‘Not everything is hunky-dory in Iran and one should not expect a sanctions-battered country to be an ideal place’
UNTIL not too long ago, Iran was considered an “Island Of Stability In The Ocean of Troubles”. However, two months ago, or to be precise, on September 13, 2022 all this changed. Or did it? At least the dominant mainstream media would like all of us to believe that it did and according to them, the fall of Islamic Republic is imminent. World has no access to the other side. Iran’s voice remains choked and its perspective absent as the US, using its extraordinary power over cyberspace, has not only seized all domains of media based in Iran, but forced major satellite providers to stop uplinking Iranian channels. To know what is really happening on the ground in Iran, Kashmir Observer talked to Syed Zafar Mehdi, a Kashmiri journalist based in Tehran. Zafar moved to Tehran from Kabul four years back and has since been reporting from Iran for various media channels.
Apart from economic sanctions Iran is facing a complete media blockade. News emanating from the country is only from Western sources and the impression they give is that the fall of the Islamic Republic is imminent. Is it so?
SZM. What the Islamic Republic of Iran is dealing with at the moment is a multi-faceted hybrid war, which encompasses crippling sanctions, media propaganda, and terrorist attacks. It’s unprecedented in the sense that many inimical forces have come together, both overtly and covertly, to delegitimize and discredit the country’s political system, which is undeniably more vibrant than many Arab monarchies that happen to be key Western allies. The agenda is clear – to bring about the “regime change” in Iran and make it a vassal state again, subservient to the West.
That’s where mainstream media’s role comes into play. Western media’s coverage of Iran has traditionally been lopsided and deceitful. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that when it comes to Iran, corporate Western media acts like an extension of the hostile Western powers. In recent months, since the death of a young Iranian woman in police custody, media coverage of Iran has become increasingly toxic. Western media outlets have been hell-bent on painting a gloom-and-doom picture of Iran, to give the impression that things are completely out of control.
Misinformation about Iran has spread like a plague with deliberate attempts to poison the minds of readers and viewers outside Iran. There are a plethora of Persian-language media outlets targeting Iran from Europe, especially the UK based and Saudi-funded Iran International, engaged in a smear campaign 24×7. Most of the news they broadcast and Western media rely on these days will not count as journalism but as full-fledged media warfare. And, unfortunately, such media coverage is taken as gospel truth in much of the world, including in South Asia. Let’s get this straight. It’s not the same old-school journalism where facts are sacred and truth matters. Now it’s all about the battle of narratives. And Western media has aggressively sought to impose its narrative through extreme measures, even to the extent of fueling unrest and bloodshed.
“Of course, there is resentment and people have grievances. Let’s not forget the country has been reeling under decades of draconian sanctions, which have taken a heavy toll on ordinary people. Tenth months into the Ukraine war, inflation and food crisis have assumed alarming proportions across Europe. Imagine 43 years of economic war against Iran, and yet the country has not collapsed”
Islamic Republic has a significant follower base across Muslim world and there is deep concern about the disturbing turn of events. Iran’s govt blames everything on the West while it’s harder to digest this time given that the opposition has transcended Iran’s borders as was seen in Qatar this week. There must be some merit in the grievances of those out in the streets?
SZM. Of course, there is resentment and people have grievances. Let’s not forget the country has been reeling under decades of draconian sanctions, which have taken a heavy toll on ordinary people. Tenth months into the Ukraine war, inflation and food crisis have assumed alarming proportions across Europe. Imagine 43 years of economic war against Iran, and yet the country has not collapsed. The ugly turn of events in recent weeks should be seen as part of the “regime change” project. As pointed out by the Supreme Leader, inimical forces sought to create hopelessness among people but failed.
Does Iranian system of governance allow public protests and what has been its response to the events so far?
