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Iran's Grim Details Will Emerge Only Slowly

A Tehran University student tries to revive a fellow student who fainted as riot police used heavy barrages of tear gas to combat thousands of protesters in and around Tehran University on July 12.
Like so much of the media since Iran's biggest crisis since the Islamic revolution, this morning Reuters appeared of at least two minds on Iran's recent death toll in a story quoting Iranian Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi:

Iran's June 12 election, which secured hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election, plunged Iran into its biggest internal crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution, exposed deepening divisions in its ruling elite and set off a wave of protests that left 26 people dead.

The certainty of that sentence seemed troublesome, particularly in light of the sentence that came two paragraphs later:

Ebadi contends that more than 100 people have been killed.

We initially added an editor's note to the Reuters item pointing out that opposition and other groups claim the death toll is higher.

And since then, Reuters has emerged with another story quoting an ally of opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi saying far more people have died in eight-plus weeks of violence, much of it apparently officially sanctioned. It says:

"The names of 69 people who were killed in post-election unrest ... were submitted to parliament for investigation. The report also included the names of about 220 detainees," said Alireza Hosseini Beheshti.

Iranian officials won the first round of that dissemination battle and the opposition the second, of course.

It's a cautionary example of the enormous obstacles to tracking down a grim figure that can be maddeningly elusive but lies at the very heart of the tragedy unfolding in Iran (and other areas in RFE/RL's broadcast region that are not supposed to be "conflict zones," including Russia -- and Chechnya in particular -- and Uzbekistan to name a couple).

Beyond the anguish of those who simply want to be reunited with friends and loved ones, the uncertainty is essential to the debate over the lengths that the Iranian government is willing to go to in order to quell a popular challenge to its legitimacy and methods.

As Golnaz Esfandiari's story yesterday made abundantly clear, there is no reliable death toll at this point despite the good-faith efforts of many. But as it also made clear, the story will not simply go away or be deflected by televised trials of dubious confessions.

-- Andy Heil

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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