(NY) Times a-Changing?

If one wonders where the New York Times might stand in the event that the Bush administration decides (or has already decided) that Iran becomes the second member of the axis of evil to be attacked militarily, one need look no further than the last three days of their coverage of the Iranian presidential elections. On Thursday, the Times ran an Op-Ed piece by Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute: a neo-con rant in which she erroneously predicted voter turnout as “unlikely to top 30 percent” and portrayed the probable winner of the election, Rafsanjani, as a corrupt and brutal terrorist-sponsoring “wheeler-dealer”. But not only did she brand him as brute who neither the Europeans nor us should be thinking about doing business with, she also quoted an unnamed spokesman for the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei as having said about a Rafsanjani victory, “We will be able to have for ourselves the atomic bomb to fairly stand up to Israeli weapons.” Now that’s a doozy of Iranian self-incrimination, if ever there was one, and guaranteed to be included in any case for “regime-change” in Tehran by fellow neo-cons in the Bush administration. Except it’s not exactly true. Although Ms. Pletka cited no reference (and the Times’ fact-checkers must not have cared), what is true is that on May 27th an Italian web site reported a cleric, at Friday prayers in Azerbaijan, saying those exact words (although presumably not in English). The site identifies him as a “representative of the Supreme Leader”, not his spokesman, but neglects to mention that technically any mullah in Iran, wacko or not, could claim to be the representative of Khamenei (although it’s unclear that the mullah had even made such a claim). The site also reports that this mullah bemoaned Iran’s "talking to other civilizations" in the same speech, a sentiment that would confirm him to be at odds with, not speaking for, Khamenei. Besides, no one in Iran or anywhere else for that matter, other than Ms. Pletka, seems to think that Rafsanjani is the Supreme Leader’s favored candidate, as he’s hardly likely to want a formidable rival in the Presidency rather than a malleable loyalist. (Just how does one get a job at the American Enterprise Institute?)

On Friday, election day, the Times’ lead editorial labeled the Iranian elections a sham. The same editorial (adjusted to past tense), ran in Saturday’s International Herald Tribune, the Times’ Paris-based international newspaper. The Times’ editors agreed with President Bush’s dismissal of the Iranian elections as undemocratic, although oddly they did encourage Iranians to actually vote. The Iranians however, grateful as I’m sure they are to the NY Times for explaining how deficient their political process is, were probably not following its advice when they did exactly that, in numbers far greater than had been predicted. As of this writing, it appears that some 62% of eligible voters cast a ballot, a healthy turnout by any standards including our own.

Iran’s election results were announced on Saturday afternoon by the Interior Ministry, confirming the predicted lack of an outright winner but showing the surprise second-place finish of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former Tehran mayor and hard-line conservative, to top vote-getter Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. (It seems Ahmadinejad drew much support from the poor and the pious, persons not normally included in polls, or likely to have tea with western journalists.) A runoff election is set for next Friday (the 24th), with Rafsanjani likely to emerge the winner. But on Saturday afternoon (and dated for the Sunday edition of the Times), Michael Slackman, reporting from Tehran, titles his dispatch “Iran Moderate Says Hardliners Rigged Election” and tells us that the election has been “thrown into turmoil”. While it is true that Mehdi Karroubi, the lesser known reformist (and cleric) in the race has leveled accusations of fraud against Ahmadinejad, “turmoil” doesn’t appear to be an accurate description of the scene in Tehran, or at least not yet, and not according to other news media.

Regardless of what the NY Times thinks of the elections or the American Enterprise Institute thinks of Rafsanjani, Iran had a remarkable week. An election that was marred by bombings and thuggish intimidation at reformist rallies nonetheless proceeded relatively smoothly, and for all the talk of boycott and meaningless results, showed that Iranians still think their votes mean something. We may not like the Islamic Democracy that Iran proclaims itself to be, but if regime-change at the barrel of a gun is still on the minds of Messrs. Bush and Cheney, one hopes these elections give them pause rather than a reason.