SZM- A young Iranian woman’s death in police custody in mid-September triggered protests across the country. Protest, as per Iran’s constitution, is an inalienable democratic right of citizens. In fact, soon after the shocking news broke out, President Ebrahim Raeisi ordered a high-level probe into the incident, parliament speaker Bagher Ghalibaf proposed reforms in the modus operandi of the country’s morality police, and judiciary chief Mohseni Ejei assured justice and accountability. This was before the protests turned into deadly riots. Iranian authorities made it clear that they are willing to listen to protesters but will not tolerate anarchy, violence and vandalism. But, unfortunately, that’s what happened.
If so, why are protests continuing?
SZM-Even before the forensic report came out, many Western leaders issued inflammatory statements, holding Iranian officials responsible for the young woman’s death. A slew of so -called human rights related sanctions were imposed by both the United States and the European Union. Interestingly, the forensic report ruled out any foul play in the woman’s death, attributing it to her underlying health issues. So, basically, the outcry in the West had nothing to do with women’s rights per se. It was part of the “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran to bring about “regime change” in the country. It was an opportunity for the US and its allies to mount pressure on Iran and gain leverage in the ongoing nuclear deal talks.
Let’s be honest about this. Many Western powers alongside the Israeli regime had a direct role in fanning the flames of riots in Iran in recent weeks. More than 40 foreign nationals were held by Iran’s security agencies during the riots. A large cache of arms was supplied from the Iraqi Kurdistan region, which is the stronghold of Isareli spy agency. We saw fatal attacks on policemen and paramilitary Basiji forces, as well as destruction of public properties across the country, from Mashhad to Isfahan to Khuzestan. Even a popular shrine was attacked by Daesh and no Western leader condemned it.
Can you explain who the real opposition is and what their grievances are?
SZM- Not everything is hunky-dory in Iran, as I said, and we should not expect a sanctions-battered country to be an ideal place. People have many grievances and the government is duty-bound to resolve them. It cannot run away from its responsibilities. At least Iranians are not grappling with an energy crisis at the moment and not staring at a harsh winter, unlike European countries.
That brings us to the question of opposition. We should not look for an Iranian opposition outside Iran, something the Western leaders and the Western media want us to do. They have sought to project US-based monarchists loyal to the former Pahlavi dynasty, and terrorists affiliated with the MKO group based in Albania as the Iranian opposition. They don’t represent Iranians. These groups have the blood of thousands of Iranians on their hands. They cannot be well-wishers of Iran or the people of Iran. So, they are and cannot be the real opposition.
The real opposition is within Iran, the ordinary people, who take pride in their country and its symbols, including the flag and national anthem. And this opposition is important to any democratic society. Their concerns are simple and legitimate – they want better lives, jobs, healthcare, and housing. They don’t want so called regime change. This slogan belongs to the opposition that lives in far away West. And there is a total disconnect between them and the people in Iran. Western media props up the foreign-based opposition because their interests are aligned.
Forcible dress code is said to be an immediate trigger to recent unrest. Why do Iranian authorities enforce something which ideally should be voluntary? Why this compulsion in the religious matter? Have Iranian clergy answered this burning question?
SZM-Iran is an Islamic Republic that was founded on the principles of Islam and the Islamic code of conduct. An overwhelming number of Iranians voted for this system in a referendum following the triumph of revolution in 1979. Hijab is one of the important elements in this school of thought and should not be seen as a symbol of oppression or subjugation, as scholars of Islam have long argued. A vast majority of women in Iran continue to voluntarily observe Hijab, not through force or coercion. Many don’t observe it, let’s be honest about it. I have been living in this country for the past 4 years, and I never saw a uniformed policeman rebuking a woman for not wearing a proper headscarf.
The tragic incident that triggered the unsavory turn of events recently could have been avoided. But it’s sheer distortion of facts that she was beaten in police custody that caused her death. Scientific evidence does not support that claim. Having said that, there has been a long-running debate about introducing reforms in the modus operandi of the morality police. If Hijab is enforced or imposed, it will obviously backfire. There would definitely be reforms now, even though it is not an issue for Western regimes. All they seek is regime change in Iran, and that seems a far fetched idea.
