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UPDATED Iran Special: Executions, Politics, and the Attack on Nazila Fathi and The New York Times

UPDATE 14 MAY, 0640 GMT: The authors of Race for Iran have posted an attempted rebuttal of this column. As it is largely a misrepresentation of my analysis and a continuing assault on Nazila Fathi, I will not post a detailed response. There is no value in continued conversation with or even recognition of those who are void of information and deaf on ethics and morality.

I will note, however, how the authors met this challenge that I set on Wednesday: "1. Make their own critique of the material surrounding this case of the 5 executed Iranians and present that critique; 2. Alternatively, acknowledge that they have no concern with human rights, justice, and fairness within the Iranian system; 3. If they do so, disclaim any ability to assess the legitimacy of the Iranian Government since they are not concerned with issues — human rights, justice, fairness — which may affect the legitimacy of that Government in the eyes of the Iranian people."

The authors make no attempt to meet the first test, but they do tacitly accwept the second and third challenges: "[Race for Iran] is not focused on human rights; it is focused on Iran and its geopolitics."

UPDATE 14 MAY, 0630 GMT: The Iranian newspaper Kayhan has portrayed Sunday’s executions of “terrorists” as a test of “leaders of recent plots”. However, it regrets that those leaders refuse to “retreat” and “repent”.” (see today's updates).

I look forward to Race for Iran's denunciation of Kayhan, given its linkage of the executions and Government pressure on opposition leaders, for its "pro-Green bias".

The Latest from Iran (14 May): The Meaning of the Strike?

Let us assume, as their defenders claim, that the recent attack by the authors of Race on Iran on the reporting of Nazila Fathi was motivated solely by a concern over misleading journalism, with unsubstantiated links and unsupported claims. Let us assume that there was no wider motive of wiping away objections so "official justifications" for the execution of five Iranians could remain standing or of discrediting any attempt --- by labelling any critique as "pro-Green" --- to consider the legal and political context of the executions.

Let us assume that --- in contrast to the authors' claim of The New York Times' "agenda-driven, threat-hyping approach" and Fathi's "misleading reporting driven by an inflammatory agenda" --- Race for Iran has no agenda and no wish to hype any Government or institution.

Let us consider Race for Iran's narrow allegations:

1. Fathi has no basis for the link in the following paragraph:

"The Iranian government hanged five Kurdish activists, including a woman, on Sunday morning in the Evin prison in Tehran in what appeared to be an effort to intimidate protesters from marking the anniversary of last year’s huge anti-government rallies after the June 12 election."

The background to Fathi's story is that, two weeks before anticipated demonstrations on 22 Bahman (11 February), Mohammad Reza Ali Zamani and Arash Rahmanipour were executed. Many activists at the time saw this as an effort to intimidate the opposition, for Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Guardian Council, had stated in Friday Prayers:
God ordered the prophet Muhammad to brutally slay hypocrites and ill-intentioned people who stuck to their convictions. Koran insistently orders such deaths. May God not forgive anyone showing leniency toward the corrupt on earth.

Fathi does not cite this background. Instead, she cites Hadi Ghaemi of the International Committee for Human Rights in Iran, who no doubt is aware of this background when he stated, “The executions show that this government resorts to any kind of terror and violence to put down any challenge to its authority.”

Now Race for Iran could have done its own research. They could have considered the background, they could have checked out not only ICHRI's release on the executions but their significant collection of material on cases leading up to those executing and considering Ghaemi's claim of numerous sources amongst "Iranian civil society analysts and activists", they could have even taken a look at the case, dating back to detentions in 2006.

They do none of this. They have no sources beyond the reference to "official justifications" (without actually considering those justifications). They have no context --- political or legal --- for their case.

(Consider how this failure to provide any information beyond the attack on Fathi undermines Race for Iran's limited analysis: "The New York-based human rights activist opines that [the hangings] could lay the ground for the execution of post-election protesters'. But, Ms. Fathi herself reports that the five people executed on Sunday were sentenced in 2008—well before the June 12, 2009 presidential election."

The salient point is that, having been detained for 2-4 years, the five prisoners were suddenly rushed on Saturday night towards execution with no legal process and no notice to lawyers or families. Thus, the question, "Why Now?" The possible --- possible, not confirmed --- answer is that there was a political motive, in the context of current and forthcoming events and developments, for public executions.)

However, that is immaterial for the authors, for they have a wider aim beyond any detailed examination of the case: "Ms. Fathi seems to have been intent on using the story of Sunday’s executions to 'keep hope alive' for a revival of the moribund Green Movement".

Now the authors, who have loudly criticised Fathi's unsubstantiated claims, have no evidence for their own. They have no confirmation of Fathi's political views. They have no evidence of her connections to the Green Movement. They have no proof that the story is being disseminated amongst Iranian activists, inside and outside the country, to whip up demonstrations on 12 June.

