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Jun. 15 2009 - 1:40 pm | 21 views | 3 recommendations | 8 comments

Iran: Knowing Nothing

I believe the Iranian election was stolen. Millions of Americans believe the same. Millions of Iranians believe the same.

But how, exactly, have we come to hold this opinion?

Up until very recently, it appeared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would walk away with his reelection, despite widespread discontent in Iran with his handling of the economy and despite unease with the position he’s put Iran in internationally. In the few weeks before the election, however, a surge in support was reported for Mir Hossein Mousavi.

538 looked at the pre-election polling (“Fortunately, opinion polling has been quite extensive in the run-up to today’s election. Unfortunately, much of it has been focused on Tehran, has included dubious, push-polling language, or includes candidates for office that are not running or neglects some that are.”), and it showed Ahmadinejad with a lead, if a narrow one:

The most likely scenario wasn’t a Mousavi romp, no matter how much some in the West might have wanted to see Ahmadinejad humiliated. The most likely scenario was a runoff, quite posible with Ahmadinejad in the lead.

Now, the strongest evidence that the election was stolen comes from the behavior of the regime since the voting took place. A ridiculous figure was apparently assigned to Ahmadinejad (upward of 60%), the votes were “counted” before any such thing could have taken place, and the vote totals by province are ridiculously fishy.

That said, many Americans are constructing a narrative where the great mass of Iranians wanted to throw out Ahmadinejad — despite the fact that some 40%-50% of Iranians, in the best polls we have, were perfectly happy to reelect him.

It seems a few common errors are occurring here (many familiar from our look at The Roots of Anti-Vaccine Insanity):

* Projection: Americans are projecting their hatred of Ahmadinejad onto the mass of the Iranian people.

* Confirmation bias: People, on both sides, filter all the information they take in through their own preconceptions — particularly easy to do when all the information coming out of Iran is a mishmash of rumor and propaganda.

* Halo effect: Thinking only bad (or good) things about the Iranian regime makes one think all of its characteristics and actions must be bad (or good).

Lastly, given the complexity of the Iranian regime, it makes little sense to attribute one, singular “intention” to anything “it” does. There are a lot of moving parts, and Americans are unfamiliar with pretty much every single one of them.

Writing our own little narrative of what must be going on is unavoidable — humans need stories — but it’s worth keeping in mind at all times that we’re in the “fog of war,” and the “truth” we think we’re uniquely privy to is changing every instant.

As much as I admire the work being done by bloggers in this haze — see, of course, Andrew Sullivan — it’s doubly biased: The bloggers are looking only for anti-regime information, and the readers are absorbing only anti-regime information. If there are mistakes, these mistakes will be remembered as the truth — even if corrected. As we’ve seen, that’s the nature of human memory.

Perhaps this problem doesn’t matter. Long experience has shown us that the Iranian regime truly is malignant — toward the West and toward the freedom of its own people. A revolution that toppled that evil regime would at least give the Iranian people a chance at a better future.

As bullets fly toward protesters, perhaps we’re reminded that every movement needs its own narrative — almost always self-serving, highly tenuous with regard to fact, but capable of binding people together to fight a common enemy.

Ultimately, assuming the pre-election polls were right (and thus that Ahmadinejad could have fought another day in a runoff), it’s the election thieves themselves who allowed a narrative so destructive to their own interests to take hold. And it’s the fault of the thugocracy that the public is so eager for change that thousands in the streets of Tehran are willing to risk their lives for freedom.


Like this post on the Iranian election aftermath? Check out these other posts from True/Slant contributors:

Phil Zabriskie: ‘Winds of Tehran Part II’
Jonathan Curiel: In droves, Iran’s women have come out of their political closet
Mark Drapeau: How the Iranian Elections Turned “CNN Fail” Into a Media Success
Joshua Kucera: What if Twitter is leading us all astray in Iran?
Ethan Porter: Obama engages by not engaging
Marc Herman: How Iran ‘Jams’ Election News
Kate Klonick: This is no green revolution


4 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 8 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    Ryan, I think you make some really good points in your article. As Americans, it is easy to assume that we know what is best for these poor misguided Iranians. Ahmadinejad may look like a fool to us, but his rhetoric obviously resonates with a large portion of the country. But let me pose a question: Im no expert, but with ali khamenei in charge anyway, does any of this actually matter?

  2. collapse expand

    Ryan — Thanks for this. It’s true that there’s been a real lack of nuance in the coverage. (For that matter, there’s been a real lack of coverage, or at least there was over the weekend.) For my money, the suspicious piece of this puzzle isn’t the Ahmadinejad victory; it’s the blinding speed at which two million paper votes were supposedly tabulated

  3. collapse expand

    This all really spooks me. If all those who voted Republican had decided to protest our president’s election last fall, it would have been total chaos and violence and … well, ‘nough said. Seems to me that if a country calls itself “democratic,” meaning it is led by individuals selected and voted for by the people, we ought to do everything we can to be supportive of that process. Whether we like their choices or not. And deciding if an election is “legal” or not is up to the people of that country, no one else! I’d hate to have to deal with with Europe or Asia or Africa has to say about who I vote for … No, I hope President Obama keeps silent about all this.

  4. collapse expand

    Not to mention how quickly they called the election, major tactical error on their part.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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