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June 24, 2005

A Tehran Bias: Why We Iranian Bloggers Were Wrong
Guest Author: Nema Milaninia

tehran-banktower.jpg 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.

Nema Milaninia is editor of the blog Iranian Truth and executive director of the International Students Journal, a bi-lingual (English and Persian) publication in Iran on human rights, international law, economic development and good governance. This article was first published at PNS
Mullah Loghati at June 24, 2005 02:27 PM [permalink]:

Change "then"s to "than"s, please!

ithy_thoughts at June 24, 2005 02:29 PM [permalink]:

"Tehran-centricism"? They don't know even Tehran. I bet even in Tehran, Ahmadinejd's standing will suprise you. You look no further than certain upscale neighbourhoods in Tehran. What about south Tehran where accomodates a lot of poor or rich religious people?

AN strikes a cord with all the poor people ... with religious people ... with those who root for a US invasion. That pretty much includes every one except a bunch of ineffectual self-claimed intellectuals and some others who don't even bother to vote because of their apathy.

Rafsanjani's tactic to lure voters backfired big time too. Posters of girls with too much make-up holding rafsanjani's picture just angered basijis and many religious people. Plus those girls and like-minded people never cared to vote for Rafsanjani.

This is basically a rebellion of the poor aganist the government's economic policies during the 8 years of rafsanjani's administration and beyond.

Keep in mind in Iran voter turnout of the poor is much higher than any other group and ahmadinejad's government will not affect their lifestyle even a bit. They can't care less about the democracy and the freedom of speech when their stomach is empty.

SG at June 24, 2005 02:37 PM [permalink]:

I think bloggers must be the last group of all to be surprised by their mis-prediction about what Iranians think. Why, I wonder, would one assume that bloggers could predict anything, more than a bunch of people who chat in a coffeeshop could?! After all, bloggers are all caught in a "web" (so aptly named) of discussions in their own virtual (sub-)community, a little bubble world of their own making, and by cross-referencing they do nothing but increase their chances of making errors.

SG at June 24, 2005 02:49 PM [permalink]:

A little explanation is in order. What I meant was often bloggers keep saying the same thing over and over and base their argument on what other bloggers say and this has the potential of leading to a vicious circle. If you say something so many times and hear other say the same thing, you, just because you're only human, tend to believe that that something is in fact true, while it doesn't have to be.

In other worlds, living in this little world that is cut off from the real bigger world outside can throw you off big time and give you a wildly biased perspective. I say "cut off" because what Iranian blogger, or what Iranian intellectual for that matter, bothered to go to the poor quarters in Tehran and talk to people?

SG at June 24, 2005 02:51 PM [permalink]:

Okay, "In other words". Damn!

Mehdi Y. at June 24, 2005 03:19 PM [permalink]:

The main point of Nema is well taken. There is a need for broadening of the outreach of blogs. However, I think some of the commenters are confusing two different matters. There is the question of having a realistic picture and the question of what the focus should be on. Many people in the persian blogsphere have been commenting on the weak Moin's campaign. Many knew that he needed to be lucky to make it to the second round. This is what I call a realistic picture and was there already. Then there is the question of focus. Most Iranian bloggers were focusing on Moin's campaign unlike many other Iranians who either didn't know Moin or where attracted by other candidates. Just because Iranian bloggers have different focus does not mean they are wrong! Progressives in most countries have different priorities from the general public. The key is that they have to find ways to convey that in the most effective language to the rest of the population. They have to tell people how those issues are going to affect their daily life. I was impressed by Iranian bloggers that did not sit at home. Some women organized their demonstration for women rights and some other bloggers showed up in Tehran's squares to engage people in person.

It is true that the raise of Ahmadinejad was not seen so clearly by blogsphere and by no other political analysts. We have to be very careful to make conclusions such as the bloggers lack of predicting the result because we know this government is capable of displacing as much as 2-3 millions vote. Based on what we hear from Iran, this is was done in favor of Ahmadinejad. It was not clear until 3 days before the election whether the hardliners add these votes to Qalibaf or Ahmadinejad's sum.

Ahmadinejad might still get many vote in the second run but for a different reason. That is because many people don't like Rafsanjani and consider him corrupt. Some others also are voting against Rafsanjani thinking that they are voting against the candidate of the establishment.

SG at June 24, 2005 03:23 PM [permalink]:

Continuing on the same line of thought, another reason why people (bloggers as well as more serious analysts) make mistakes in their picture of a social phenomena is sometimes humans need to think what they *desire* is what there *is*.

