I could not help but laugh at the irony when I read successive articles in the New York Times on Monday in which, in the first article, Iran’s government was referred to monolithically as “the mullahs”, while in the second, the Times reported that senior clerics in Iran are actually being targeted for government censorship.
The divided and competing interests within Iran’s political scene is nothing new. But following the 2009 election crisis, this reality was exposed even to those who do not closely follow events in Iran. And the un-Islamic nature of the Iranian government, despite official claims, has been revealed time and time again, especially in the past two years–including in the brutal crackdown on protesters and the government’s attacks on dissident clerics’ homes and offices.
Despite all these obvious divisions, the New York Times published a news analysis discussing Bob Woodward’s new book and what it may reveal about Obama’s policy towards Iran. Throughout the article, author John Vincour constantly refers to the Iranian government as “the mullahs.”
Yet as the Times reported the same day (“In Sign of Discord, Iran Blocks Web Sites of Some Clerics”), Iran’s government is censoring the websites of Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei and Grand Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat-Zanjani. Those attempting to access the websites were instead redirected to the standard Iranian government filtering page.
The most likely reason? Both Sanei and Bayat-Zanjani openly condemned the violent crackdown on the street protests following the fraudulent presidential elections in 2009. Muhammad Sahimi, a UCLA professor and political columnist for Tehran Bureau, said of the censorship:
“Filtering their sites is precisely because of the public positions that they have taken… This is part of the ‘cyberspace war’ that the hardliners have publicly announced against the Green Movement and its supporters.”
As Grand Ayatollah Sanei said on his website in response to the censorship, “Let it not go unsaid that freedom of expression is emphasized under Islam.”
So why does John Vincour talk about Iran’s government in shorthand as “the mullahs”? It doesn’t just happen once. Vincour continuously refers to the Iranian government as a group of mullahs, as if they are all united and of the like mind.
Now, I’m not talking about being politically correct. I’m just talking about being correct. Vincour ignores all the rivalries and complexities in Iran’s leadership and unites them all under the same banner.
Many clerics refused to congratulate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his supposed election victory; Ayatollah Dastgheib called on the Assembly of Experts to review the performance of the Supreme Leader; the homes and offices of Montazeri, Karroubi, and Sanei have all been attacked; and recently, a dispute erupted over Azad University. These are but a few examples of the many rifts and complexities in Iran’s leadership.
To be perfectly honest, considering how often Iran is in the news today and how often it is the subject of policy discussions, I expect more from not only the New York Times, but also of those who are leading the debate on Iran. And I am not only bothered by Vincour’s ignorance, but also surprised.
Perhaps as we debate and formulate policies regarding Iran, it is time to do ourselves a favor and be mindful of the intricacies of Iranian politics before we talk about Iran as if it were a monolith.