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How American Media Spin-Doctored the Iranian Protests

Barely a month ago, Iranians were amassing in the streets to protest against their government. Their core grievances, according to Western media and politicos, were the economy, foreign policy, expansionism, and human rights.

Today, the protests are over. But according to a recent survey [1] by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (based at the University of Maryland) and IranPoll, only one of those grievances actually provided the spark: the economy.

According to the poll, more than 72 percent of 1,002 Iranian respondents agreed that their government is not doing enough to help the poor, 86 percent said it shouldn’t increase the price of gasoline, 95 percent wanted a halt on the rising prices of food products, and an equal number agreed that their leaders should do more to fight financial and bureaucratic corruption.

Asked to select the single most important problem or challenge currently facing Iran, respondents overwhelmingly selected unemployment (40.1 percent), followed by inflation and high costs of living (12.5 percent), youth unemployment (9.4 percent), low incomes (6.9 percent), financial corruption/embezzlement (6 percent), and so forth.

Interestingly enough, “lack of civil liberties” was the least selected of the options offered by the pollsters, coming in at a paltry 0.3 percent, while “injustice” garnered just 1.4 percent.

President Donald Trump thought otherwise: “The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted,” he tweeted [2]. “Big protests in Iran…The U.S.A is watching very closely for human rights violations!” blared another Trump tweet [3].

In fact, according to poll results, over 66 percent of respondents believed their police forces handled the protests very well (34.5 percent) or somewhat well (31.8 percent), compared to 23.7 percent who said demonstrations were managed somewhat or very badly. Some 63 percent of those polled said the police used an appropriate amount of force, and another 11.4 percent said they used “too little force.”

While 64.5 percent of respondents answered that “peaceful protesters who were chanting slogans against government policies” should be released from detention, 42.3 percent said “peaceful protesters who were chanting slogans against Islam or religious laws” should be “prosecuted, but not punished harshly,” with an additional 31.9 percent saying they “should be punished harshly.”

That trend continues with 68.3 percent of respondents agreeing that protesters “chanting slogans against Iran’s political system” should be prosecuted, and a whopping 62.5 percent insisting that protesters burning Iran’s flag should be “prosecuted and punished harshly.” Almost the same numbers demanded prosecution and punishment for those attacking the police (63.9 percent) and damaging public property (59.7 percent).

Overall, 84.5 percent of Iranians strongly agreed (63 percent) or somewhat agreed (21.5 percent) that “the government should be more forceful to stop rioters who use violence or damage property.”

Meanwhile, back at the UN Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley [4] was spinning her version of Iranian “aspirations.” The protests, she railed, are “a powerful exhibition of brave people who have become so fed up with their oppressive government that they’re willing to risk their lives in protest.” Haley also demanded emergency UN meetings to deal with Iran’s domestic situation.

Yet when asked whether their government interferes too much in people’s personal lives, a hefty 66.8 percent of Iranians disagreed, compared to 26.3 percent who agreed.

But American pundits were well past looking for “evidence” at that point. As Brookings Institution fellow Suzanne Maloney [5] told the Washington Post: “What’s different” about these Iranian protests is “that people aren’t just demonstrating for better working conditions or pay, but insisting on wholesale rejection of the system itself.”

According to the poll results, only 16.4 percent of Iranians agreed with the statement that “Iran’s political system needs to undergo fundamental change”—76.7 percent disagreed, with 53.5 percent them saying they “strongly disagreed.” That’s a staggering three quarters that, according to this poll, appear to favor their current government. And this number correlates with the over 70 percent of voters that cast ballots in Iranian elections—surely a sign of a system’s “legitimacy” if there ever was one.

Indeed, shortly after the poll’s release, the Washington Post [6] changed its tune and acknowledged that Iranians showed “comparatively little support for changing Iran’s political system or relaxing strict Islamic law.”