But proof, let alone journalistic enquiry or analytic rigour, is not their aim. Instead, they wish to establish guilt by assertion: Fathi and The New York Times have a "pro-Green political agenda".

Which means, of course, that the authors can dismiss any article in The New York Times which they do not like --- without having to resort to evidence or context or analysis --- as politically biased.

(Declaration: I write this wearing the badge, when I have been named by Race for Iran, not of professor, academic, or journalist but of "Green Movement partisan".)

2. Fathi is guilty of significant omission when she calls the Kurdish separatist movement PJAK an "armed Kurdish rebel group" and does not mention that it was designated as a terrorist organisation by the US Government in 2009.

Point taken. But if we are going to talk journalism and omissions, consider this omission from Race for Iran's critique.

Here is how the authors deal with the perhaps significant point that the four defendants accused of PJAK membership (the fifth was accused of connections with a monarchist group): "Ms. Fathi...notes that all five denied the charges of which they were convicted “in public letters posted on Web sites'. (She links to the website of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran to document this claim, but the link takes a reader to a page briefly describing such a letter from only one of the five prisoners.)"

Now the authors could have examined this. They could easily have found letters from at least three of the defendants. They could have cited the testimony of the lawyer for three of the defendants because it was in the ICHRI document that they mention. They could have considered reports on the case by Fereshteh Ghazi, Rooz Online, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Activists News Agency, Rah-e-Sabz, Kalemeh, and other outlets.

They did not none of this because, in my opinion, the fundamental issue of whether the defendants were actually members of PJAK was at best tangential to them. Instead, they want to dismantle the (pro-Green) "preferred narrative" with the possibility that "individuals convicted of terrorist crimes in Iran are members of a group that the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization".

So, yes, Fathi could have mentioned that PJAK is proscribed as "terrorist" by the US Government. What Race for Iran wants, however, is much more: they want that to be the dominant statement, not just part of the context. The real question here is not of omission but of priority --- does one, in reporting and analysis, privilege the political issue raised by Race for Iran or the legal and human rights issue raised by the PJAK claim in the trials and executions?


Nazila Fathi is not immune from criticism. No journalist should be. On occasion EA has challenged her reporting in these post-election months.

Nor should an author, simply because he/she takes a political position, be denied the legitimacy of critiquing a report. Race for Iran has its opinions;I have mine.

However, when that criticism is made, it should be done fairly, not only through a judicious reading of the journalism but by bringing other evidence and context to the table. In this case, Fathi's original article and analysis is based on two named sources, citation of an opposition website, and background material based on a range of unnamed sources.

Race for Iran's response is based on "official justifications" and precisely 0 sources, named or unnamed.

(Race for Iran has offered no comment on Fathi's follow-up article this week, considering the treatment of the families of the executed and the refusal to release the bodies of the prisoners, and its analysis, "The government’s refusal to hand over the bodies to the families appears to stem from a fear of antigovernment demonstrations during burial ceremonies in Kurdish areas.")

And when that criticism is made, it is not enough to deride the supposed "agenda" of one's target. One's own agenda and sources should be declared. If the authors of Race for Iran wish to turn Fathi's sources into her supposed membership of the Green Movement, then let us know the sources behind Race for Iran's commentary.  If the authors want to dismiss Fathi and The New York Times as "pro-Green", then --- in the context of this attack --- let us see the declaration that the authors are "pro-Iran Government", having defended the legitimacy of that Government since the June 2009 elections. Let us see the authors' declaration that, by tearing down Fathi and The New York Times, they may be bolstering the supposed legitimacy --- which has been questioned on issues such as justice, human rights, and fairness --- of that Government.

A final point: Race for Iran's last assault is to link Fathi to The New York Times' reporting, notably by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller, in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. I presume that is to make the connection that, as The Times prepared a false rationale for the invasion of Iraq, so its reporters with their "pro-Green" agenda are preparing a false rationale for the attempt to topple the Iranian Government.

Nazila Fathi is not Judith Miller. She did not report from Washington or New York in 2009; she reported from Tehran. She did so, even as journalists were being monitored, pressured, and in many cases detained (coincidentally, Maziar Bahari, detained from June to October 2009, wrote a powerful comment on the executions this week; Race for Iran seems to have missed this further example of "pro-Green" journalism). Fathi, as the post-election conflict, violence, and arrests escalated, continued to put out her reports. Finally, in summer 2009, she had to leave Iran.

This week, as other major "Western" outlets ignored the executions, simply repeated the account given by the Islamic Republic News Agency, or made glaring errors ("five demonstrators were killed"), Fathi considered the story in two articles.