For an example, go back just 7 years in time and recall that everywhere reformists kept saying over and over that the process of reform is not reversible. (Don't you remember?) I always found that hard to fathom. "Why does it have to be an irreversible process?!" Now we see.

My explanation (and I'm no expert in socio-psychology) is people just needed to believe in something and that alone made them believe in it. I guess same thing happens to bloggers.

SG at June 24, 2005 03:29 PM [permalink]:

Mehdi Y.,

Exactly my point: Since a lot of bloggers were for Moin, they thought people too would go for him.

What a folly!

Behrooz at June 24, 2005 03:41 PM [permalink]:

Fact of the matter is, the "reformist" movement as we know it has failed. How is it that people wanted reform when much of the blogsphere was promoting that people not vote? How can we change a system and "protest" if you don't want to participate in the electoral process? How could the blogsphere simply assume that people want change, yet not take into consideration their economic well-being?

Iranians on the web especially, have an inherent bias. The fact that we're all using computers and readily have access to blogs and the internet is the bias in and of itself. It's interesting how we can promote "democracy" and change while having access to all this technology, while a large number of Iranian residents have no such luxuries whatsoever.

Moreover, I had a conversation with a number of my Iranian friends who only several weeks ago were adament about not voting because "it didn't matter who we voted for...they're all corrupt anyhow". And today, just to pick on them, I mentioned that Mr. Ahmadinejad was the "man", and they told me I was crazy and that Mr. Rafsanjani was the man to vote for. I then asked them that if they wanted a "moderate", why they didn't vote a week ago for Mr. Moeen. Obviously, they were already caught up in their clearly misguided ideals and really didn't have much of a reply to give.

So taking this example, the reformist movement needs drastic change if it is to survive these current challenges. If they want to change the system, they must actively pursue change, and not simply intellectualize the situation. A typical Islamic example of this is if we want Imam Mahdi to reappear, should we simply sit still, or actively pursue and facilitate conditions so that he should reappear? We're simply not prepared despite all this intellectualization.

SG at June 24, 2005 03:55 PM [permalink]:


I enjoyed reading your well-written comment, so nicely divided into equal paragraphs. "The fact that we're all using computers and readily have access to blogs and the internet is the bias in and of itself." Well said!

But I'm not syre what you mean by "intellectualization of the situation" (and, much more importantly, what alternative you put forward), because frankly that's all we do (and are capable of doing) around here.

Behrooz at June 24, 2005 04:19 PM [permalink]:

What is meant by that is we're merely appealing to our intellect, which of course there isn't really anything wrong with, but perhaps we were losing sight of the real problems. Those, namely being ignoring our inhernet biases and ignoring the pluralism that prevails in Iran and Iranian culture in general. It is obvious by now that these biases blinded much of the blogsphere.

Having a "correct" understanding of pluralism (which is beyond the scope of this discussion for the moment) and how to apply it in the Iranian context is ultimately the goal we ought to strive for if we still want reform. And what's the key? Both education and application.

SG at June 24, 2005 04:47 PM [permalink]:


Nema at June 24, 2005 10:27 PM [permalink]:

Thank you for your comments. I think my point goes beyond blogging as well. What concerns me that English journalism is very "Tehran-centric" as well. In the sense that they ignore what is going on outside of Iran's "elites." There needs to be more attentions on Iran's poor. How many time do you ever hear that a reporter got his news from Kashan, Kerman, or Ardibil. When journalists want to gauge "Iran" they stick exclusively to Tehran, and maybe sometimes visit Qom in case they want to display a "hardliner" perspective. I think in many ways blogs are good tools to close that gap because we are on the ground. However, because of our own demographic bias, we need to make an effort to reach outside of our sphere of familiarity. Its funny, I actually had a scholar tell me he knows whats going on in Iran because he talks to his family and they tell him. Too often we make that mistake.

itchy_thoughts at June 24, 2005 11:19 PM [permalink]:

"English journalism is very 'Tehran-centric' as well"

Nema, I have to repeat parts of what I said before. With different words though. Let's start knowing Tehran first, shall we?

Working-class and bazaari enighbourhoods make up half of Tehran. What you mean by Tehran-centric limits to just a few middle-class, upper middle-class, and upscale neighbourhoods. So let's straighten that out.

A few weeks ago, BBC (English) had an article picturing a 60 year old woman (breadwinner of the family of 5 or 6) who had to work at this fingernail manicured woman's classy condo. Everyday she had to take long bus rides from south of Tehran to north where she would work as a maid. Their political views were just eye-opener.

