The New York Times’s Wordplay to Absolve Iran’s Leadership

Iranian demonstrators burn an American flag / Getty

On Monday, Iranians took to the streets nationwide to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. The rallies celebrated Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's triumph in toppling Iran's monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, along with Iran's 2,500-year-old monarchy, on Feb. 11, 1979. Before the year's end, Khomeini would engineer the formation of the Islamic Republic—an oppressive, anti-Western theocracy—and become its first supreme leader, until his death in 1989.

Every major publication seems to have published an article reflecting on the anniversary, and on the state of Iran's revolution after 40 years, including the New York Times. The paper's Tehran bureau chief, Thomas Erdbrink, on Sunday wrote a piece whose headline—"The Iranian Revolution at 40: From Theocracy to ‘Normality'"—immediately reveals his hackneyed, pre-scripted take. Under the guise of a straight-news report, Erdbrink epitomizes the flawed, dangerous view of Iran that most of the political left, and some of the isolationist-leaning right, hold.

First, Erdbrink does not assign any explicit blame to the regime for Iran's dark situation. In a remarkable show of wordplay that would make any college professor cringe, Erdbrink employs vague language and the passive voice throughout his work to avoid holding the mullahs accountable for Iran's economic crisis and their oppression of the Iranian people.

"Forty years ago, Iranians swelled with pride, hope, and the expectation of a better future," Erdbrink writes. "But great, rapid change can leave deep and lasting wounds. There were lashings, hangings, amputations, and mass imprisonment. Thousands of people died and hundreds of thousands left the country, some fleeing for their lives, never to return."

"What materialized after those first bloody years was truly revolutionary: an Islamic republic, a theocracy built on ideological choices inspired to a great extent by Ayatollah Khomeini," he continues.

Erdbrink cannot bring himself to say the obvious truth: that Khomeini and his followers perpetuated the violence, and that their Islamic project was the cause of all the rape and murder and torture to come. The Islamist radicals did not hang and imprison people, according to Erdbrink's article. No, hangings and mass imprisonment just happened out of thin air, and amid the chaos, the Islamic Republic emerged. Who or what drove this process? Erdbrink's unclear language does not provide an answer. Instead, he obfuscates and dances around the issue, painfully avoiding the clarity that would report the truth to readers.

Second, Erdbrink implies throughout his piece that the Islamic Republic has evolved, almost naturally, for the better.

"Over the years, as the early revolutionary fervor gave way for most people to a yearning for a more normal existence, the rules became negotiable," Erdbrink writes. "While the political system is basically the same as in those early years, the society changed slowly, at times almost imperceptibly. Those changes have been enormous, and the Iran celebrating the 40th anniversary of the revolution on Feb. 11 is closer than most outsiders generally appreciate to being that ‘normal' country Iranians want."

Erdbrink describes the Islamic Republic almost like a western European country. It is true that the regime has loosened some of its rigid cultural and religious rules instituted after 1979. But Erdbrink completely ignores the terrible tyranny that continues to subjugate the Iranian people, from hanging homosexuals in public to mistreating minorities and political prisoners. The regime is an ideological entity that, at its core, hates the West—hence the scenes of supporters of the regime burning American flags and chanting "death to America, death to Israel" on Monday.

The notion that Iran is progressing toward a brighter future under the regime's control was the basis of the Obama administration's approach to Tehran. Why else would American negotiators agree to a deal that lifts sanctions on Iran in exchange for placing restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program that only last for 10-15 years, thus allowing Tehran to break out toward a nuclear weapon after that time? The deal makes perfect sense if one believes that Iran's leaders will moderate over that time with more exposure to the West. This misguided view ignores key systemic and ideological factors at play in the Islamic Republic that make such a transition practically impossible.

Third, Erdbrink claims in not so many words that the real culprits of the current hostility between Tehran and Washington are not the murderous mullahs, but rather the Trump administration's principals. "Actually, one big thing has changed politically, as Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said last week," Erdbrink writes. "The ‘Death to America' chant that had been a bulwark of Iranian ideology from the earliest days of the revolution now means something else: Death to President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the national security adviser, John R. Bolton."

That is how Erdbrink concluded his piece—at least until the final paragraph was curiously deleted the next day, without an editor's note explaining the change. Perhaps Erdbrink and his editor finally remembered how the last 40 years of hostility began: with Iran declaring America the "great Satan" and taking American diplomats hostage for more than a year.

The greatest shame of Erdbrink's piece is that he never mentions the ongoing nationwide protests against the regime, which erupted in December 2017. Nor does he mention the demonstrations in his reporting on Monday's rallies, beyond one measly sentence. Instead, Erdbrink tries to highlight popular support for the regime, ignoring the Iranian people's clear rejection of theocracy. There is a reason why Iranians across the country—including in more rural, peripheral provinces, the regime's supposed base of support—have called for the Islamic Republic's downfall, saying, "Our enemy is here, but they always say it is America." Yet Erdbrink wants to portray the regime as a permanent part of life.

Erdbrink has long omitted and obfuscated in his reporting on Iran, and he is far from alone among journalists. Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem, albeit one that has fallen out of favor: just report the facts. But then again, that might make the regime look bad, which could undermine Obama's approach to Iran and portray the approach of his successor in a positive light. And we can't have that.