Iran’s foreign policy is at the core of U.S. frustrations in the region, as the Islamic Republic and its allies continue to make gains in military theaters that affect American hegemonic goals. This explains why U.S. media and politicians jumped all over the few protest slogans that appeared to show support for Iran exiting its strategic and military commitments within the region. Those slogans were often granted equal weight with the more economic ones, despite the fact that the economy was clearly the motivating factor behind Iranian unrest.

Former president Barack Obama’s “Iran czar” Dennis Ross even published a piece in Foreign Policy [7] titled “Iranians are mad as hell about their foreign policy” where he very transparently tried to tie Iran’s economic woes to its military expenditures in the region—and not, for instance, U.S. sanctions. “The protesters are asking why their money is spent in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza—and the administration should be putting out the estimates of what the Islamic republic is actually spending,” he advised the White House. “The Iranian public is making it clear it is fed up with the costs of the country’s expansion in the region.”

Does he have a point? The poll shows that a majority of Iranians (51.1 percent) disagree with the statement that “the government should spend less money in places like Syria and Iraq,” while 41.3 percent agreed. That number increases when it’s asked whether “Iran’s current level of involvement in Iraq and Syria is not in Iran’s national interest,” with 61.2 percent disagreeing and 32.6 percent agreeing. (Keep in mind that the poll was taken after ISIS had been largely defeated in both Syria and Iraq.)

The survey even specifically asks whether military assistance to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should change “now that Iran and Russia have declared victory over ISIS in Syria.” To this, 14.8 percent of Iranians responded that military assistance should end, 30 percent said it should be “reduced,” and 48.5 percent answered it should continue “until Assad’s government gains full control over all Syrian territories.”

Furthermore, an overwhelming 86.5 percent of Iranians think Iran should increase (54.8 percent) or maintain at current levels (31.7 percent) its “support of groups fighting terrorist groups like ISIS.”

The Wall Street Journal [8] should pay attention to these figures. During Iran’s protests, it ran the headline “Iran’s Spending on Foreign Conflicts Raises Protesters’ Ire,” and stated quite incorrectly that “the billions of dollars Iran spends on foreign conflicts have been a focal point of protester anger at a time when domestic inflation and unemployment are in double digits. Crowds chanting ‘Leave Syria, think of us!’ are seeking to force Tehran to reassess a cornerstone of its foreign policy: the use of proxies to spread its influence and challenge regional rivals, notably Saudi Arabia.”

It’s another example of American media trying to connect Iranian economic grievances to the nation’s security imperatives. That trick simply doesn’t work in wartime—or when populations perceive security threats. Even the menace of further U.S. sanctions that could lead to more economic contraction doesn’t alter this perception among Iranians—70 percent said “Iran should not agree to stop developing advanced missiles” even if Trump threatens sanctions.

The Washington Post [9] was all over this too: “’No Gaza, no Lebanon, our lives for Iran,’ the crowds chanted at one of the first demonstrations. ‘Leave Syria alone, think about us,’ and ‘Death to Hezbollah’ were among other slogans.”

Yet two thirds of Iranians (64.7 percent) told pollsters that they viewed Hezbollah favorably, and a stunning 82.7 percent favored the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force’s elite unit commander General Qassem Soleimani, the highest number garnered in the poll by a featured Iranian political figure. Soleimani is the architect of most of Iran’s (and its allies’) battle plans in Syria and Iraq.

Iran is one of only a few stable nations in a neighborhood torn apart by war and terrorism, so it isn’t difficult to understand why defense expenditures that enhance the country’s strategic depth and protect its borders are given a pass, even as economic pressures abound.

The CISSM/IranPoll survey [1] is worth a thorough perusal, as it provides valuable insights on what Iranians think on a variety of issues—including key U.S. ones like the nuclear deal. Even more importantly, it helps separate fact from fiction on the Islamic Republic at a time when the U.S. administration is ramping up the war propaganda [10] once again.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Mideast geopolitics based in Beirut.

