Our protagonist a strangely cringey Dutch man starts off with the rather obvious falsehood of Iran’s isolation and stock footage of chador adorned women protesting. Firstly, the isolation element is a falsehood that only seeks to help draw parallels with North Korea. North Korea’s purpose as a comparison point helps draw a parallel with perhaps the single most popular target for ‘regime change’ in the western mind. This premise not only hypes up the content, but also serves as discouragement for people who would look into Iran. This props up the rare few in the Western media that can access it as the sole authority. It’s locked away and we have the key. Don’t look for it.
“A country where nothing is allowed but everything is possible” the announcer booms as the audience is bombarded with this dichotomy of white bearded Islamic clerics and girls in track suits doing Zumba one after the other. This aforementioned dichotomy once more props up the narrative of young and free versus old and oppressive. A narrative which implies the weakness of the government and the inevitability of its collapse at least on the societal scale. It follows this with a man pushing one of the headscarf protesters off the electric box she was standing, one of the short videos that make the rounds on the various propaganda networks. Right here we have the clash and all the while the main subject of Thomas Erdbrink is unaffected and undeterred as the Persian language pop blares.
Erdbrink claims to believe that the Iran Deal was a game changer in his many interviews on American media. In retrospect I don’t see why anyone should have had high expectations unless they were completely out of touch with US politics. Even the Hafez poem in the documentary seemed to predict it when he visited Shiraz: “when did our friendship end? Where are those who support you?”. It seems like he was mostly focused on showing his day-to-day life in Tehran although the often unstated fact of focusing on Tehran is that there is no reason anyone should assume the nation’s largest city is in any way typical of the rest of the country. Especially in this case because he is one of a number of foreign correspondents who coalesce there.
One of the first subjects he focuses on is a divorced woman who he notes ‘have a hard time in Iran’. This once again holds up a very different country to the Western audience’s standards. These contradictions are never actually addressed. In fact given the ‘post-nuclear deal’ setting, the Western audience is somehow able to subconsciously take credit for these changes that come about the in 2nd part of the documentary with Erdbrink as the stand in for the white savior.
The problems of individuals in his life with the society around them thus becomes part of a greater clash between tradition and modernity. These ideas of modernity and Islam are once more part of the politicized analysis of the Orient that is propped up by people like Bernard Lewis and Francis Fukuyama. Once more a supposedly open-minded audience is imprinted with the post-9/11 period’s political orthodoxy.
With the divorcee she’s from a smaller, backwards and traditionalistic world that’s just one of many examples of the lost potential of women within the country. The New York Times gives her work in essence serving as a savior within itself. The issues of mandatory clothing are covered perhaps too extensively as she talks about her issues with her move to Tehran and no longer wearing a chador ‘shocks’ her father. They still have perfectly fine relationships; However, she states that not wearing the chador is a part of her ‘identity’. In that another part of the problem lies as this very specific line of thinking coming from the West wherein everything becomes identity and identity becomes political. She’s a woman, not just a woman, but not one of those chador-wearing women. A modern type of woman.
Her words at the time are somewhat mistranslated I have noticed. I might wonder if it is done so manipulatively. Some statements are made more profound and others are made less profound. When speaking about chadors these statements about the clothing issue are blown out of proportion in both its coverage and its translation. He shares some time with the traditionalist family. After leaving he applauds her ‘bold move’ and ‘choosing her own path’. It seems 17 years in this country hasn’t torn him from a mindset of identity politics and staunch individualism divorced from any greater social context. It’s followed by an Iranian woman who works as a trucker which is somehow a surprise. There was a prominent film about a taxi driver not too long ago. From that point a trucker seems like hardly a stretch, but his fascination with a woman trucker seems like the epitome of the American mindset in Iran. The fact that she’s been doing it for over 20 years isn’t even touched on compared to conditions in the rest of the Muslim world.
Someone does actually bring up the problem of a Westerner writing for a Western audience in the Western media. It has pitfalls, which he acknowledges for a half second through a fictional ruling of some Ayatollah. In this fictional scenario with a fictional Ayatollah that makes a decree about outlawing vascectomies or something, the journalist says that he would question the authority in Iran. “This fictional ruling will not work how you think!” he says.
Here is where we have an inherent paradox. By challenging the authorities within the country. These challenges to their authority however is not for an Iranian audience. It’s for a Western audience, so it serves a different utility. Namely to mock the irrationality of the people who would defy the Western order. The single entity that matters in his life is this faceless ‘state’ he quietly rebels against in small ways when he’s inside the country. By putting film on his windows. By bringing up the ever-trendy hijab topic that keeps getting funded by Western governments and media every chance he gets.
