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Be Careful Who You Put Your Trust in When It Comes to Iran Protests
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The international media has a poor record in reporting protests and uprisings in the wider Middle East since 2011. These complex struggles were presented as simple battles between good and evil, like a scene out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Surprise and anguish were expressed when the supposed dawning of freedom and democracy in Libya, Syria and Yemen instead produced savage civil wars while Egypt and Bahrain became strikingly more authoritarian and repressive than before.

Whatever the causes of the failure of news organisations to understand developments in these countries, they had clearly got something very wrong about what was happening.

The recollection of being so very wrong about the likely direction of the Arab Spring should make the foreign media warier in reporting the demonstrations in Iran; which started in the city of Mashad on 28 December and swiftly spread all over the country. The Iranian government claims that its security forces have suppressed the protests or they are fizzling out, but there is evidence of fresh outbreaks, though at a reduced level. The slogans shouted and the limited number of interviews with protesters suggest that they are motivated by poverty, unemployment, rising prices and reduced subsidies for food and fuel, combined with rage against the greed and corruption of the ruling elite.

Many commentators downplay the protests as unlikely to have a long-term effect on Iran, on the grounds that they have no leadership, organisation, plan or coherent set of demands. But journalists tend to overrate the need for such neat organisational structures in order to confront the state; they are frustrated by the absence of identifiable leaders and spokespeople whom they can quote and interview.

Some compare the demonstrators negatively, in terms of size and potential impact, with the mass rallies and marches in Tehran in 2009. This may be true, but the absence of an organised structure also makes suppression more difficult for government security forces, who find it easier to arrest opponents who are properly labelled and identifiable.

On the contrary, I find the lack of organisation, unpredictability and geographically widespread nature of the outbreaks of unrest a persuasive sign that they are genuine and express widespread discontent. Had they really been organised by the CIA and Mossad using Saudi money, as alleged by the Iranian chief prosecutor Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, journalists would probably be dealing with a slick PR operation producing graphic images of police brutality and injured protesters.

As it is, there are many videos taken by smartphones in dozens of provincial cities and towns showing angry crowds chanting anti-government slogans. But the pictures I have looked at are mostly blurry and it is impossible to tell what sort of people are protesting, their numbers or even if they are men or women. This amateurism is convincing evidence for me that we are not dealing with a put-up job, because those who fabricate or manipulate video film often give themselves away because the images they produce are too compelling to be true.

If one was looking for signs of the involvement of the CIA, or of exiled Iranian opposition groups connected to foreign intelligence services, one would find their footprint in a more professional handling of publicity. I was in Tehran in early 2011 when there were some demonstrations seeking to emulate the Arab Spring, but they never gained momentum. In my hotel I could bring up plenty of exciting film on YouTube of protesters throwing stones at the security forces, but when I went out they were nowhere to be seen. I complained about this to local Iranian journalists who worked for the foreign media but had had their press credentials suspended by the government. They laughed and said the protests had dwindled to nothing because of the massive presence of riot police, but even if they had been allowed to report this, they would not have been believed because the carefully edited videos being pumped out by exile groups were setting the agenda.

It was mid-winter in Tehran, but some film of rioting had trees in full leaf in the background. One should not be naive about this and assume it is just opposition groups that get up to such tricks: government intelligence agencies in the Middle East certainly try to discredit video evidence of dissent by posting demonstrably phoney film of demonstrations.

Genuine difficulties frustrate journalists reporting popular protests and uprisings which are, by their very nature, incoherent and ignite suddenly in unexpected places. Visas for journalists to stay in Iran are difficult to obtain, and, once there, there are restrictions on travelling around the country. A vacuum of information is created which, at a moment of intense international interest, is going to be filled with dubious stories from partisan sources. Governments hypocritically claim that they are being unfairly demonised when it is they themselves who have created the vacuum being used by their enemies.

There may be no evidence on the ground of a hidden American or Saudi hand behind the demonstrations at this stage, but they will presumably try to take advantage of them. The former US ambassador to the UN and neo-conservative John Bolton says firmly that “our goal should be regime change in Iran”, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has in the past called for intervention inside Iran.

President Trump is draining the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran of any benefit for the Iranians and is unlikely to recertify next week that Iran is sticking by its terms. He is trying to use the protests to justify toppling the deal, but the crudity of his anti-Iranian tweets may make it difficult for him to garner support when the UN Security discusses the protests on Friday afternoon.


It is right to criticise journalists who overstrain the evidence when it comes to Syria, but their sins are nothing compared to “experts” in think tanks or universities who this week were happily joining up dots that may not even exist and drawing broad conclusions on the strength of a few slogans shouted by some anonymous figure on a video of unknown provenance. For instance, one chant of “No Gaza, no Lebanon, our lives for Iran,” and another of “Leave Syria alone, think about us” immediately led some talking heads to conclude that Iranians in general oppose intervention abroad.