29 Comments (Open | Close)

29 Comments To "How American Media Spin-Doctored the Iranian Protests"

#1 Comment By part of the stupid On February 11, 2018 @ 10:04 pm

It’s the narcissism and provincialism wing of the American media. They can’t believe that foreigners could possibly be more concerned about their own internal problems than they are about matters that might concern the US.

Navel gazers. One reason why we’ve been making such poor foreign policy decisions with such catastrophic results.

#2 Comment By Procivic On February 12, 2018 @ 12:19 am

The mainstream media have seldom got it right where Iran is concerned. Perhaps it’s because a half-dozen corporations control nearly all of the media or that government policy intrudes too much in editorial policy.

Iranians remember only too well that in the months leading up to the CIA-MI6 coup of 1953 a number of key local newspapers were bought off to spread anti-government propaganda.

#3 Comment By Slugger On February 12, 2018 @ 12:28 am

I would favor a disclosure policy for commentors about far-away nations. How much time have you spent there? Do you speak the local language? Can you pass a test about their history, governance, and culture? I get the feeling that most of the impassioned people have almost no actual knowledge about the subject of their passions. Iran is certainly not the only nation about whom we know too little to do useful things.

#4 Comment By Youknowho On February 12, 2018 @ 1:45 am

I would expect most Iranians to be OK with their government. Yes, there are things that they think the government should do better. But in general they want to keep a regime that has benefited them.

Just check how the human development index in Iran as measured by the U.N.

[11]

And note that the U.N. says that the improvement began with the Islamic Revolution.

But that is not a narrative that neocons want to share.

#5 Comment By Andrew Mann On February 12, 2018 @ 5:49 am

People in the East don’t value freedom or even want it, they never have and they never will. Islam is an extremely collectivist ideological worldview, one that demands an orderly society, caste systems and authoritarian rule. Hinduism and other Eastern systems aren’t much different in that regard. As an Egyptian once told me “We don’t want freedom or democracy, we want someone to beat us and feed us”.

#6 Comment By American Centrist On February 12, 2018 @ 9:40 am

Good article and MOSTLY sensible comments – with the exception of the Kool-Aid Swallowing Navel Gazers like @Andrew Mann – Who may well be a closeted racist / bigot with his sweeping generalizations of Islam, Hinduism, East and everything outside his lily-white Judaeo-Christian world!

What a TWIT!

#7 Comment By what’s going on On February 12, 2018 @ 10:01 am

“Navel gazers. One reason why we’ve been making such poor foreign policy decisions with such catastrophic results.”

That’s only part of it. An even bigger part is corrupt politicians and foreign agents of influence in shaping US foreign policy. We need vigorous enforcement of existing law and perhaps even more draconian laws to excise this cancer.

#8 Comment By Centralist On February 12, 2018 @ 10:16 am

This seems a theme in American politics anymore.

#9 Comment By Michael On February 12, 2018 @ 10:25 am

The big revelation here for me is that it is possible to conduct an honest poll in Iran where people will freely say what they really think without fear of negative consequences from their government.

#10 Comment By Michael Kenny On February 12, 2018 @ 10:36 am

The message I was getting from the media was precisely that the riots were caused by economic factors. The only variation from that were Trump’s tweets, which were naturally reported in the media. In the articles she refers to, the authors argued that the riots were indeed caused by economic factors but argued that those economic factors were themselves caused, to varying degrees, by international sanctions. That proposition may not be true, but nothing in the poll she refers to contradicts it. Thus, claiming that the poll somehow “contradicts” the media reports and articles referred to is just plain wrong. I often wonder why authors bother writing articles like this. Anyone with the education and political sophistication to visit a site like this in the first place isn’t going to simply swallow what authors say without checking. Once they see that the author is twisting the media articles to make a propaganda point, she loses all credibility. If she wanted to argue that sanctions did not cause the economic difficulties, then that’s the article she should have written.

