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A Critique of Fareed Zakaria's Uninformed Commentary on Iran [Part 1]

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Fareed Zakaria has been able to get a lot of name recognition throughout his years as the editor of Newsweek, and now as the host of Global Public Square on CNN. And usually, he deserves it. He brings in a fresh perspective and is of course able to bring some level of diversity to the previously predominantly white male institution that has been the U.S. foreign policy opinion making.

However, every once in a while, he seems to give in to conventional wisdom and expresses other people's highly uninformed and naïve opinions as his own. He expressed one of those opinions last Sunday when he criticized Senator McCain's speech at the National Endowment for Democracy during this institution's awarding of the 2010 Democracy Award to the Iranian Green Movement. There were so many inaccurate points in this five-minute opinion about Iran that warrants a two-part piece to counter. Here is part 1.

Fareed Zakaria rightly criticized McCain for previously suggesting that the U.S. must bomb Iran. But he also railed against Senator McCain's latest speech, in which McCain simply reiterated a number of facts about the brutality of the Iranian regime and the importance of the United States' vocal support for the Iranian regime. He did not say we must bomb Iran; nor did he say we should give material or financial support to the Green Movement. Nonetheless, determined to criticize McCain, Zakaria perpetuated a number of old misconceptions and stereotypes about Iran. Here they are:

Zakaria simply doesn't seem to understand what McCain said. Senator McCain simply said what every person who has ever been involved in a civil resistance movement understands, which is every regime's power is driven from a number of sources, such as its economic resources, police force and people's obedience of its repressive laws. One of those pillars is its legitimacy. By vocally supporting people's right to choose their own government, democratic countries can help to weaken the legitimacy of a repressive regime.

Zakaria could have made the right criticism of McCain by saying that Obama already gave a number of strong statements on the situation in Iran and more speeches were unwarranted. But unlike how Zakaria interpreted McCain, the senator did not say "if only Barack Obama had given a few more speeches that supported the Green Movement, the regime in Tehran would have collapsed." That's taking what McCain said and turning it into a cartoon. A reasonable interpretation of McCain was that a more vigorous support would have clarified to Iranians that we are on their side, and that's all Iranians have been wanting from democratic countries as they fought to maintain the momentum in the movement. But what actual Iranians on the ground think about diplomatic support from democratic countries seems to be irrelevant to Mr. Zakaria. As one Iranian put it in an e-mail to me shortly after the spark of the movement last June, "Of course we want President Obama to speak up. Why do you think we write our signs in English?"

Well, what exactly can qualify as "evidence" for Zakaria that the Iranian regime "could" be toppled sometime soon? Since last June, the regime has been unable to even live up to its own undemocratic Islamic Republic standards and resorted to full violent force to suppress widespread protests it can no longer control. It has become so insecure a regime that it sees any form of activity in the civil society as a threat. It arrests bloggers for expressing their opinions and journalist for reporting facts. Prisoners still held from June of last year are being raped, tortured and executed in Evin and other prisons every day. Here are some of the events that have happened over the past 3 weeks alone:

  • In a gas station line-up in Tehran, there was a clash between the people and Basiji militias, following which people shouted slogans such as "Death to Khamenei."
  • The confrontation between the Majlis, and Ahmadinejad has reached a new height.
  • Manoucheher Mottaki, the Iranian Foreign Minister who was invited to the E.U. Parliament, faced a group of the E.U. Representatives from Britain, Italy, Spain and Estonia at the entrance, calling him a "murderer," while holding pictures of Neda Agha Soltan.
  • Ayatollah Khamenei made a confidential trip to Qom to visit Ayatollahs Shobeiri Zanjani, Safi Golpayegani and Makarem Shirazi (three highly popular clerics). He had asked for their support, but his efforts were of no avail.
  • The UN Security Council passed a resolution imposing a fourth set of sanctions against Iran.
  • Cries of disapproval and shouting against Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, on the anniversary of Khomeini's death, triggered wide-spread reaction in the country. Many websites and newspapers supporting Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, particularly the IRGC owned Fars News, have condemned Hassan Khomeini because they believe he advocates the "revolt's leaders" and has turned his back to the Supreme Leader. On the other hand, many of the religious leaders, including Ayatollah Vahid Khorasani, the father-in-law of the head of the judiciary, have condemned the way the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini has been treated.
  • Major Torkaman, a member of the Revolutionary Guards' Intelligence Unit who had fled to Turkey, told the Guardian that the regime was on the verge of collapse on the day of Ashura. He said that an airplane was ready to transfer Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to Syria.

There are deep and widening cracks at the highest levels of the Iranian regime. The American media may have decided to stop covering the Green Movement, but using that as a reason to declare the Green Movement over or ineffective is similar for one to close one's eyes and pretend what he cannot see does not exist. In this context, what journalists are supposed to do is to inform and report on news stories that viewers do not know about, not to actively deny. through personal opinion-making, the existence of events that we know are occurring.

Polls by American think-tanks? Does Fareed know anything about Iran? This is a country that does not have the lowest level of tolerance towards dissent of any kind against the religious establishment. Iranian parents tell their children to make no criticisms of the regime while in school. I know; I was one of those children. Does Mr. Zakaria think Iranians are sitting by their phones, ready to receive a call from Washington DC on their tapped phone lines and tell the world how much they dislike Mr. Ahmadinejad? The real news here is not that 2/3 of people said they supported Ahmadinejad, but that there is such level of dissatisfaction among Iranians that a whopping 1/3 are willing to take such level of risk by telling Washington-based NGOs what they really think about Ahmadinejad.

Such analyses on the part of Fareed Zakaria indicates his heavy reliance on a series of major news events from Iran that are many months old and a deep lack of understanding about the most recent developments on the ground in Iran. If this is our journalists' level of knowledge and understanding about world events, can we hope or expect any more from our public and policy makers?

Read Part 2. ____________________ PostScript: Response to Comments