Speaking of Western media he speaks about Jason Rezanian’s arrest in 2014. Rezanian was at The Washington Post which does in fact have ties to the CIA that have been frequently documented. The problems of periodicals like the New York Times and Washington Post could be chronicled on their own. Still Rezanian is an Uncle Tom whose appearance in this makes for a useful discussion point. While Rezanian once more claims to oppose sanctions he serves as a neocon talking point. The first and most obvious factor is his arrest. Secondly he promotes just about all the fashionable talking points and human rights campaigns that are funded by various Zionist interests. He writes stories that demonize the government and spread paranoia against it. Immediately after promoting his book he writes on the handful of Facebook accounts that are part of the Iranian ‘propaganda and brainwashing’ campaign that has nothing to do with Iran and merely promotes leftist, occasionally veering into anti-Israel talking points. The issue here as with Erdbrink is that they both work for periodicals that are ‘occupied territory’. NYT and Washington Posts are filled to the brim of apologetics for the nation that has constantly been sabre rattling against Iran and at this point poses an existential threat to Iran: Israel. Neither of these writers ever break in their demonization of Iran in their contextually devoid analysis. Rezanian has been released by the Iranian government only to prove them right by putting CIA talking points at full blast. It was a similar case of the Western aligned journalist arrested during the rather suspect Green Movement. Furthermore the man’s presence in this all exposes one issue that I’ve long had with the mainstream US media; that it is a largely incestuous clique. This particular kind of clique is smugly self-assured in its own political orthodoxy.
This props up a foreign establishment. He’s a foreigner. Writing for foreigners. Reinforcing the perceptions of foreigners. An oft unsaid problem is that there is a narrative in which all young people are yearning for and potentially even willing to die for liberal, secular, modern western style democracy. This is taken for granted when the strawman that an entire nation is a monolith is brought up. The problem is not that there is any perception of these nations being monoliths. Yes there might be an evil caricature of the nation. Yes this can be used to prop up a disdain for the country leading to even action from outside the country. The problem is when you think this somehow works against the wishful thinking of these neoliberal types in which everyone will ‘get on board’. These ideas work in concert unless someone decides to point out how one idea could contradict the other. If this is a society crying out for modernity, has the program of countries of the United States worked against that? This question, if the people doing these works should have been a central question if the people who make them are in any way genuine about being a well-wisher of this country.
Being a Westerner he lives in the country and largely considers the state somewhere between a nuisance and a modern authoritarian state. In the age of the NSA and CIA he state ‘they watch you ALL the time’ as if it is somehow different or surprising. It is painful to watch someone who can judge this nation with this much naivety towards the US or anywhere else that seem to fit more into some manner of anarcho-communistic ideal than the actual reality in the way that his perceptions seem airlifted from the most alarming interpretation of The Authoritarian Personality.
Another issue with the man’s background as a secular European is his mystification when it comes to religion or even nationalism. Such is apparent when he claims that Westerners do not comprehend martyrdom when the concept itself is in a sense found in many cultures. Christ’s crucifixion for the most obvious example. The detachment from ‘the Passion’ in some forms of Christianity does not wipe out the role that such a concept has had in the past. The man scarcely comprehends how Iranians could want to die for their country oblivious to the concepts of honor and service inherent within every nation’s military. Once more I find that many of those Westerners who spend all this time analyzing Iran fail to understand the United States.
He considers Iran’s involvement in Syria ‘strange’ as it has been labeled as a ‘holy war’. It is ‘across the border’ as has been the tradition since the Iran-Iraq War. This is another point where the weak geopolitical analysis is a great problem. Syria isn’t just ‘across’ the border, it is ON the border as the Syrian war had bled into Iran’s neighbor Iraq. This is without involving the cultural ties or even the military alliance with Assad that aided Iran during this Iran-Iraq War. Is it so strange that Iran is involved there? Is it really that far away considering that even Australians are involved? When any Western reporter even asks these questions its as if they open their mouths and Netanyahu’s voice comes out. The same voice that came up in those more recent 2018 protests and a few soundbites called out against what is perceived as ‘foreign intervention’ by the handful of street interviewees he got. These people must have somehow managed to stay ignorant of the terrorist attacks and skirmishes on their border. It is clear that like the narrator they have even entertained the possibility that the ‘regime’s’ foreign policy is a pragmatic means of keeping war out of Iran itself. The sole voice of reason was the Iranian soldier who clearly dashed Erdbrink’s expectations.