So that's for English journalism ;)

Back to your other points. I understand you keep an English weblog. What you can do is to handpick your favourite Persian columnists and weblogs, and reflect their opinion in your weblog and try to influence the western media too.

Quite frankly there is a huge gap between what happens in Iran and what gets reflected in the western media (e.g. BBC introduced Rafsanjani as a moderate reformer).

Kristina at June 25, 2005 08:07 PM [permalink]:

Ok, I know I cannot discuss this issue with you on the same level because, as an American, I am not aware of English language Iranian newspapers. The BBC is the only option for the so-called liberals in my country. Even the few of us who read English language Al-Jazeera online feel we are not getting the same news as you, the people of Iranian, living and breathing the news. As a former journalism student in college, we were taught to admire Al-Jazeera as the first free news in the Arab world, but that was before Bush and the so-called "war" on "terror" (or, as many of us say, the war on anythign that is different from us). Ok, I have gotten off track.

What is a good source (or good sources) for English speakers? (Other than this blog.) I am hoping to learn Arabic and Persian in night classes, but as a law student, I think it might takes years to become fluent.

I think bloggers are important. This is the first time that I discovered I could actually communicate with people from a land to which I wish to travel. I have noticed that my past posts have been ignored. I can assure you that I am just a law student who open-minded and hungry for knowledge. This is a big world, and I am not content to only know or experience about my part of the world.

The media over here (NY Times) printed front page that Rafsanjani had only 31.2% (can't remeber exacts) of the vote while Ahmadinejad had 62.3%. Now you are discussing the run-off. Is our media completely wrong (now big surprise)?

Behrooz at June 25, 2005 11:35 PM [permalink]:


What is clear from the result is that much of the blogsphere and the media were blindsided by this result.

Arguably, Iran has one, if not the, most sophisticated cultures in the middle east and Asia, so no matter how much we intellectualized the situation, I don't think we came even close.

The BBC had some interviews with Iranians on the street asking who they voted for. It honestly brought a tear to my eye just hearing their plights and reasons.

Finally, there are plenty of sources for english speakers that you can find throughout this blog. There's various opinions, and the more you read, the more you can learn.

An Iranian Student (AIS) at June 26, 2005 03:48 AM [permalink]:

OK. I hate to be the one who always has to spoil the party, even the newest party of reconsideration, but this is a bit funny, don't you think? What do you expect people to do, try to design their strategies based on the desires of people in a village? It will never happen.
The reformists bieleved, and they were right, that no economical solution is possible without a political one in the present condition. So what are you all proposing to do, start giving populistic mottos like these people from now on?
Look. You all knew all of this before hand. All of you knew this. Demanding that uneducated people, especially in lower classes, in a third world country, become educated and intellectual enough to ask for democracy we start demanding such luxuries [shaking head] as ddemocracy and freedom is a silly joke! You think the people in England or America or France or India or ... were all educated philosophers, think again! In America how many people do you think really wanted or know about the fine details of democracy and freedom?
Those who advocated voting were doing that precisely because of this kind of logic of how the people in Iran are. Already forgotten that?
You see where such logic leads.
Tehran is indeed the important focus of all that will change Iran. The people will always look up to the forces in front, from the educated. Tehran will remain the center of attention and there is no other possibility with the current situation.
In Iran people are actually very respectful to and receptive of the ideas of those they consider educated.
The same people voted for Khatami 8 years ago and 4 years ago, becuase they were looking for change. They also followed their intellectuals in the 1979 revolution...only when they can trust among the elite, they will turn elswhere.
This is a great injustice and insult you are throwing at the people on your own expense and for your own failures. (I know you act as if this is self-criticism and you give people the right etc. etc., but come on, who do you think you're foolingby this?)
They didn't vote for your candidates , not becuase they were poor and ignorant, but becuaset they didn't trust them any more and for good reasons. ONLY THEN , being desperate and economically devestated they went for the next best thing.
Had the reformists rallied as an opposition to the whole system instead of trying to remain in power, based on the logic that people wouldn't support them if they came out of power structure, then thing swould have been different. You seriously think if people were given a choice between someone like Ganji calling from inside the prison against this entire corrupt system, they would have prefered a jerk like Ahmadi-nezhad?
This was the mistake of all the reformists, bloggers, in Tehran, aborad, etc. NOT being oblivious to the class differences etc.
People were ready, still are ready if they find a real leader for the dissent and civil resistance that they can trust and feel as oneof their own instead of being a prostitute of the system, ready to go for freedom and democracy.
But when they see lies and shallow talks, they have no other CHOICE but to go for the populists , because of their poverty.