#11 Comment By Mustafa On February 12, 2018 @ 1:27 pm

It is true that the economy played a big role in the widespread demonstrations but one must be able to notice that these gatherings and demonstrations were much bigger and more violent in ethnic populated areas, mainly Kuzistan,Mostly Arab, Baluchistan and kurdistan. The writer of this article tries hard to sanitize the atrocious and criminal behavior of ruling Persian regime against the ethnic minorities but fails spectacularly.Thousands of people have been arrested in those areas and are currently enduring severe punishment and torture in the Persian mulla’s horrific prisons but sadly the author of this article does not show a bit of courage to even mention the victims.

#12 Comment By Shahin Fazelpour On February 12, 2018 @ 1:40 pm

So, let me get this right. Iranians think that they have too many civil liberties and too little of the country’s money is wasted on proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and security forces who killed around 50 and arrested more than 3000 were too soft.

These statistics are laughable and the survey is clearly bought and paid for by the mullahs’ elements in the US. We all remember the bogus statistics of Saddam Hussein’s election results.

#13 Comment By SucittalfLautca On February 12, 2018 @ 1:45 pm

You said: “Asked to select the single most important problem or challenge currently facing Iran, respondents overwhelmingly selected unemployment (40.1 percent), followed by inflation and high costs of living (12.5 percent), youth unemployment (9.4 percent), low incomes (6.9 percent), financial corruption/embezzlement (6 percent), and so forth.”

Looking at his tweet:
He agrees with you! I am confused.
1. Have been repressed, hungry for food = unemployement, inflation high cost of living.
“The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom.

2. Corruption/Embezzlement = Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted

and you said “Overall, 84.5 percent of Iranians strongly agreed (63 percent) or somewhat agreed (21.5 percent) that “the government should be more forceful to stop rioters who use violence or damage property.”

Thats why Trump tweeted:
The U.S.A is watching very closely for human rights violations

it seems he agrees with you to a 90% degree

#14 Comment By Cynthia McLean On February 12, 2018 @ 2:16 pm

Spin? No, the msm channels the propaganda of the US military industrial complex to justify ever more $Billions$ from tax payers. In this day and age of the worldwide 24/7 internet, it’s more than embarrassing that the US media spews falsehoods that can with little effort be challenged by multiple sources. Americans cling to the myth that the US is the centre of the universe and arbiter of all truth.

#15 Comment By philadelphialawyer On February 12, 2018 @ 3:56 pm

The would-be regime-changers like to pretend that the regimes they want changed mysteriously and magically came into being and stay in power despite having no support among the population in the country that produced them. As if they have no constituencies, no set of policies that appeal to anyone, no basis in the culture and society of the nation, no political acumen, no nothing, other than “tyranny” and “corruption.”

#16 Comment By romegas On February 12, 2018 @ 4:46 pm

@Slugger

“I would favor a disclosure policy for commentors about far-away nations. How much time have you spent there? Do you speak the local language? Can you pass a test about their history, governance, and culture? I get the feeling that most of the impassioned people have almost no actual knowledge about the subject of their passions. Iran is certainly not the only nation about whom we know too little to do useful things.”

1. We tend to know more about other countries and their culture, because we read different sources of information. Take me for example, I am reading the American Conservative yet at the same time I will follow various Europrean and even Russian news information and also just as importantly cultural sites – I also take note of the evidence that is produced, then compare and form an opinion. It seems to me though, that most Americans do not look beyond American media – and this makes them captive to a particular agenda and therefore also are incapable of comparing and contrasting.

2. us foreigners do not go bombing countries on a whim, some European countries do – and perhaps the five eyes – and then only after America says they must do so – SO – as the most powerful nation on earth it behoves YOU as citizens of what is in most respects an otherwise great nation, to practice prudence – to be interested in other peoples, their fears, their culture, their interests – and not treat them like flies that you believe you can swat.

