthew Cassel

Describing the events in Iran yesterday, CNN correspondent Ivan Watson made a point of mentioning that free food and drink were handed out in Azadi Square to those celebrating the 31st anniversary of the revolution – as if the treats were part of a cunning ploy by the Ahmadinejad government.

Although some of my friends in Tehran who walked for miles to attend the hours of festivities at Azadi Square told me regretfully that they were not offered free food or drink, I don’t doubt that refreshments were indeed distributed at the rally.

Why the US doesn't want "to be seen as meddling"


Mr Obama said he believed Iranian voices should be heard, although he added that he did not want to be seen to be “meddling”. “It is not productive, given the history of US and Iranian relations to be seen as meddling in Iranian elections,” he said. “But when I see violence directed at peaceful protesters, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed… it is of concern to me and it is of concern to the American people.”

What is the history of “US and Iranian relations?” Below is a Democracy Now program addressing this issue in 2003 on the 50th anniversary of the US/British led coup that overthrew Mohammed Mossadeq, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran.

Let us know

Let us know the name of every person killed fighting for what they believe in. Let us hear why they risked their life so the world would hear their message. Let us see the images of their death to know how it happened. Let us never forget them, any of them.

Bassem Abu Rahme (Image: ActiveStills)
Bassem Abu Rahme, killed 17 April 2009 at a demonstration in the West Bank city of Bilin

Neda Agha-Sultan
Neda Agha-Sultan killed 21 June 2009 at a demonstration in Tehran

The Western media and Iran


The Western media and Iran
Matthew Cassel, The Electronic Intifada, 23 June 2009

Protestors, anywhere in the world, are extremely brave individuals whose reasons for demonstrating openly should be listened to and respected. Protest is democracy at work. However, too often, US and other Western-based media pick and choose which protests to cover and which to ignore completely.

The US media often celebrate themselves as the “freest and fairest” in the world, completely independent of a state unlike, for example, the media in Iran. Yet, an astute observer will notice that the US media generally choose stories and cover them in a way that play directly into the US’s global agenda.

Who decides whether or not a particular issue is “newsworthy?” One would think that this is the role of the media, to cover issues like conflict or rights abuses as they happen around the world. Although, it seems this isn’t the case. Most Western media appear to follow their government’s lead when focusing on different issues and then cover them in a way fitting with the government’s position, hence the complete domination of events in Iran in nearly every single Western media outlet and the overwhelmingly positive portrayal of the protestors and the opposition as just. The current case of Iran makes it clear that it is governments who are directing the media’s coverage, instead of the actual news organizations themselves.

There was also a noticeable shift in the US media’s coverage of foreign affairs after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Soon after, then President George Bush’s rule of “with us or against us” was applied to all, and media outlets and individuals critical of American foreign policy were immediately demonized and labeled “unpatriotic” or “anti-American.” To counter such charges, it became common for American television journalists to prove their patriotism and loyalty by wearing American-flag lapel pins.

These reasons explain why over recent weeks while the Iran elections were happening there has been virtually no coverage in most media of demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands in Georgia or Peru. It has even been reported in Peru that dozens of persons have been killed during the protests, or “clashes” as they’ve also been labeled (since more than a dozen police have also been killed), more than the reported number killed in Iran.

Why are protests in Iran receiving more attention than those in other places? One logical explanation is that the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is a key ally of the US and NATO. Thus, the West and its media have remained largely silent about the opposition protests to not give them attention that would likely inspire the demonstrations to continue and grow, undoubtedly weakening the Saakashvili government.

Meanwhile, the situation in Latin America is particularly sensitive. Coverage of protests by indigenous groups and their supporters in Peru might further embolden these efforts and expose the unjust policies of recent Free Trade Agreements with the US and perhaps lead that country down a path like the increasingly popular governments of Venezuela or Bolivia. Of course, both nations are seen as “anti-American” for their critical positions regarding US intervention in Latin America.

