Two years ago, I was in a dry cleaner’s shop in my neighbourhood when I overheard a heated debate between the owner and an estate agent. The latter was well-known for his connections to the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization.

Thanks to his connections with the ruling establishment, the man had been able to buy several houses on the cheap and sell them on at a huge profit. You might call him a Friend-of-the-Theocracy tycoon.

That day, he was telling the shop owner: “Look at Saudi Arabia. They had that columnist working in Washington sawed into pieces, and his body parts dissolved in acid. Here in Iran, those journalists working as lackeys of the West, especially America… We only give them a little jail time. And if they repent, we even let them go back to work!”

When the shop owner asked me to weigh in, I lost my temper. “Arresting journalists is plain wrong,” I told him. “Jailing or killing anyone who doesn’t agree with the authorities is outrageous” – thereby publicly insulting the ruling despots of Saudi and Iran in one fell swoop.

On my way home, I pondered the lies and ridiculous arguments that proliferate around here, which are all meant to deflect attention from Iran’s faults. It’s better known as whataboutery. It basically goes: “You think things are bad here? Well, let me tell you how much worse they are in America.”

Consider the so-called international forum held every year in the “holy” city of Qom. It is simply called “Reviewing Human Rights Violations in the US” and as you can guess, it’s chock-full of descriptions of “American abuses, cruelty and oppression.”  

Human rights abuse in America – recent or historic – is an old chestnut for our propagandists. In the decades immediately after the Islamic Revolution, top officials constantly referred to the massacre of indigenous peoples in America by the early settlers.

And of course, for the propagandists, the very real abuses of the North American-sponsored slave trade were a gift. I remember the Supreme Leader himself, Ali Khamenei, once praised the Farsi translator of Alex Haley’s novel Roots because his work had made a story about slavery accessible to Iranian readers. Khamenei must have believed that readers would be so horrified by Haley’s tale that they’d forget all about the daily violations of human rights in Iran.

The Supreme Leader also gave Roots to former President of Iran Mohammad Khatami to read before giving an interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN. He probably thought it would help Khatami make the case that American civilization was rooted in evil, whereas the Islamic Republic, of course, was rooted in revolutionary equality and justice.

It was just plain silly, and proved once again that the Supreme Leader is completely out of touch with both reality and the workings of modern media. Even more hilariously, he also gave Khatami an essay by the Russian writer Maxim Gorky. It’s a Communist-era polemic from the early 1900s on capitalism in New York, called The City of the Yellow Devil.  No one can accuse our Supreme Leader of being too subtle. Or plugged in.

In the end, Khatami didn’t refer to either of these works in the interview. But – rightly or wrongly – he did quote from Alexis de Tocqueville’s work, which actually praised democracy in America!  

Quite often the whataboutery depends on false equivalence: the comparing of apples to oranges.

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s current president-elect, came out with a beauty recently when he responded to the Canadian government’s criticism of Iran’s shooting down of the Ukrainian Airlines passenger plane, Flight 752.

Referring to the discovery of hundreds of indigenous children’s bodies buried on old school grounds, he said: “You, with this black record of mass graves of aboriginal children, how dare you talk about human rights violations? We here in Iran respect human rights.” 

No matter what bad news comes out of Iran these days – be it forest fires, drought, power outages, sinkholes or Covid deaths – our state media makes sure it’s overshadowed by even worse “news” in America and Europe. It’s all about convincing our people that Iran is as good as it gets thanks to our Islamic rulers, who deserve to remain in charge.  

Does it work? It certainly distorts the picture that many people have of life in the West. A large part of the population is isolated and poorly educated, and so vulnerable to the propaganda. 

But social media is changing the game. More and more Iranians are seeing through the lies. They realize that the US is not all about rapacious capitalism and racist violence. And conversely, they realize that Iran compares badly with many Western countries, on everything from human rights to basic water management.

That makes our leaders nervous. Excellent news! 

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