The Syrian War clearly has a negative impact on some in the country and while he tries to keep it in religious terms, he can’t bring himself to demonize the people who support Iran in it. Another aspect he would never dare mention is the role of the Western powers and Western media in escalating the role in the first place. The Syrian War serves as a reason why many Iranians are justifiably worried about participation in another 2009 style resolution. It was media outlet’s like Erdbrink’s who portrayed the conflict as a one sided struggle for freedom. Particularly by the left-wing Western media that Thomas Erdbrink works for. They propped it up on mainstream media and social media. Some elements of the Western governments even funded it. He is silent in all of this. Another aspect of Western complicity, one involving the media no less, is brushed under the rug.
The only area in which I would give this kind of soft propaganda credit is that there is at least a human element which yes does vocally recoil at the ever-present threat of war and sanctions. That being said, it still props up the narrative of those who do not see the people in Iran as individuals. People like Benjamin Netanyahu who will make up fictional people to talk about their hardships on one hand and tell Congress to bring back sanctions on the other. To them, they are abstracts and the ends justifies the means. This is the inherent problem. The problem being is that the forces of US interventionists, the Israelis, and even a portion of Europe will go ‘ok but this is good for you in a long run; the status quo can’t persist’. At the end of the day a regime collapse is still at least implicitly the desirable outcome because the government is nothing but an oppressive and nebulous force.
Even when people like Erdbrink argue against sanctions they do it for entirely the wrong reason. They claim it is because this is not the way to accomplish what the Western governments want. They claim that this will only strengthen the most reactionary elements of the regime. However, the very same people who make this narrative go out of their way to prop up the reformist elements of the society as the easy winners. Furthermore, they do very little to make the more straightforward argument: that the sanctions and warfare are inherently immoral.
This renders this liberal argument vulnerable to the same kind of wishful thinking they have engaged in all along. If modernization is inevitable, if the youth will wash over this desiccated old government, why should we not have a hand in it? Why not hasten it along? They cannot argue against this because no matter what the other side will engage in the same kind of wishful thinking they did when they showed the youth of Tehran in their cafes, Zumba classes, and anti-hijabi protests.
Perhaps it would have been effective if after the collapse of the deal Erdbrink would go over to the notorious Mr. Big Mouth’s house and conceded that he was wrong. Maybe end it on a less than hopeful note and remind the Western world that some actions can and will have negative consequence, but to do so would betray his own hubris. This brand of Western modernization is not only inevitable, but without fault. He cannot concede the merits of enmity towards Western governments. Also by the end of the series he’s probably terrified of the man even if he’s usually joking half the time and holds no real political power.
Western, secular liberal democracy both compositely and in its entirety can be nothing but a force for good. The ‘real’ solutions to Iran’s failed policies have to come from the West whether its environmental scientists, Alcoholics Anonymous, or the dollar itself. Everything about US wars on Iran’s borders has to be pushed aside to talk about hijabs and Pharrell. In other words the kind of things about Iran that go viral in Western media.
The end of the first part seems to give way ultimately to a kind of cultural assault. This Islamic order is a set of rules. Rules against love and fun like many of the early depictions of Khomeini’s uncompromising cultural revolution. There’s a gender partition that is every present and probably accounts for about 75% of this thing’s coverage. He covers a Zumba instructor just to see what parts would have to be censored. In some ways it almost turns to mockery. The Zumba woman clearly hasn’t spent all or even most of her life in Iran first of all. There are foreign elements to this which remain unaddressed. In some ways it nearly seems like the Western media there is using Islamic sexual hang-ups to instigate. Anyone who has read The Arab Mind and thus has observed Israelis broadcasting pornography into Palestine or US conduct in Abu Ghraib should recognize the pattern. While this may sound conspiratorial it would be equally ridiculous to dismiss what is clearly Western mockery.
“Perhaps it seems childish to go about this, but your personal freedom and space are determined by the state.” Is a quote that rang a number of alarm bells for myself as it both uses Western ideas of human rights that have been manipulated to bring Iran down since before the Revolution, and the racist tropes of Arabs or Muslims being ‘childish’. He humors the clerics like a man toying with a baby. While there is a reflexive skepticism of racism accusations in some circles, I must admit there is a level of condescension coming from this European man. His mission to get Zumba on Iranian TV isn’t genuine. The man has no intention of it and covers little if any of what is actually on Iranian TV at all. It’s simply another step to show media suppression in comparison to Western countries. This is the only standard where such perceptions can hold water. Women in urban clothes dancing whether in Zumba classes or on Instagram might be regular and even ‘innocent’ in Europe but outside of this very narrow worldview nothing close to this is even entertained.
The causes of Iranian enmity towards the West come up in the extremely brief discussions on the overthrow of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh and subsequent takeover of the Shah. He did briefly throw in the Iran-Iraq War, and the downing of the civilian airplane, but the issue is this is supposed to be ‘all in the past’. It’s a part of merely decorative national identity.
