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Western nations can play key role in resolving crisis in Iran

Friday, June 26, 2009 | 2:25 p.m. CDT

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: President Barack Obama has tried mightily to keep the United States out of the election crisis in Iran. But now, as street protests continue and a crackdown grows more violent, he is caught between showing more support for protesters objecting to the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his belief that the Iranian government can be engaged in negotiations to limit its nuclear weapons development program, cut back on its support of Hezbollah and Hamas and drop its anti-Semitic rhetoric. Ahmadinejad has said Obama is no different from former President George W. Bush in trying to crush the Iranian government. Generally, the nations of the world have tried to let the developments in Iran play out on their own without interference, but that has not stopped the Iranian government from placing blame for the unrest outside. Is there anything the Western World or Iran’s neighbors can do to help resolve the crisis? What impact does this anti-American rhetoric have on the Obama administration?

Philip Elliott, White House correspondent, The Associated Press, Washington, D.C.: The administration is sensitive that the U.S. is a punching bag and bogeyman within Iran. They are trying to walk this line between supporting democratic ideals without inflaming decades-old tensions and distrust. They want Obama to appear a statesman and an outraged citizen of the world at the same time. They are engaging online, using Twitter, Facebook and the White House’s general Web site to transmit the president’s remarks. At the same time, Obama is saying he is not going to get personally involved.

Loory: It is also a domestic political problem for him.

Elliott: He is facing criticism from Republican critics and Democratic allies. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure 405-1, urging support for these protesters in Tehran. He has been urged to get more vocal, while his top foreign policy advisers are telling him not to wade into this too early. It might turn out that the president was re-elected legitimately.

Loory: Is there a possibility this was a legitimate election?

Julian Borger, diplomatic editor, Guardian, London: Not entirely. It is quite possible that Ahmadinejad won, but even the Guardian Council — the body of senior clerics called to look into claims of rigging — did find that 50 electoral districts had more voters than those on the rolls. There were 40 million voters; if the margin was as claimed, then 3 million extra votes wouldn’t have changed the overall result. It raises a lot of questions. Did it change the overall result or just put the Ahmadinejad win beyond any kind of recall? What about outside those electoral districts? That isn’t known and may never be.

Loory: The Russian and Chinese governments have been somewhat critical of the Western democracies for supporting protesters. Why?

Nabi Abdullaev, news editor, Moscow Times, Moscow: The Russian government was not criticizing Western governments for interference in the Iranian elections. From the beginning, the Russian government has said this is an internal affair of Iran; senior foreign administration officials repeated this mantra (Thursday).
 
Loory: Tell us about the reaction in the Arab World?

Ahmed Quraishi, former host, Worldview from Islamabad, PTV News, former analyst, Al-Jazeera Television, Islamabad: Almost all the major neighbors of Iran — Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and the Gulf Arab countries — already congratulated Ahmadinejad on his re-election. The media coverage of events in Iran has been very muted. For example, the reaction of the Pakistani media — 80 television news networks — few of them focused on the electoral dispute. Ahmadinejad’s re-election is taken as final here and the Arab World. There is a certain level of sympathy with the situation the Iranian government finds itself in because we’ve seen this kind of ganging up by, not the international media, but the mainstream American and British media on certain countries on issues that disguise strategic and other political interests. Pakistan feels this occurred with the hyped story of Pakistan’s nuclear program and the potential that it would fall in the wrong hands.

Borger: When a nuclear arms state is in the grip of an insurgent civil conflict, it is a reasonable issue to write about as long as it is balanced. Most of the British and U.S. presence looked into it and said, for now, it does look like the nukes are safe but further down the road it could become a more powerful question.

Loory: How is the unrest in Iran impacting Israel?

Jay Bushinsky, correspondent, CBS Radio, Tel Aviv, Israel:
It is surprising because one would expect the Israelis to take sides. From the outset, they agreed the two primary candidates were unfriendly toward Israel to begin with, and wouldn’t change their attitude whichever became president. Secondly, Mousavi was one of the pioneers of the current nuclear program, which was initiated by the late Shah of Iran. After the revolution of 1979, as prime minister in the early 1980s, he resumed that program.

Loory: The Iranian government has limited the coverage from there; what information is getting out is coming through Twitter, Facebook and social networking sites. What impact has this had on the mainstream media and public opinion?
 
Borger: Nowadays, compared to 10 years ago, it is harder for a regime to shut down all forms of information. They stopped the journalists still in Tehran from going out and reporting on demonstrations, but technologically there are other ways of getting the news out. These organizations are a powerful backup and alternative to mainstream media at the best of times; at the worst of times, it is like a generator coming on when the mains have been turned off. It is harder to pick out what is going on and there is little context, but at least information is flowing.
 
Loory:  Is it accurate information? It is the illegitimacy that appears to be the focus of the Twitter journalism.

Elliott:
It is really hard, especially on Twitter with 140 characters, to figure out who is primarily reporting and who is just repeating what they heard someone else repeat. Some people have stepped up and put together compilations of this information, such as Nico Pitney from The Huffington Post. His work was recognized when the president called on him in a presidential conference this week. Pitney was able to ask the president a direct question from an Iranian about the election.
 
Loory: How is social network reporting being viewed and used in Moscow?
 
Abdullaev: Blogging in Russia has turned into the best medium for information sharing and opinion, with the television and national newspapers being controlled by the government. President Medvedev likes to play up his Internet savvy and has opened a journal blog recently. It is one of the most popular blogs, but it is not clear whether he runs it himself. Each morning, I read newspapers, watch television and search for new story ideas from bloggers. They are a powerful addition to the media here in Russia.

Loory: In Pakistan, are the social networks being used to deal with what is going on in Iran?
 
Quraishi: Blogging is a major source of information and news, but the reporting value of the social networks is overrated. There is no transparency in the usage of these sites. A certain demonstrator can use it, but also governments and people associated with the government can also manipulate these sites. There is little to verify who is planting information.

Bushinsky: What we have lost because of the anti-media crackdown in Iran is the quality of making sense of it all. What we’re losing here is the insights of correspondents with integrity, background and objectivity.
 
Borger: I completely agree. What is described as “mainstream media” is people with experience and who have a track record. Most people chose someone, or an institution, they trust to do the filtering for them.

Quraishi:
I am also surprised that Twitter is being promoted in a strange way. The Defense Deptartment is using Twitter with Iraq, taking some of their executives to Baghdad, for example.

Loory:
It is 30 years since Iran isolated itself from the international community and it seems there is little indication that it really wants to come back.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Geoff George and Brian Jarvis. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.
Loory is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at globaljournalist.org.


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