Nazila Fathi is not Judith Miller. Her sources are not Ahmad Chalabi. And Iran 2009-2010, contrary to Race for Iran's attempted link, is not Iraq 2001-2003.

Iran 2009-2010 is Iran 2009-2010. And, rather than attacking any journalist who reports on Iran 2009-2010, simply because they do not like the news or the interpretation, it is high time that the authors of Race for Iran pursued journalism in addition to their political mission.

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (59)

You completely ignore that the 5 were already sentenced to death. 3 of them were sentenced in 2008 and 2 others in Jan 2010.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterM.Ali

I don't think I ignore that at all --- indeed, it supports my question: "If some of the prisoners were detained from 2006 and death sentences were passed in 2008, how can you reconcile that long "waiting" period with the sudden rush on Saturday night towards the executions?"

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScottLucas11

You didnt ask that question in this post. But if you did, here is your answer: This is not unique. This has been done before, a sentence has been carried out, and the actual date happens later.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterM.Ali

From the article:

"The salient point is that, having been detained for 2-4 years, the five prisoners were suddenly rushed on Saturday night towards execution with no legal process and no notice to lawyers or families. Thus, the question, “Why Now?” The possible — possible, not confirmed — answer is that there was a political motive, in the context of current and forthcoming events and developments, for public executions."

The issue is not that "the actual date happens later" --- that is almost always the case with capital punishment. The issue is that, for some reason, the Iranian authorities suddenly --- with no legal process and no notice to familes or lawyers --- rushed these five people to the gallows.


May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScottLucas11

That has also been done before.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterM.Ali

Would be grateful for examples.

Consider each case of sudden execution, in legal and political context, and ask that question "Why?".

I think you can see why some people --- albeit without proof --- might have seen these executions as an attempt to intimidate and thus damp down any public opposition.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScottLucas11

M. Ali..It has been done before therefore it is ok. Be ashamed for your mother and father who has brought to this world such a disgraceful person. My family has taught me that honor and the utmost respect for human life is two of the most important things a true gentlemen can possess. I wonder what your family would think of you

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterA.NC

Read the article again.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKurt

Thank you, Scott. I have one, and only one wish. Race for Iran - drop the act and come clean. I'd actually have respect for that. It has some of the most disingenuous analysis and spurious attacks I've ever seen - save for on FOX News. Anyone with a cursory knowledge and critical thinking skills can see the spin. At least we're honest and up front about where we're coming from. Be proud of that badge, considering whom have invested you with it.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKurt

Excellent article. Executions without notice has been one of the hallmarks of this regime. It is simply a form of murder. Plain and simple. In this case, the executions were clearly designed to send a message to both those inside Iran who would challenge the authority of the government and those outside who had lobbied so hard for clemency and fair trials for these 5.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEdith T

It would seem to me the fact that these sentences were carried out in the manner they were based on security concerns. In the recent past, there have been instances of disturbance and even escape attempts.

The executions have taken place four weeks before the June "anniversary." It doesn't seem to me that the time frame is that relevant. Besides, the large opposition crowds have waned. With experience now behind them, NAJA's security forces have reached a level of proficiency that's now confidence inspiring.

As to the comments made by the head of the Guardian Council, they are by no means extraordinary. Comments such as these are made by so-called hardliners all the time; you and your assembled staff are well aware of this.

Scott, you're typically over-hyping the matter.

The two points to take away from the Leverrets' piece are (according to Cyrus Safdari):

1- The totally unsubstantiated link drawn by Fathi between the executions and the Green Movement: specifically, the unsupported claim that the executions were somehow intended to suppress demonstrations — demonstrations that lately appear to have petered out on their own, leaving proponents of the Green Movement to come up with various explanations on why the movement should be considered relevant, and

2- A rather significant but entirely missing fact that should have been mentioned in the article: that PJAK is designated as a terrorist organization even by the US.

The right thing for Fathi to have done is

1- Not drawn the link between the Greens and the executions, or having done so, based it on something more susbtantive than vague claims about what is supposedly "widely seen", and

2- Not left out the bit about PJAK, and instead reported it along with whatever criticism it deserved.

That's really the crux of it. This post is a typically cherry picked effort based on hype and emotionalism. And you're playing right into the hands of the anti-Iran, bomb Iran crowd. Remember that such efforts at this type of "journalism" were what contributed to the suffering of millions of Iraqis during the Iraq War debacle. Your efforts are in line with this happening again.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark

RE The right thing for Fathi to have done is ... 2- Not left out the bit about PJAK, and instead reported it along with whatever criticism it deserved.