I for one admire the USA in so many things but I detest in so many others – and sorry your greatest fault in my eyes are two: a) A lack of a deep culture or appreciation for it and 2) the idea that profit is everything.

I also fear that your domestic politics need to be played out on a global stage to the detriment of others.

#17 Comment By Platte River On February 12, 2018 @ 5:51 pm

“People in the East don’t value freedom or even want it, they never have and they never will. Islam is an extremely collectivist ideological worldview, one that demands an orderly society, caste systems and authoritarian rule.”

One of the reasons that the wars we’ve fought and the money we’ve spent on the Middle East for the last forty years was completely wasted. Let them fight it out among themselves, with their own money and weapons. And let them do it the last man for all we care. Not our fight. Never has been, and if we’d stayed out of it several thousands of real Americans might still be alive, several tens of thousands might have their limbs and/or sanity, and we might be several trillion dollars richer.

#18 Comment By Cyrus On February 12, 2018 @ 5:59 pm

Andrew, Iran set up the Middle East’s first democracy in 1906, fyi. Throughout Iran’s history of the 20th century, the opponents to freedom have been Russian, British and later American imperial powers.

#19 Comment By Ali On February 12, 2018 @ 6:25 pm

@Andrew Mann

You are as clueless about that part of the world as these neo-cons or the liberals who think it is all about aspiration to their version “democracy”.

We are human beings and every human being aspires to freedom and justice, but we’re not supposed to lick your boots or any other part of your highness so that you are pleased and vote in favor of our humanity. Many of us actually don’t care about what you think (a few do), but anyway it is a pleasure to let you know that fact from time to time.

#20 Comment By Se1 On February 13, 2018 @ 6:57 am

@Andrew Mann
The “people in the east” are the majority of the human race and are massively diverse.So your generalization is ridiculous. Also The Iranians invented human rights and so that contradicts your statement. Moreover Islam does not have a cast system, for that matter neither does Buddhism or Bahaism. Another point to remember is that both Judaism and Christianity came from the east. Also the Turkic tribes of central Asia have always practiced a form of democracy when electing tribal leaders. I am not sure where you get your notions but it would be good idea to base at least some of them on facts. Also the Iranians had a functioning modern democracy in 1906. It was the British and the Russians who destroyed it!

#21 Comment By Christian Chuba On February 13, 2018 @ 7:18 am

@Andrew Mann, you raise an interesting point and I frequently prefixed my comments with ‘I don’t pretend to know what is going on inside Iran …’

However, I do know my own country, that the powers that be talk about Iran without studying Iran and are always in ‘information war’ mode.

1. Find some govt in exile types, Chalabi for Iraq, MEK for Iran, or even Libya who tell us what we want to hear. People who themselves who have not set foot in their countries for decades and believe them.

2. All because you see one sign, more often than not, written in English, at a protest, complaining about Iran’s intervention in Syria, there is no reason to project that on the entire protest.

3. Our MSM has no foreign correspondents and basically gets all of its info from the State Dept or other govt sources. The Vietnam era press corps is dead.

So I know that I cannot believe what our press says about events. This has been proven time and again. I listened to a MEK representative convince Sean Hannity that this was 1979, that the Iranian army was going to revolt against the army and the Iranian ‘regime’ was going to collapse within ‘months’.

So who am I going to believe, the U.S. govt narrative or my lying eyes? Again, I don’t know what the Iranian people really think but I have no reason to believe that they love the U.S. They certainly have no reason to since we threaten them morning, noon, and night.

