In covering the recent Iranian election and upcoming runoff, English-language media discovered the Iranian weblog, and a society more complex than they had imagined. It's true that we bloggers in Iran are an important example of the multi-faceted nature of Iranian culture and politics. It's also true that we were blindsided by the election results.
For the first time in Iranian history, a run-off election will be conducted between the top two candidates for president, moderate former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and conservative hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While Rafsanjani has always been considered a leading candidate, Ahmadinejad's success was a surprise.
Most journalists and bloggers supported reformist Mostafa Moin's candidacy and envisioned significant support for him. Even blogging guru Hossein Derakhshan ("Hoder") predicted on his Persian weblog that "Moin was going to beat Rafsanjani in the first round." In the end, Moin finished fifth in a seven-man race. Two candidates generally overlooked by bloggers and who never cracked the top three in polls before the election, Ahmadinejad and moderate cleric Mehdi Karroubi, finished second and third respectively. That caused many bloggers, such as Mr. Behi, an anonymous blogger from Iran, to state, "It is hard to write. Everyone is in ultimate shock of these unprecedented, unbelievable and horrible results."
Ultimately, the election demonstrated how limited and misleading the perspective of bloggers and journalists can be. As Shahram Kholdi noted on his blog, S'can-Iranic, "Moin's blogosphere supporters did their best to help him to find a niche amongst the younger Iranians population, but they too failed to stir much excitement, as weblogs' reach to Iran cannot compete with those of the mass media outlets."
There are almost 100,000 weblogs written in Persian, the language of Iranians, and over 5 million Internet users in Iran, out of a population of 70 million. Though these are significant numbers, they are overshadowed by the fact that the vast majority of Iranians do not have access to the Web. Rather, as with most countries, bloggers represent the views of a very limited demographic group: affluent and otherwise privileged individuals who already have access to independent foreign news sources. Bloggers alone, therefore, are incapable of representing the way most Iranians think.
The failure by bloggers, reporters and analysts to accurately predict the election results is largely due to our "Tehran-centricism." As the country's large metropolitan capital, Tehran is the focal point of most news coming out of Iran. The vast majority of journalists, including bloggers, focus on the ambitions and struggles facing Tehran's disgruntled youths, rather than Iran's disgruntled poor. While almost no blogger or news agency gave significant attention to Karroubi's campaign promise to give every Iranian an $80 monthly stipend if elected, that strategy almost placed him in the top two. In the end, Karroubi finished behind Ahmadinejad by less than 1 percent of all votes.
Similarly, few bloggers anticipated that military groups like the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and paramilitary groups, like the Basij, would come out in such large numbers to support Ahmadinejad. A month ago, I had written on my own blog, Iranian Truth, about the possible rise of militarism in Iranian politics and mentioned Ahmadinejad's support among different military groups. However, neither my post, nor that of most journalists and bloggers, portrayed military and paramilitary groups as significant lobbyists. Now, Ahmadinejad's military backing is beginning to look insurmountable, thus causing Yaser Kerachian to state on the group blog "Free Thoughts on Iran", "Having Ahmadinejad as Iran's president for the next four years is not far from reality. If it happens, it will be the start of one of the darkest years in Iran's contemporary history."
The success of Ahmadinejad, Karroubi and Rafsanjani demonstrates that discontent among Iran's poor, military, working and rural classes is more powerful than anticipated. As bloggers and journalists, we must reconsider not only the accuracy of our perspectives, but also the nature of Iranian politics altogether. Journalists and bloggers tend to think that conservative politicians are anomalies in our society. It is important to remember, however, that conservative elements in Iran are not only political units, but also have significant grassroots support. As Trita Parsi recently stated on Iran Scan, "Everyone seems shocked, and yet no one really should be — we knew, though we so often forget, that 15 to 25 percent of the Iranian population back the conservatives."
Blogs are still powerful tools in Iran and will continue to grow in strength as long as the Iranian government continues to repress freedom of speech. However, it is easy to rely on the English media and bloggers to provide us with the tools for understanding and interpreting Iran. But these are limited perspectives of Iranian society. To better relay Iran's dynamic culture, it is fundamental that journalists and bloggers expand their points of view, rather than relying on such a Tehran-centric perspective.