This week, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed his Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, for no given reason. The problem is that the mainstream media, and most politicians, haven't stopped to ask why the Foreign Minister was dismissed. Instead, they've wondered whether this will result in a change of direction with respect to Iran's nuclear program. Think about it: Iran drops its foreign minister, basically an employee, and the press asked questions about policy change. If McDonald's fired their drive-through order taker, would this signal an upcoming change in the menu? It seems like it hasn't even occurred to the analysts and politicians that this seemingly small action, which will likely have no immediate impact on diplomatic efforts, is actually the clearest sign yet that Western leaders do not comprehend the reality of Iran's highly volatile political situation.
The focus on the nuclear program has literally made the media blind to the whole picture.
The reason for Ahmadinejad's move is obvious. Inside Iranian politics, Ahmadinejad and his hard-line policies are being threatened by the chairman of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani. Larijani and the other "Principalists" are also conservatives, like Ahmadinejad, but they are highly critical of his administration. Many believe that his reckless economic policies are driving Iran's economy into unsustainable inflation. They believe that Ahmadinejad's hostility towards Israel and the West have alienated Iran from the rest of the world. They also believe that Ahmadinejad's administration has botched the response to last year's presidential election. Things are so tense between Ahmadinejad and his parliament that just last month he was nearly impeached, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had to stop the proceedings. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki is extremely close with Larijani. His firing is a sure-fire sign that Ahmadinejad is getting nervous about the loyalty of his own government. On the other hand, Ali Salehi, the new Foreign Minister, is extremely close with Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. This power struggle is heating up, and it has massive implications.
The media is ignoring Ahmadinejad's fading power inside his own party. They are also ignoring one of the major stressors to the regime, the ongoing protests of the opposition movement and the struggle of journalists and free thinkers inside Iran. Just last week, thousands of protesting students, at universities in multiple cities, took to the streets to protest the actions of their own government. These protests erupted during a holiday commemorating the sacrifices of students in the freeing of Iran from the CIA/UK backed monarchy in 1953. Students chanted and sang protest songs in unity, and in defiance of the regime. These protests were larger and more widespread than many predicted, indicating that the green graffiti and protest slogans often seen on the sides of buildings are only the tip of the iceberg.
The Iranian Green Movement is playing a dangerous game. Since June 2009's presidential elections, thousands have been arrested, many of whom have been whipped or tortured. Others have been killed or beaten in the street. Hundreds of journalists, protesters, and human rights activists remain in Iranian prisons. Some of these prisoners may die there. Just this week, news emerged that dissident Isa Saharkhiz is suffering from internal bleeding and is in critical condition. Many other activists, including journalist & filmaker Mohammad Nourizad and attorney Nasrine Sotoudeh, have their health threatened by their own hunger strikes, one of their last tools to bring attention to their plight. Others, like Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki (Babak Khorramdin), a cyber activist, have had to hide their arrest out of fear of reprisal against friends and family. Still others face death penalties for little more than being ethnic minorities, like Zeinab Jalalian, a 27 year old woman, who is facing death, basically for being Kurdish.
So why is the media ignoring these other stories? One of the reasons is that this story is notoriously hard to report. Since the failed elections, all foreign journalists have been expelled from Iran. The result is that the news is smuggled out through social media, a handful of opposition websites, and second and third-party sources. In fact, besides the network of bloggers that cover these stories, only the Wall Street Journal and the L.A. Times had coverage of last week's protests at all. Most news agencies are uncomfortable getting their news this way, and they are probably more than slightly threatened by the websites that do use these methods to report the news from the hard-to-reach places of the world.
But there is another reason. Western audiences, and especially Americans, don't like complicated, sad stories. We like good guys and bad guys, cowboys and Indians, terrorists and allies. We don't like to hear that 40-60% of the population of a country that we view as an enemy might very well be a friend. We don't like to hear that the government we are negotiating with is illegitimate, or weak. We also don't like to follow the slow development of an opposition movement that we can do little to help. We like sexy stories like weapons of mass destruction or revolution, and we certainly like clarity.
Unfortunately, as long as we're not paying attention, we're also not helping, and until the media starts to cover these stories, many more people may die before things improve in Iran.
Thursday marks the Ashura holiday in Iran. James will be covering the event live, starting at midnight (EST) on his blog, Dissected News.