News organizations and consumers would be wise to exercise some level of cognitive empathy when producing and processing news about Iran.

Should Iran’s influence be contained?

That was the question posed on an Al Jazeera English panel debate days before Donald Trump’s announcement earlier this month to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Apart from a Riyadh-based academic who echoed the Saudi’s government’s line of Shia-led Iran being a ‘real, genuine threat’ as a result of its “growing” expansionist ambitions, the panelists represented perspectives that are virtually never included among political circles or news outlets in Canada or the U.S.

Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan, debunked the notion of expanding Iranian influence as “bizarre hype”, pointing to non-Shia leaders in the Iran-allied countries of Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. Mohammad Marandi, a politics professor at the University of Tehran, acknowledged that while Iran had growing influence in the region, so did many other countries whose leverage went unquestioned.

Afterwards, Marandi posed another argument: The debate question itself was skewed. “I participated in the discussion, but the title assumes that Iran’s influence should be contained,” he tweeted. “U.S., Wahhabi, and Israeli regime influence should be contained instead.”

It was a moot point that’s all too often overlooked on this side of the world. Think about it, especially if you’re a Canadian news editor: Does the question ‘Should Iran’s influence be contained?’ immediately appear problematic? What if ‘Iran’ was substituted for ‘America’ or ‘Saudi Arabia’?

The way conversations by politicians, journalists, think tankers, and other elites are framed around Iran and its non-weaponized civil nuclear program perpetuate the notion that Iranians are sinister expansionists who have incessantly violated the nuclear deal. (The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly confirmed Iran was complying with the terms, a finding also shared by U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials).

Consider the photo of Iranian politicians burning a paper U.S. flag in Parliament, splashed over social media and Canadian news sites hours after Trump killed the deal. That image instantly became the visual representation of Iranian politicians response to Trump in the aftermath. Did it actually happen? Yes. But it didn’t tell the whole story.

“Not even close to a quarter of the 300 MPs that were in the Parliament were part of this scene,” one Iranian political observer told me. Public condemnations of the flag-burning — widely circulated on social media — were also unmentioned in news coverage. For example, Ali Motahari, a leading and influential conservative politician was widely quoted in local Iranian press saying, “This was not an appropriate thing to do. In a report published last night, it was mentioned that two-thirds of the American people are against Trump’s move (to pull out). By burning the flag in Parliament, we are in effect pitting the American people against ourselves … This hasty move by some MPs was not wise.”

Another sharp rebuke by Iranian activist Shirin Najafi immediately went viral on Instagram. Under a photo of the hardliners burning the U.S. flag, she wrote: “Everyone can burn the American flag. (If you’re really brave) why don’t you burn your children’s green cards, you pretentious officials.” It was a reference to how some Iranian officials, even some conservative ones, send their kids to study and live in the West.

But reactions like these don’t fit into the set narrative about Iran. Could the problem be that they make Iranians sound like normal citizens (gasp!) who are as critical of their own leaders as Americans today are of Trump?

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s current centrist president, remember, was voted in by a strong majority twice — largely because of his promise to open up Iran to the world through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action , a nuclear agreement with western countries that would lead to an eventual easing of sanctions. But the process was far from easy. Tehran’s political hardliners never stopped reminding Rouhani and his foreign minister Javed Zarif of America’s historical record of transgressions.  

The uncomfortable truth that could never have been deciphered from the Canadian media narrative (which depends largely on wire services and correspondents based in Jerusalem) was that the hardliners couldn’t have been more right. Contrary to what Trump implied in his speech on May 8 (“even if Iran fully complies, the regime can still be on the verge of a nuclear breakout in just a short period of time”) it is actually Washington – not Tehran — that has violated the JCPOA numerous times.

From the first visa restrictions on people who have traveled to Iran —imposed by the Obama administration in 2015 — to Trump openly advising G20 countries last year in Hamburg not to invest in Iran, to the overt alliance between Republican hardliners and the MEK, a formerly U.S.-listed terror group that advocates for violent overthrow of the Islamic Republic – it’s clear the U.S. never demonstrated compliance in the first place. But only Tehran’s adherence is challenged in American and Canadian news media.

“It’s hard to push back against this,” admits Nader Hashemi, a Canadian expert on Iran who teaches at the University of Denver. “Trump’s decision was really a deathblow that will condemn Iranians to a life of hardship and misery caught between an authoritarian regime and an international context that is committed to imposing more economic hardship on them.

“The mood is one of deep despair, disappointment and anger at both Trump, but also the hardliners,” he adds. “All that hope and optimism has now dissipated.”

Worryingly, those sentiments could eventually result in a shift to the right. According to one recent poll, 74 per cent of Iranians don’t consider themselves reformist or conservative.

Moving forward, news organizations and consumers would be wise to exercise some level of cognitive empathy when producing and processing news about Iran. We need to understand how Iranians are processing information and how the world looks to them. As author Robert Wright notes in The Intercept, a lot of money is being spent to keep audiences from exercising cognitive empathy. Influential institutions — including some which misleadingly call themselves think tanks — are actively working to create dangerous misperceptions in international affairs. In an increasingly polarized world where views of the Other are rarely heard, much less tolerated, it’s become more critical than ever to consider the perspectives that make us distinctly uncomfortable.

Shenaz Kermalli currently teaches journalism at Ryerson University and Humber College and is a former producer and writer for CBC News, BBC News Online and Al Jazeera English. She has previously published in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Citizen, The Guardian, The Independent and Foreign Policy, among others.