How different is the situation compared to 2009 when unrest erupted following controversial elections?
SZM- Many people and political pundits have drawn parallels between 2009 and 2022. The events in 2009 were triggered by allegations of vote-rigging by two prominent reformist figures – Mir-Hossein Musavi and Mahdi Karroubi – against then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 2009 unrest however fizzled out quickly, unlike this time. Although deadly riots have now subdued in many parts of the country, the situation continues to be edgy and precarious with sporadic incidents of shootings and knife attacks, mostly targeting policemen and paramilitary Basiji forces. What’s similar between 2009 and 2022 is the direct interference of Western regimes, intelligence agencies and media with an aim to foment unrest and destabilize the country. However, unlike in 2009, when leading Iranian political figures gave the initial call, this time the calls came from outside. Also, unlike in 2009, there is social media now that has played a key role in stoking unrest through misinformation and unsubstantiated claims.
How are events being aired by Iranian media? Do they cover all aspects or only push the official narrative?
SZM- Iranian media has in recent months mostly been busy in debunking the rampant disinformation disseminated by Western media, in particular the UK-based Persian language media outlets such as Iran International, BBC Persian, and Manoto. There is such gross distortion of facts about the situation in Iran that it’s preposterous. When the Canadian prime minister tweets fake news like “15,000 people to be executed in Iran”, the US national security advisor comments on the killing of a 10-year-old boy in Khuzestan by armed rioters and blames it on Iranian security forces, it shows how bizarrely the narrative has been hijacked.
So, with media being weaponized by Western regimes against the Islamic Republic, as part of the hybrid war, it becomes essential for the Iranian media to not only be the voice of the Iranian people but also debunk the fake news spreading like wildfire through social media platforms. And when they do that, sanctions are imposed. Press TV and many other Iranian media agencies were recently sanctioned by the European Union. Top IRIB officials were also slapped with sanctions by the US Treasury. It shows how the alternative voices that tend to challenge the dominant Western narratives are suppressed and silenced.
“Football is a major obsession in Iran and footballers enjoy a massive fan following. In recent months, these players have been under tremendous pressure to support the anti-government protests. These players – some of them play for top European leagues – even faced threats and that obviously played on their minds in their opening game against England last week, which they lost 6-2 – the worst defeat in two decades. Prior to the match, they didn’t sing the national anthem, which created more headlines than the match itself. So, you can see what mattered to the Western media more”
How do you see Iranian football team not singing the country’s national anthem in Qatar? People outside Iran are baffled as in their countries this will be construed as treason. Is it the same case in Iran?
SZM-Football is a major obsession in Iran and footballers enjoy a massive fan following. In recent months, these players have been under tremendous pressure to support the anti-government protests which I call riots, with unprecedented online bullying and abuse directed at them. They were even urged to boycott the national team and refuse to play in the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar. This pressure campaign was part of the hybrid war bankrolled by hostile agencies and the paid media all coming together to attack the team through their online troll armies. It was evident when the team coach Carlos Queiroz was grilled by British media on the sidelines of the World Cup in Doha. He, however, knew how to shut them up.
These players – some of them play for top European leagues – even faced threats and that obviously played on their minds in their opening game against England last week, which they lost 6-2 – the worst defeat in two decades. Prior to the match, they didn’t sing the national anthem, which created more headlines than the match itself. So, you can see what mattered to the Western media more. In other countries, not signing the national anthem in an international sports tournament may amount to treason, but Iranian authorities and people fully backed the team after the match. Iran’s sports minister was stationed in Doha to look after the team. In the second match against Wales on Friday, the players sang the anthem with pride and won the match after a thrilling finish. It was the best answer to those who tried to de-legitimize and discredit them.
Be Part of Quality Journalism
Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.