However, Iran is different than both Georgia and Peru. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has probably overtaken Osama Bin Laden as the most hated individual in the US. Over the past several years, many officials in Washington have called for more aggressive actions to be taken against Iran. More recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave US President Barack Obama an ultimatum that the US president better take care of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, or else Israel would. It’s no coincidence then that the protests in Iran are receiving around-the-clock media coverage and are also one of the only examples in recent years where US government officials have showed support for demonstrators like Obama did when he called on Iran to “stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.” They are certainly not the only protests that have been met with violent government repression.

For years, Palestinians have organized weekly nonviolent demonstrations against Israel’s wall in the West Bank. Each week protestors face the heavily-armed Israeli military and are beaten and shot at with rubber-coated steel bullets and tear-gas canisters, sometimes fatally. Yet, during his recent speech in Cairo to the Muslim world, Obama made no reference to these protests and instead called on Palestinians to “abandon violence” and adopt nonviolent means. Days after the speech a Palestinian was killed and a teenager wounded during the weekly protest, yet there has been no call by the US administration for Israel to “stop all violent and unjust actions” against the Palestinian people. And the media has followed and remained silent, even though covering the demonstrations would be as easy as a 30-minute drive from most Jerusalem-based news bureaus on any given Friday.

Furthermore, at the height of the Bush Administration’s call for “democracy” in the Middle East, an indigenous democratic movement arose in Egypt to challenge the corruption and failed economic policies of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Comprised of workers who organized unprecedented strikes for four years that grew in number with each successive rally, the demonstrations received little coverage in the US. An odd occurrence, considering the duration of the strikes and the size of the protests, which a number of observers believe had the potential to lead to something much bigger in Egypt, perhaps even a “revolution.” The lack of media coverage of these events can only be explained by the relationship between the US and Egypt. Mubarak, who has governed Egypt for nearly three decades, is often referred to as a dictator for his repression of opposition political figures and journalists critical of his government. Yet, he remains one of the most important US allies in the Middle East, so “violent and unjust actions” against Egyptians is tolerated by the West.

Similarly, during Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza this past winter, there were massive and unprecedented demonstrations across the Middle East in support of Palestinians in the besieged territory. Again, these received minor if any mention, likely because it challenged the media and Washington’s narrative that Israel was “fighting Hamas.”

Also in accordance with that narrative, there was scant footage broadcast in the Western media from inside Gaza. Similar to what Iran is doing now, Israel banned journalists from entering Gaza during the attacks. Despite this, there were large Arabic-language satellite stations like Al-Jazeera reporting from the ground with footage of nearly everything that was happening there.

When images were shown by CNN or its competitors, it was generally not true to the real horror faced by Palestinians in Gaza. I can’t recall seeing one video of one of the hundreds of children killed in Gaza shown in the US media. In contrast, two days ago CNN broadcasted footage of a woman who was shot and bleeding to death on a Tehran street. Most of these viral videos are taken on citizens’ mobile phones, and they even have a special logo that CNN has created for the “unverified material.”

But there is plenty of “verified material” showing violent images from the Middle East and many other places around the world in recent days, weeks, years that has never been shown. Videos and testimonials are readily available on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, waiting, indeed begging, for the US media to take notice. But coverage of certain places might contradict US foreign policy there, something much of the media are proving unwilling to do.

If the elections and demonstrations in Iran have revealed anything, it is that there are undeniably huge divisions that will greatly affect the future of the country. It’s the individual’s decision to choose which side he or she supports, if any. And it’s the responsibility of the media to be independent of the authorities and to present accurate information in context so that news consumers’ judgments will be informed and not made based off the foreign policy of Western governments.

A free and independent media is an essential part of any democracy, and something that the West is proving more and more that it lacks.

CNN video of nighttime invasion

The above frightening “amateur video” was shown on CNN International. The video reminds me of every single night that I spent living in the Balata refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, except it’s missing the gun shots, percussion grenades and sounds of Israeli bulldozers plowing into shops on the main street. The below video was shot by a friend in Balata, unfortunately this “terrifying” video will never be shown on CNN. Neither will the “terrifying” videos of nightly home invasions by the US army in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If you wonder why there are no screams in the bottom video it’s because Palestinians have become used to the 3am invasions. When I lived in Balata they occurred about six nights out of the week. Nighttime invasions by police or the army are a horrific experience for anyone around, they should all be broadcast on CNN.