Bait and switch? Contradictory Iran election coverage still has an uncertain ending

Which faction came out on top in the recent Iranian elections? Was it the "reformists"?  The "moderates"? Or was it the hardline clerics who run the Islamic republic and get to decide who is allowed to stand for election?

I ask because it remains difficult, some two weeks after the late February balloting, to tell from a face-value reading of the various media reports just who emerged victorious in the voting for both the nation's unicameral parliament and its clerical consultative body. The latter officially (if not necessarily in reality) has a hand in selecting Iran's all-important supreme leader.

This election muddle underscores how essential it is for journalists to weigh voting results firmly in the context of the nation involved. Confusion is bound to follow when imprecise political labels -- such as reformists or moderates -- are borrowed from Western discourse to simplify complicated foreign political intrigues for American media followers.

The muddle also serves to underscore the dangers inherent in jumping to sweeping conclusions based on initial returns.

Moreover, I can't help but wonder whether there's an element of wishful thinking also at play here. After all, I think most Americans, and the media they follow as well, would love to see Iran become more open to the West and tone down its anti-Western rhetoric and actions now that its nuclear agreement has been signed.

Some examples of what I mean:

Example A is this early election results story from the BBC, which includes this far too premature declaration: "This stunning election result will make a difference in Iran's engagement with the wider world."

For Example B, I offer this Reuters piece. The news agency posted it under the glowingly upbeat -- and also premature -- headline, "Iran's Rouhani welcomes poll wins that could mean faster reform." Rouhani, of course is Hassan Rouhani, Iran's so-labeled moderate elected president, who serves under the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As his title implies, Khamenei is Iran's real decision maker.

Within days of the actual balloting, however, the tone of Iranian election coverage turned more questioning, if not not downright negative and contradictory.

There was this analysis posted by Al Jazeera English. Writer Hamid Dabashi, an Iran expert currently at Columbia University, noted that the first question to be addressed in figuring out who bettered who in the election was the success of a boycott of the "rigged" election urged by some critics of the Iranian government? He wrote:

The now standard reading of the results of the February 26 elections in Iran is that they dealt a "blow to hardliners as reformists make gains".
This is not an entirely wrong reading of these elections, and the reformist-backed candidates will indeed make it possible for President Hassan Rouhani to continue with his post-nuclear deal rapprochement with the world at large.
But the habitual reference to "the hardliners" versus "the reformists", helpful a rule of thumb as it is, in fact conceals far more than it reveals about what has been unfolding in Iran over the past decade and more.
Over the past few weeks, and in anticipation of the February 26 elections, a healthy and robust debate had been aired among Iranians in and out of their homeland: Whether to vote in this already rigged elections or not? This is a far more important issue than the convenient binary between hardliners and reformists.

There was also this piece in U.S. News & World Report, and this one published by The Atlantic. Both put the kibosh to the early, optimistic storylines, such as the two by the BBC and Reuters cited above, by explaining the intricacies of Iran's decidedly undemocratic political system.

Of course it's not unusual for even the most esteemed news outlets to reverse storylines from one day to another. New information emerges and quality outlets are obliged, if necessary, to contradict themselves, like it or not. It's simply part of the journalistic process.

My examples A and B in this regard come from The New York Times.

The first reflects the flush of optimism (from an American mainstream standpoint) that was so prevalent immediately after the first returns from Tehran were reported. The second, published just two days later, tells a far different tale. It's focus is the cloud hanging over the results because of the government's holding back on releasing official counts. It also hints at the possibility of nefarious government shenanigans to insure its hold on power.

If this latter concern comes to fruition, GetReligion readers should know it won't be the first time.

To understand that aspect of Iranian political history, here's a helpful analytical backgrounder from the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.

The Iranian election may be over. But it's true outcome is still uncertain. Because revolutionary Iran is such a huge part of the story of contemporary Islam, it warrants continued close attention.

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