Such conclusions are dangerous because they are based on no real evidence, and the news that the rising Iranian regional superpower has feet of clay is exactly what many in the US and Saudi governments would like to hear. It is doubly welcome because it comes at the very moment when Iran’s allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are in the ascendant and have emerged victorious from six years of war.

Governments should ask – as they did not do in Iraq, Libya or Syria – if the academic or think tank specialist so sure about what is happening in Iran has recently visited the country or knows much about it. They should recall that only a few years ago similar experts were predicting the break-up of Iraq and the inevitable fall of President Bashar al-Assad.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Media, Iran 
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  1. I think Eric Margolis has a better handle on this than Cockburn, who is still employed by a mainstream organisation. While the protests started as opposition to economic policies, the riots, which were on a smaller scale than indicated by Cockburn, appear to have the earmarks of foreign intervention. As such, they don’t have much staying power, since the whiff of treason marks them, and the continuity with the modus operandi of the yankee imperium’s highjacking of demonstrations in other countries hostile to it is a track record which the writer seems to have forgotten. People should also check the writings of “b” on the website and the comments appended thereto for knowledgeable discussion of this entire issue.

  2. CalDre says:

    Whatever the causes of the failure of news organisations to understand developments in these countries

    Failure to understand? LOL. How about deliberate ((Bolshevik)) propaganda/disinfo. Oh, right, Cockburn works for the “Independent”.

  3. Anonymous [AKA "schloss"] says:

    Cockburn, the staunch supporter of the (failed) Yinon plan, didn’t see any CIA/Mossad interference in the almost identical Syria “demonstrations” either, why would he?

    He wouldn’t even if it jumped up and bite him in his @ss, because is it anything he and his Zionazi paymasters hate more than anything else, including Russia, it’s Iran. They lost Syria, one of his last articles was his (failed) prediction and hope that Syria was about to break up along sectarian lines, I.e the Yinon plan, it didn’t (except for US’s occupation of the eastern parts of Syria, in which they are landlocked, trapped and exposed to all kind of hit-and-run attacks as well as direct attacks from General Soleimani who issued a direct warning).

    Cocky hence sat his hopes on a swift “regime change” in Iran but lost (again).

  4. KA says:

    ASSAD (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We will deal with every situation through the U.N. If it happens, I cannot really go into a hypothesis at this point. However, there is no such safe haven or camp of the kind to be bombed.
    AMANPOUR: Mr. President, you know the rhetoric of regime change is headed towards you from the United States. They are actively looking for a new Syrian leader. They’re granting visas and visits to Syrian opposition politicians. They’re talking about isolating your diplomatically and, perhaps, a coup d’etat or your regime crumbling. What are you thinking about that?

    Lets talk about another country – say India. Lot of muslims feel neglected victimized and marginalized . New Indian leader is going strong and becoming very powerful He also has decided to reorient Indian policy to Russia China Iran and Venjeuala .

    Soon the demonization will start The old records will be dusted off shelves. Archives will be posted online . Media will start echoing each other and and amplify verbatim the concerns and rhetorics of Pentagon Defense and of Congress . Visa will be issued to muslim activists(opportunists )
    . Congress will arrange hearings . Guest will be feted . Diplomatic political economic isolation will lead the path to economic hardships and ruin leading to crumbling of the state. There is and there will always be opposition to any leader . India is not different . People use opportunities of all shades to clinch power . Very soon “Hinduvatta” will be ridiculed and questioned by the same elite who are supporting. it now . Suddenly mainstream Indian and US media and the rich powerful Indian will notice the mistreatment of minorities

    and the repressive policies of the existing leadership .

    A new war- a synthetic was will ensue . Yes Mr Cockburn will write about the both sides, about various camps , about intrinsic Indian fault lines . But will he write about New CNN and New Annapour ? Will he dig to find where the main body of the conspiracy lies ?

  5. Cockburn, like his brother Alexander, is mainstream, well-connected and in the know. Neither will touch a crazy conspiracy theory by a denizen of the masses of the great unwashed. Read PC Roberts this week on these protests. Look to the great British aristocrat propagandist Aldous Huxley’s 1962 speech ‘The Ultimate Revolution’, still available on youtube. Among many very interesting tidbits in it, he mentions the simple fact, well understood by his Berkeley audience, that of course ‘ALL revolutions are started by the elites’, that ‘it’s always been that way and presumably always will be that way’ (quoted from memory). He goes on to give the simple blueprint for this, the ultimate revolution. In a word, drugs. In a few words, psychological techniques coupled with drugs. (Psychological techniques include any and everything to do with mass culture, the music, the movies et al, plus schooling, publishing–all, by virtue of miracle, ON MESSAGE.) Charming stuff.