The idea that this is ‘all in the past’ is absolutely laughable because the elements in the American government which agitate against Iran have not gone away like he would like to believe. Sanctions and covert operations are still an ongoing problem. On a more concrete note we should contemplate how the consigning of these grievances to the past is disingenuous.
The overthrow of Mossadegh was an attack on Iranian sovereignty by US intelligence agencies which still attempt to do the exact same thing. These agencies also fund the son of Iran’s last Shah and funnel his messages into Iran through satellite stations such as the Voice of America. The latest string of protests had people crying out for the Shah because an element of the diaspora broadcasts propaganda that lionizes Iran’s monarchy. The United States houses a number of both current and former Shah supporters. The United States has scarcely recognized the new government of Iran since the 1979 revolution. They have not made peace with the past of the Shah and still house both him and his supporters while elements of every Western government wax nostalgically about the Shah’s time.
The Iran-Iraq War as explained by Iran’s Foreign Minister, Dr. Javad Zarif, was a time in which the entire international community turned their back on Iran. Even just recently, evidence that the United States supplied Saddam Hussein with the materials to use chemical warfare on Iranian civilians is just being released. The Iran-Iraq War is a part of the governments well-founded belief that sets Iran against much of the rest of the world that have largely become subservient to US interests. It is symbolic of a larger issue that when an Iranian government puts their trust in international institutions they are functionally signing a death sentence.
The irony of asking Iranians to brush the Iran-Iraq War aside is particularly ridiculous when the Iraq War never really ended after the former Iraqi leader’s execution. This is only considering the United States of course. When looking at the real agitator against Iran in current years, the Israelis and their relation to the Holocaust this becomes even more worthy of disdain. I highly doubt there would be a single documentary in Israel that would brush this particularly thorny historical issue as ‘just the past’.
While the architects of the 1953 coup are largely dead, those responsible for much of the others problems are largely either active themselves or their progeny carry out their work without hiccup. Bush Jr. took over the work of Bush Sr up until 2008. Bush Sr. who refused to apologize for the death of Iranian civilians on flight 665. Bush Sr. who with Donald Rumsfeld cooperated with Saddam Hussein. Every President after Carter including Barack Obama kept up the economic siege of sanctions on Iran. The neoconservatives within the various administrations never stopped beating the war drums along with their Israeli counterparts in the Likud party. These basic policy doctrines never really changed. Now that Saddam is dead the US government had taken to backing the MEK, a former terrorist group which sided with Saddam during this war. These historical issues were never really dead.
The human-interest element of work like this does not give the piece the appropriate amount of pessimism that this topic deserves when those in power are so quick to pass judgement while being completely out of touch with reality. If he considered at least the possibility that the US government would see this and still judge it worthwhile to torment these people to spite a government, they had quarrel with perhaps that would have made a difference.
The fact that this is a PBS documentary by a New York Times reporter actually subverts the simple need to depict Iranians as ‘simply humans. Both of these American media outlets are affiliated with US democrats. They will concede that yes foreigners are people intellectually. They have no problem with this sentiment. Their issue is that they will not do anything to circumvent any of the mechanisms which make life difficult for these people. The information presented in human interest pieces like these are fundamentally useless. They’re not helping. The chief focus is on a relatively well-to-do and cosmopolitan population overall. These people can survive sanctions and in fact many of them will flee to Western countries. Anyone who thinks that these people will fight either for or against the regime is simply fooling themselves. It is the poor and vulnerable classes which will actually suffer the most such as the 15 year old boy who died without receiving his hemophilia medication. 
Throughout all of this he states nothing of the role of foreign powers in Iran’s problems. In fact he dismisses the sentiment but when it comes to Western cultural capital and Western support on social media THEN the United States is allowed to be impactful. The message that this sends is that the policy of the United States has no affect on Iranian lives when it comes to something negative. Maybe he lacks the intellectual capacity to get his head around such issue. At points he even seems to believe that it was Iran posing the sanctions on itself.
The assumption is they would support a change of government. They would support protests. The fact that these people are a centerpiece reinforces the assumptions of the men in the Foundation of Defense of Democracies. Erdbrink’s analysis is rather weak and one sided even if this isn’t the worst documentary about Iran. In fact, due to the really low standards of them, this one is relatively ok. At least some of the more conservative side got their voices out. He doesn’t even really seem to accept that there is an element of Iran’s society that supports the government. They were dismissed, and nobody stuck around that long to hear them, but they got out.
 This isn’t hyperbole. All you need to do is see these human rights people praising John McCain or follow the money trail
 Or Occupied Palestine if you prefer
 For more see: https://medium.com/@caityjohnstone/this-is-what-modern-war-propaganda-looks-like-ffb523ce8be