The Moussavi Misunderstanding

How the blogosphere and MSM turned a flawed man into a savior

It has been ten days since the Iran election on Friday, June 12, and while the country may still be without a recognized leader, it is certainly not lacking the attention of the world media.

In the weekend and week after the election, bloggers and reporters feverishly chronicled the announcement of the results and the subsequent fallout. By Monday morning, news of mass protests against the outcome of the election that had re-elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had spread around the world. Yet despite abundant evidence to the contrary, pundits and bloggers voiced overwhelming support for the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi, while ignoring Moussavi’s mixed history as a reformer.

As protestors took the streets to demand a new election from the Guardian Council, they wore green, Moussavi’s campaign color. In the West, pictures filtered back through Twitter and Facebook; brave journalists who had managed to stay in the country filed stories. These dispatches showed seas of people in green and black filling the streets of Tehran in protest. The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, who doggedly covered the news coming out of Iran all weekend, turned his blog’s theme green in solidarity.

As the week progressed, the meme grew. By Wednesday, Twitter icons and Facebook profile pictures looked as if lime Kool-Aid was running through the ethernet cables. Bloggers on both sides of the aisle seemed to have united in support of the protestors and Moussavi.

But in those first few days, there was little in the media expressing doubt about the leader whose chartreuse face now graced message boards and Flickr albums around the world.

“I wrote all this about Moussavi before the election,” says Michael Goldfarb, blogger at the conservative Weekly Standard. “But that doesn’t seem like much the point now—there’s some unity going on. It’s a good thing. These events have a way of transforming people.” 

But all the grassroots greening was slow to take root with policy experts and politicians, including President Barack Obama. “The difference between Ahmedinejad and Moussavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised,” Obama said to CNBC on Wednesday afternoon. The comment sparked widespread criticism from opposition advocates calling for stronger American support of the Iranian people.

Obama wasn’t alone in hesitating. Others well-briefed in the politics of the Middle East cautioned not to throw all hopes of revolution on the shoulders of Moussavi. Hamid Dabshi, author of Iran: A People Interrupted and an expert in Middle East studies, similarly spoke out about the opposition’s leader. Daniel Byman, the director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown and a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote an essay for Slate dissecting Moussavi’s role as leader of the opposition.

Mousavi himself is likely to disappoint. A prime minister in the 1980s, when the regime was far more revolutionary than it is today, he is a creature of the Iranian system. Indeed, in order to win approval to run for president in the first place, he had to pass an ideological and political litmus test that rejected more than 400 other candidates, leaving only Mousavi, Ahmadinejad, and two other establishment types. As prime minister, he approved Iran’s effort to purchase nuclear technology from Pakistan, and during the 2009 campaign he defended Iran’s nuclear program. Clearly he is an improvement over Ahmadinejad, but that is damning with the faintest praise.

Likewise, the mainstream media moved from a de facto acceptance of Ahmadinejad’s re-election, to romanticized depictions of the protests, to joining policy leaders in doubt of Moussavi’s fitness as a leader.

“[Moussavi] is far from being a liberal in the Western sense,” wrote Robert Worth in The New York Times on Wednesday. “And it is not yet clear how far he will be willing to go in defending the broad democratic hopes he has come to embody.”

Like the situation in Iran itself, the Western media’s coverage has taken many iterations and positions in a short period of time. As those familiar with Iran and its history increasingly express their reservations with the opposition’s figurehead, it will be interesting to see if Moussavi remains the populist hero of the blogosphere. 

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Kate Klonick is a journalist in New York City. She has written for, Esquire, The Guardian, The Washington Independent and Talking Points Memo.