  6. American think tanks predict what they are paid to predict, with opinions they are paid to push.

    The American media is a simple megaphone for that because it is cheap and easy. Call a longstanding contact at a think tank, type a quick article repeating that, and go to lunch with deadline met.

  7. rta says:

    This guy sounds like Nikki Haley lite. “Leave Syria alone, think about us” Seriously? I would think most Iranians understand the significance of Syria and how they would be next. I think they can read. PNAC anyone?

  8. MEexpert says:

    The international media has a poor record in reporting protests and uprisings in the wider Middle East since 2011.

    Tut tut Mr. Cockburn. A british journalist of such experience does not know that “media” is plural for “medium” and therefore the sentence should start with “The international media have” not has. Oh well! I could just imagine what the rest of the aticle would look like. There is another grammatical error later but I will not go into it.

    If the international journalists and the think tank experts cannot see the “Soros like” hand behind these protests then they have no right to report on these events. Most of these think tank experts have never been to Iran or Syria or even Yemen but they report so authoritatively that ones head starts spinning.

    No one can deny that there is corruption in the government but are the UK and the US immune to such corruption? Is there economic hardship for the people of Iran? Yes, but who caused it. The relentless economic sanctions imposed on Iran are the main cause for these economic hardships which Mr. Cockburn fails to even mention. The US and Europe are imposing sanctions from left and right, almost on a daily basis and people expect that they will not have any effect on the ordinary people.

    There may have been genuine protests in the holy city of Mashad about the economic conditions but the spontaneous flare up of these protest in other parts of Iran with slogans against the regime has all the earmarks of foreign intervention.

    The former US ambassador to the UN and neo-conservative John Bolton says firmly that “our goal should be regime change in Iran”, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has in the past called for intervention inside Iran.

    Does one need any more evidence than this? Mr. Cockburn also failed to mention that Netanyahu has expressed support for these protesters and that Mossad/CIA/MEK have been involved in regime change efforts for a long time. The paragraph below proves that point.

    For instance, one chant of “No Gaza, no Lebanon, our lives for Iran,” and another of “Leave Syria alone, think about us” immediately led some talking heads to conclude that Iranians in general oppose intervention abroad.

    Where did this chant come from? The think tank experts think that the average Irani is as ignorant of the world affairs as the average American. The Iranians know foreign intervention when they see it and that is why the protests started to fizzle out. By the way the term “think tank experts” is a misnomer because they are neither experts nor do they think.

  9. MEexpert says:

    The moonofalabama cites a report from Reuters:

    DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran has banned the teaching of English in primary schools, a senior education official said, after the country’s Supreme Leader said early learning of the language opened the way to a Western “cultural invasion”.

    At least two Iranians confirmed that english is not taught in primary schools. The teaching of english does not start until the 7th grade.

    So, according to Reuters, Iran “banned” something from its school curriculum that was not and is not in there.

    Sounds familiar. The famous “fake news” that Iran has nuclear weapons. The mantra is repeated by every news outlet until the average american believes this to be true. Iran says it does not have any nuclear weapons, does not plan to have in the future, an assertion affirmed by 17 US intelligence agencies. Yet the US demands that Iran stop developing (the non-existing) nuclear weapons and goes on to impose sanctions.

  10. A “poor record”? Complex matters over-simplified? Failure to understand? Expressions of “surprise and anguish”?

    You can’t name ONE lying neocon asshole who ever admitted he was wrong about his lies. They know exactly what they’re doing. And here we go again.

    They’ve achieved most of what they’ve wanted on behalf of Israel and the military-industrial complex.

    Take note Cockburn made no mention of “pro-government protests” reported elsewhere. Now tell me, how can a protest be “pro-government”? What is being protested?

    You call it a rally when it is an assembly in favor of something. So even the “pro-government protests” are asinine Orwellian wording. Do we call a Trump rally a “pro-Trump protest”?

    Another puerile assertion is that CIA involvement would have resulted in Hollywood production values. Just like the Bay of Pigs and a long list of others, I guess.

    Iran is clearly the exact place where Trump wanted to have the CIA hard at work. But he had to start from the contrary footing Obama left him. It looks to have been both rash and reckless. I’d say that fits.

  11. “journalists would probably be dealing with a slick PR operation producing graphic images of police brutality and injured protesters.”

    See the latest major news items about Ghouta (Damascus suburb held by the worse guys), complete with photogenic tots, gallant White Helmets, “barrel bombs” and overworked medical staff, though not too overworked to be giving interviews calling for UN/US no fly zones – in short, a rerun of the Aleppo PR campaign.

    Strangely, the calls to send in Our Gallant Boys seem to be falling on deaf ears after 15 years of buggering up the Middle East.

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