An event like the Iranian elections shows just how myopic American media and news agencies have become. With financial conditions requiring most news agencies to abandon the extensive foreign desks they once had, our ability to know what is going on, let alone to make sense of it, is dwindling fast.
Coverage leading up to the election focused almost entirely on the international ramifications of the election. The reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi was portrayed as the candidate willing to put President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s embarrassing Holocaust denials and other rants in the past. Of course, you have to be careful when talking about "reformers" in the Iranian Islamic Republic: I recall an earlier reformer who had gotten his start in politics organizing unarmed teenagers to undertake martyrdom during the Iran-Iraq War by walking across minefields and blowing themselves up so that the soldiers could follow.
Sometimes, foreign policy issues truly are predominant in an election. The 1920 repudiation of the Democrats was really an endorsement of isolationism. FDR overcame the two-term limit on presidencies largely because of the dangerous world situation. In 1960, Richard Nixon and John Kennedy spent more time in their debates discussing Quemoy and the Matsu Islands than they did any domestic issue. But, most recent elections have been waged on domestic grounds. Even the objection to George Bush’s post-9/11 actions had as much to do with the Patriot Act and warrantless wire-tapping as with the Iraq War. Yet, we know next to nothing about the economy in Iran, the government budget and any cuts or expansions in programs for the poor or middle class that might or might not be popular, any environmental issues, or even that perennial concern of many voters, the filling of potholes in the roads. Ahmadinejad may be bonkers, but if he makes the trains run on time, he might be more popular than we were led to believe.
Now, with the surprise official results showing the incumbent winning by a landslide, we are left to wonder: Could it have happened? Or is this mere fraud? How to evaluate the charges and counter-charges being leveled? This is made all the more difficult because of the secrecy of the regime, its willingness to clamp down violently against protesters, and the murky role of the "Supreme Leader" and the Council of Guardians. A Western pollster says he thinks it is entirely likely that Ahmadinejad really did win by such a large margin based on his own polling, but I have to wonder how truthful Iranian citizens would risk being with a Western pollster?
So, the only thing we know for sure about Iran is that it is a mess today. That mess could get violent or it could dissipate in the days ahead. Maybe the current regime was so unpopular it had to steal an election and maybe it is more popular than we had anticipated for reasons opaque to us in the West. And, we know something else for sure: Forget about the major networks on this one. BBC is the place to go.