As well as mentioning that the leader of the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), Abdolrahman Haji-Ahmadi, said that the five terrorists executed in Iran on Sunday had "no organic links" to PJAK." rel="nofollow">

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

It wasn't "Sudden" -- it was always done this way. ALl you have, Scott, is a coincidence in timing, and from that you're trying to draw a casual connection. Sorry, but doesn't wash. Fathi's reporting was sloppy. No editr would have let her get away with the "widely seen" statement without adequate backing if the subject was anything other than Iran.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhass

You don't know if the execution was particularly "rushed". How do you know this isn't how previous executions were carried out too. All you have here, Scott, is a coincidence in timing from which you're trying to draw a conclusion about causality. But aside from all that, we would not be here arguing the point had Fathi actually done a better job instead of simply tossing in the lazy "widely seen" statement. No editor would have let a reporter get away with that if the subject was other than Iran.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhass

No one said it is "OK" the point was that this case was not particularly different from other cases, and so no conclusions can be drawn from this case in particular.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhass

Well I am sure we can all trust the word of a terrorist leader....

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhass

Here is a quick find:" rel="nofollow">

"Delara Darabi was executed in the early morning of 1 May 2009 at Rasht prison, without prior notification to her attorney."

Note the date, before the elections.

Do we expect a change in your analysis now?

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterM.Ali

Hass is right. It makes it difficult to have such discussions, because people assume if you break down their analysis, one is somehow accepting and defending the executions. The argument some of us are taking is that this is not directly linked to the Greens, who seem to think the world revolves around them. Executions & imprisonments did not start after the elections, nor did it start after the revolution, nor did it start after the Shah's regime, nor did it start after the Qajari dynasty, nor....

It is hypocritial to use these cases to furthur one's partisan position, the way some are doing (Mousavi included, who somehow forgot that the executions under his leadership far exceeded Ahmedinjad's).

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterM.Ali

Scott, you don't know that the executions were particularly "rushed". They typically do it like that, with no big build-up, in order to pre-empt disturbances. As for your question of "why" -- you're trying to draw a conclusion based on merely a coincidence in timing. People "might have seen" a lot of things -- but a reporter who merely reports on what "might be seen" isn't doing her job and therefore is open to criticism.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhass


If I was on trial, I would want Cyrus Safdari as my lawyer. The Leveretts were in trouble over their initial (won't use that over-hyped word "over-hyped") attack so Cyrus tried to pull it back to the two points you posted above.

Even on that narrow ground, the Leveretts have no sources and precious little argument. Fathi didn't draw a specific link with the Greens in the article, nor did Ghaemi. That's the Leveretts' construction so they can set up their claim of "pro-Green" bias.

On PJAK, my priority the starting point is the legal process in the trials and executions -- was the claim of membership established? The Leveretts' starting point is the politics of "terrorism", so they can relegate that issue of legal process and rights and the problem it causes for Government legitimacy. I'm happy with my choice.

I think I got the irony in your last paragraph's emotional escalation over hype and emotionalism.

So back to the critique. No hype. No emotionalism. Sources. Facts. Analysis. Fair Criticism.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScottLucas11

Ummm...Scotts point was that these executions without notice were NOT typical.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhass


You old rascal, it's good to see you pop up again.

Yeah, I know the execution is rushed because I've read the testimony of the defendants' lawyer and prisoners in Evin.

I agree that Fathi should not have put an analytic statement in her lead, especially without better elucidation from her sources. But that doesn't make her "pro-Green". It doesn't invalidate the observations of Government intimidation and pressure. It should not divert from the core issue of the legitimacy of this legal process and the denial of rights. It should not be used to write any critique of internal events from The New York Times --- or other sources --- as inflammatory stories designed (a la Iraq) to overthrow the Government.

Fingers crossed, since they haven't taken on Fathi's subsequent article, Race for Iran has pulled back from their own "hype and escalation" to denounce coverage of Iran's internal affairs.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScottLucas11


"Fathi does not cite this background. Instead, she cites Hadi Ghaemi of the International Committee for Human Rights in Iran, who no doubt is aware of this background when he stated, “The executions show that this government resorts to any kind of terror and violence to put down any challenge to its authority.” Now Race for Iran could have done its own research. They could have considered the background, they could have checked out not only ICHRI’s release on the executions..."

Citing ICHRI is fine if one's objective is merely to cite someone else's opinion. But if one is looking for factual support, what is the point of citing this ICHRI pronouncement? It didn't even purport to be stating facts - just opinion.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commentereabrill

Who (apart from Race for Iran) said this affair of the executions is directly linked to the Greens?

This affair concerns human rights, due process of law, fairness, an independent judiciary, the media in Iran, and the power of the Government to carry out summary punishment. That is the central point in the denunciations of the executions --- from labour unions, from Iranian writers, from educators, from reformist parties, and from Karroubi and Mousavi.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScottLucas11

In iranian politics, there are no coincidences.

May 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDCl6

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