#22 Comment By Se1 On February 13, 2018 @ 7:23 am

Good article, hit the nail on the head. Having contacted friends in Iran, the protests can be understood easily enough. President Ruhani (an Scottish educated law graduate with a PhD from the Caledonian university)believes in a neo-liberal economic model. He is a liberal to some extent and to these ends he encouraged privatization and reduced tariffs etc. The result was a growing economy but at the cost of increasing the gulf between the rich and the poor and increasing unemployment. The corruption is much more difficult to get rid of and Ruhani’s partial deregulation did not work very well. He reduced subsidies etc again hitting the poor the hardest and shifting the wealth to the more wealthy class. In short, he introduced an austerity neoliberal budget and got anti austerity protest. The different groups then tried to spin the news in their own favor.

#23 Comment By b. On February 13, 2018 @ 12:17 pm

I am amazed that the author does not mention the extensive questions regarding JCPOA, which indicate that a majority of the Iranian population might concur with Trump: JCPOA is not paying off for the Iranians either.

Wlliam Lind, for all the cognitive ornaments, has a very clear point – it should be priority of the US to refrain from any “program related activities” that actively undermine stable nations, however much that stability might be based on repression. Nations like China, Russia and Iran have every reason to support and uphold the international order, as does the US – but you would not know from US actions.

It is hilarious to consider that a nation that had no problems supporting Franco and Pinochet as pillars of “stability” would prefer chaos in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iran, or on the North Korean peninsula. “Regime change” is a multi-generational project (as is deconfliction e.g. in Northern Ireland, let alone the Middle East), and going around failing states for “freedom ops and profit” puts the lie to the national “security” pretext. The US inbred elites are engaged in their Great Gamble for supremacy for reasons that have everything to do with “creative” destruction and opportunistic war profiteering, and nothing with “defense”, or upholding the Constitution.

#24 Comment By Andy On February 13, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

If mr. Trump were actually a conservative, he would recognize the Iranian people in general as being… Wait for it… Quite conservative.

#25 Comment By cka2nd On February 13, 2018 @ 6:53 pm

Was anyone else struck by how the poll results looked like they would closely mirror polling in the U.S. about similar issues, especially if Mexico or Canada resembled Iraq and Syria? This post was worth bookmarking for future reference.

And thank you to Youknowho for the link to the U.S. Institute of Peace Iran Primer page about Iran’s Human Development Index. I am no fan of the Islamic Republic, but the human progress it has made compared to that made under the late Shah is really quite remarkable.

#26 Comment By ali On February 13, 2018 @ 6:53 pm

With any poll the intended results are easily gained by who you poll. In Iran if you poll the religious poor their concern is money, if you poll the middle class the concern is money and freedom, if you poll the rich the love the government. Always the case so don’t put too much stake in polls. Remember how they predicted a Hillary win!

#27 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 13, 2018 @ 10:33 pm

I don’t trust Iran and I think there are plenty of reasons to be trustful of her leadership.

But what the poll says clearly is that there is no great support for the US to engage in regime change. So if one is appealing to the Iranian general public and the polling data is correct, the answer is a clear — “no.”

#28 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 15, 2018 @ 8:52 am

“People in the East don’t value freedom or even want it, they never have and they never will…..As an Egyptian once told me “We don’t want freedom or democracy, we want someone to beat us and feed us”.”

This is entirely true, but it’s equally true of Eastern Europeans and it’s true of a great many Western Europeans too.

when you get right down to it, most normal people want someone to beat them and feed them. It’s my firm belief that what we call liberal democracy is going to prove to be a short-lived aberration and fad, even in so-called ‘western’ countries. Your Egyptian and Iranian friends are onto a deep truth of human nature there.

We are human beings and every human being aspires to freedom and justice

LOL! Ali is pretty clueless about human nature.

#29 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 15, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

These statistics are laughable and the survey is clearly bought and paid for by the mullahs’ elements in the US. We all remember the bogus statistics of Saddam Hussein’s election results.

I’m spitting out my coffee laughing at the asinine idea that the Iranian government has any allies of any significance in the US establishment.

The US media establishment hates Iran and would like to bring them down by any means necessarily. Unfortunately or fortunately, even *they* couldn’t massage the data enough in this case to get the result they want.