You can keep this current chores of new found excuses, such as of class war or people's economical needs etc, up to still deny and ignor the simple but risky truth. but it won't get you anywhere.
Populism is not going to be the answer.
(and this is what all this new noise is all about)

itchy_thoughts at June 26, 2005 05:02 PM [permalink]:


I agree with you that revolutions and changes in the world don't start with intellectuals but by earthly causes. Unfortunately it is lost on a few intellectuals especially perhaps a lot of Iranian ones who imported and copied a half-baked version of the European (influenced by the French) philosophy. The Brits didn't make us colonized, but these fellow Iranians intellectualls indirectly did.

French revolution started with a bunch of prostitutes, criminianls, and other people locked up at Bastile. Philosophers got it philosophized and glamourized later. Well, I am making a little bit of exaggerations here to get across a point.

But you know what. To answer a comment you made in another post, I have to say that reading those the trend of these revoltuoins are sometimes educational. You will learn for example that those extremists who climbed up the US embassy in the early days of the revolution should be at the forefront of change and reform. This trend is common in all revolutions.

An Iranian Student (AIS) at June 26, 2005 07:08 PM [permalink]:

That is right, and no such ideoligical revolutions in history were brought to democracy by these "reformed" extremists, not in Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China (which is actually the model some of the less canny of them openly aknowledged and belive me China is no democracy!)
This "reform" is of the "Animal Farm" kind. I strongly suggest many depressed people read animal farm and its endings again.

But seriously the influence of these "modern fascists" is immense. The more time passes, the more their central role in the decline of Iran in the second half of the 20th century till now comes to picture. They now claim to be following Mossadegh. They would hav eripped mossadeegh to pieces if he was alive today for his "radicalism" and "populism". It's actually good to consider their role in making the monarchy so stupidly in close the society as a reaction to their "activism" and so on. Its a bit like Agatha Christie novels now. The biggest culprit turns out to be the one who was supposedly trying the most to help you solve the mystery.
Its not that they can't go further than this in the present situation, but that they don't want to go further. They want to preserve this system. That is their prime directive.

Look back at many discussions here. You see many just parroting their focused agitations and never gave a rational argument to back their urgent demands. It It is very few, really, I'm sorry to say, regardless of the actuall correctness or not of their stances (that future will show). It is as if these are all "self-evident".
THEY make things look "normal" and the need for gradual action as they please, or else they start making a fuss about fascim "returning" and all of a sudden it becomes "self-evident"

An example. I was listening to Behnoud today here here . Now he says he doesn't believe these idiots elected in power would be another Taliban or to be able or willing to crush the dissidents and bring in a total defeat on all the reforms.
Just read his articles, and those of his camp, this past week and compare. Like this one, especially the last paragraph: article
I'm still amazed how people are blind to this blatant hypocracy and use of people as pawns that is in front of their eyes!
People like Ganji and Sazegara are real exeptions among this bunch.

I really suggest everyone read Nabavis recent articles and , just for an experiment do not agree with him and his vause, just read it critically. I think You might be amazed too. Sharatmadari's articles at Keyhan are more moderate than these.

I'm sorry I repeat myself, but the fact that many, the majority have stopped listening to them is awesome. I myself was certain Rafsanjani would come to power after all the agitations just like the past events. That was a big mistake on my part.But I still have doubts whether the regime as whole was not also surprised by this result, because I haven't heard a convincing argument to show it otherwise. A big price was paid for this, Ganji and others who stood by the right and didn't give in to te doubletalk and "moderatifications" were an enormous counter-influence this time.

This opportunity must not be lost.

Iran is a Joke at June 28, 2005 06:19 PM [permalink]:

Do you honestly think this is a result of class war? Come on buddy - do you think that if they would have permitted a popular reformist to ACTUALLY RUN FOR OFFICE - he/she would not have received the majority of the votes from the poor and the rich combined??? Stop trying to legitimize an illegitimate process. The election was a joke and Iran is on its way to being the biggest international "democratic" joke.

"Negar Azimi" at July 5, 2005 04:18 PM [permalink]:

"Pollsters, analysts, and journalists seem to have done a poor job of speaking to ordinary Iranians. Rather, they tended to turn to the residents of posh northern Tehran, intellectuals educated abroad, and bloggers."

Massoud and Trudy at August 22, 2005 10:54 AM [permalink]:

Compare your life in Iran to us in England and let us know what you think! e-mail: