‘North Tehran Syndrome’ – how the media (and others) lost their way in Iran

Mohammad Khatami in Tehran, 2004

Mohammad Khatami in Tehran, 2004

I was 20 feet away from Iran’s president – the one named Mohammad Khatami; the one with a degree in Western philosophy; the one who founded an institute devoted to “dialogue among cultures and civilizations.” This was Tehran in 2004, and Khatami – his black turban set against the open sky – was riding atop a vehicle, waving to the flocks of people who surrounded him, applauded him, wanted to shake his hand. I took Khatami’s photo (it’s the one above), happy I was witnessing a reformist president who inspired confidence among liberal Iranians. Iran, they said, would soon emerge from the international isolation that had plagued the country since the 1979 revolution. Elections — like the two that had put Khatami in power — guaranteed this, they said, as did the sophisticated voters who lived in North Tehran and elsewhere. “The people here are uneducated,” Mahmoud Saeedi, a clothing designer and tourist guide in his 20s, told me as we walked amid Iranians in the southern part of the capital. “They don’t represent Iran.”

I believed Mahmoud Saeedi. I believed the other educated Iranians whom I met on my reporting trip, but this month’s disputed election makes me realize that, in 2004, I had “North Tehran Syndrome,” the intellectual illness that befalls many Western reporters who visit or write about Iran. “North Tehran Syndrome” also afflicts Iranians themselves. With this condition, people think they see a potent truth, then extrapolate it into broader conclusions, which is what The Times of London did the day before Iran’s elections, when it headlined an article, “Middle-class revolt boosts moderate’s chances of victory in Iranian election.” As proof, the story by Martin Fletcher cited north Tehrani voters “in stylish clothes and designer sunglasses” before pronouncing, in an early edition, “Mr Ahmadinejad is in danger of becoming the first Iranian President to be denied re-election.”

At NBC News on the night of the election, correspondent Richard Engel gushed enthusiastically about the potential for change in Iran, making not one but two opening references to North Tehran. “In North Tehran,” Engel said in his report, “the core of moderate campaign Moussavi supporters are the middle class and students. Tens of thousands turned out at his rallies, energized by his promise of social reform and improving relations with the West.”

Most analysts agree that Iran’s presidential election suffered from widespread fraud (read this story from the Christian Science Monitor), but after Iran’s Guardian Council did a partial recount and yesterday reconfirmed the results, we may never know if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have won anyway. Even before casted votes were reconsidered, some analysts were saying the Western media had erred in forecasting an Ahmadinejad defeat. An extreme example: Sociology professor James Petras berating the press in a commentary headlined “Iranian Elections: The ‘Stolen Elections’ Hoax.” Petras even refers to “North Tehran Syndrome” in his screed against Western news organizations, but Petras gets it wrong by over-emphasizing the media. It’s not just reporters who are subject to the syndrome but voters themselves — people like Mahmoud Saeedi who fuel the impression that Iranian reform is right around the corner. It may still be around the corner. Let’s hope it is, and that the deaths of so many Iranians have not been in vain.

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2 Responses to ‘North Tehran Syndrome’ – how the media (and others) lost their way in Iran

  1. Michael Peck says:

    On the other hand, if you were a foreign journalist assigned to the U.S., would you be better off stationed in Gary, Indiana or Washington, D.C.? Washington may be an elite bubble, but it’s the bubble where policy is made.

    Still, I agree with you. Foreign journalists during the 2004 U.S. election were always trying to gauge the “mood” of Americans. Tough to gauge a whole nation, especially from Washington and New York.

    But either way, it’s a moot point. Whether Ahmadinejad won or not, the regime has shown that it won’t give up power (not that it would have, given that only “acceptable” candidates can run),

  2. libtree09 says:

    Interesting, it explains the western media reaction but not the Iranian Government’s. There have been stories about how likely it is that Armadinejah would win support in rural Iran and thereby win the election. Would the west been surprised? No, it actually fit in with the Bush line on Iran. What was surprising and maybe it is cultural, was the government’s intransigent position. Which seemed to make the argument for fraud seem valid. Secondly, even the folks in say, southern Tehran, must have second thoughts about a government that beats old women in the streets. Streets filled with young people, who will carry the memories of that week with them, portend a story that is just beginning.

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