Iran & ‘The Grey Lady:’ All the views fit to print?
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Iran & ‘The Grey Lady:’ All the views fit to print?

But, as if for some editorial reason, the sidelining of one Iran basher on the pages of The New York Times has given rise to another. The paper has a new columnist with what also looks like a “special interest” in Iran: Bret Stephens, who joined the Times in April 2017 and who writes on a freewheeling basis about Iran. Like Mr. Friedman, Mr. Stephens — a former editor-in-chief at The Jerusalem Post — appears to be a contributing columnist who does commissioned interviews with Iran’s adversaries. He maintains a pretense of an expertise of sorts on Iran, opining on the Islamic Republic’s history and politics with a certain political bigotry that is uncannily reminiscent of Mr. Friedman’s reductive descriptions of the country. “The overarching goal of Western policy cannot be to appease Iran into making partial and temporary concessions on its nuclear program, purchased at the cost of financing its other malignant aims. The goal must be to put an end, finally, to 40 years of Persian night,” Mr. Stephens wrote in a recent article on The New York Times. With a varied population of roughly 80 million, Iran plainly cannot be the subject of analysis that maintains the glittering glow of a gilded but hollow ewer from Qajar Persia. It is a country of devout Muslim Shias and Sunnis, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, etc., and the less practicing followers of those religions and sects combined. It is a country where liberal-minded, Western-educated individuals — some of them with modest beginnings in rural Iran — live side by side with sparsely literate but as politically sharp-minded citizens — some of them living in upscale urban neighborhoods. And it is a country where the population is only roughly divided between principlists and reformists, whose diverse political viewpoints don’t neatly match that categorization. That is mainly why no real Iran expert would risk his/her stature to offer overly simplistic descriptions of the country. It is a sign of the socio-political complexities of the Iranian state and society — often invisible to the eyes of ubiquitous so-called Iran watchers — that one of the keenest Iran observers, Oxford University Professor Homa Katouzian, describes the 1979 revolution against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi — that most consequential of incidents in modern Iranian history — as an uprising of the entire echelons of the Iranian society and not just the underprivileged and the faithful, which many of those lesser “experts” today often believe was the case. “The revolution had many long- and short-term causes, although it would not have turned into the revolt of the whole of society against the state had the state enjoyed a reasonable amount of legitimacy and social base among some (at least the propertied and/or modern and secular) social classes,” Mr. Katouzian writes in his magnum opus “The Persians.” Blissfully ignorant of the many complexities of the Iranian society, Mr. Stephens uses such petty material as scarce footage on YouTube from last year to somehow conclude that there is widespread Iranian discontent with the regime. “Most importantly, ordinary Iranians know where to pin the blame. Last summer, social media captured Iranian protesters chanting ‘Death to Palestine,’ ‘No to Gaza, no to Lebanon,’ and ‘Leave Syria and think of us.’ These are people sick of going hungry and unpaid while singing the ‘Death to America’ theme song,” he wrote sweepingly of “ordinary Iranians.” Of course, it is not like Iran is having no problems. Its currency has lost some 60 percent of its value against the dollar. The price of a kilo of red meat has multiplied by almost three times. Prices of cars have similarly skyrocketed. So have housing prices. But Iran is not on the verge of a crisis. If you move around major cities in Iran, trying to gauge the mood of the people, you do see a population largely unhappy with inflation, high prices, and unemployment; but you don’t come across any meaningful segment of the population suddenly disillusioned with their government of 40 years and ready to overthrow it — a bleak pseudo-reality that both Mr. Freidman and now Mr. Stephens have seemed to portray throughout their career of “punditry.” The mood in Iran may be grim, but it is not anti-regime. That is partly because — and this is the biggest thing Mr. Stephens is tone-deaf to — Iranians understand that the economic difficulties they face now largely stem from the US President Donald Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, not the administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s potential shortcomings. For almost two years since that deal was implemented, Iran’s inflation rate stood at a largely steady average of 10 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. That was a remarkable record, despite widespread government economic mismanagement. The Iranians also understand that the administration of President Rouhani negotiated that deal in good faith, with panache, and has been — following the Trump administration’s withdrawal — doing all it can to alleviate problems, including on the international stage. No less importantly, the Iranians understand that the Rouhani administration is the least partisan, most effective administration they probably can get, because of the arrangement and credentials of the ministers and despite the endorsements he has received from big names in the reformist camp. If you know the administration you voted for is capable, is true to its goals, and is doing its best to reach them, you don’t form a movement to overthrow it. Yet, Iran bashers tend to see what is invisible to all other eyes: widespread discontent among the Iranian population directed at their government. I am not saying that there are no anti-regime sentiments in Iran. But are the majority of the Iranians rebellious? Unlike what Mr. Stephens would like to imagine, they are not. And that is why the Iranian government is sustained. If most Iranians aren’t exactly about to go gung-ho on the regime, why is it that Mr. Stephens, a foreign-based columnist, seeks to portray Iran as such and openly advocates regime change in the country on the pages of The New York Times? To anyone who really follows Iran, that is wishful thinking — or helpless provocation. And if it is punditry, it is dangerously misguided. * Mr. Stephens’ oblivion to Iranian affairs is evident in another of his articles, in which he published pieces of an interview with Gadi Eisenkot, the then-outgoing Israeli chief of staff. Mr. Stephens leaves the most telling part of his insight for the very last sentence: “Thanks to Gadi Eisenkot, at least we know the Iranians aren’t invincible.” Here, he gives himself away: apparently until now, he was thinking that the Iranians are invincible, and now he is joy-struck to be presented (and to present) a different picture that better suits his id. And that is the portrait of a columnist whom The New York Times has chosen to give a steady voice to. Don’t get me wrong! To give a steady voice to the two (or more) sides of a debate with international relevance is a virtue; to allow certain individuals to steadily misguide readers is a vice. It is not like The New York Times does not publish more balanced articles about Iran. But such pieces are occasional appearances whereas columns by Mr. Stephens and Mr. Friedman are regular ones. We may take a smidge of joy in the fact that, while The New York Times has given a free pass to Mr. Stephens, and despite the “contrarian twist” that he may have been prized for, the readers often call him out. Just read the comments on Mr. Stephens’ articles. An astonishing majority of the comments are a dressing down of his attempted arguments, pointing to his misjudgments on Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Undoubtedly, no columnist is immune to mistaken beliefs about the world, but readers seem to forgive a columnist’s mistaken words if readers realize the person in question is not being fake, even if he is being false. In Mr. Stephens’ case, though, readers mostly see through him.

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