Mainstream Media in America and Britain Repeat the Same Mistakes in Covering Iran That They Made on Iraq

In an excellent report released last month, the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) offered a thoroughly documented—and devastating—critique of mainstream media coverage of the Iranian nuclear issue.  Authored by Jonas Siegel and Saranaz Barforoush, Media Coverage of Iran’s Nuclear Program:  An Analysis of U.S. and U.K. Coverage, 2009-2012, see here, reviews coverage of Iran’s nuclear activities and the international controversy surrounding those activities in six major English-language newspapers:  the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and the Independent

To quote from the report’s executive summary (with emphasis added), the authors found that

“–Newspaper coverage focused on the ‘he said/she said’ aspects of the policy debate, without adequately explaining the fundamental issues that should have been informing assessments—such as Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions, the influence of U.S., European, Iranian, and Israeli security strategies, and the impact of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. 

When newspaper coverage did address Iranian nuclear intentions and capabilities, it did so in a manner that lacked precision, was inconsistent over time, and failed to provide adequate sourcing and context for claims.  This led to an inaccurate picture of the choices facing policy makers. 

Government officials, particularly U.S. government officials, were the most frequently quoted or relied-on sources in coverage of Iran’s nuclear program.  This tendency focused attention on a narrow set of policy options and deemphasized other potential approaches to the dispute. 

Newspaper coverage generally adopted the tendency of U.S., European, and Israeli officials to place on Iran the burden to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program, failing to acknowledge the roles of these other countries in the dispute

Coverage of Iran’s nuclear program reflected and reinforced the negative sentiments about Iran that are broadly shared by U.S., European, and Israeli publics.  This contributed to misunderstandings about the interests involved and narrowed the range of acceptable outcomes.   

In general, these characteristics led newspapers to frame their coverage of Iran’s nuclear program in a manner that emphasized official narratives of the dispute and a relatively narrow range of policy choices available to officials.  By not consistently describing the complex web of international relationships, security concerns, and intervening political factors in sufficient detail, newspaper coverage further privileged official narratives and policy preferences.  This makes it likely that the policies enacted and under consideration by policy makers—coercive diplomacy and war—remain the most likely outcome of the dispute.  In this way, news coverage of Iran’s nuclear program is reminiscent of news coverage of the run-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.  News coverage has the potential to play a significant, constructive role in finding a lasting resolution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, but journalists and editors first need to address the tendencies present in their current coverage of the topic.” 

We encourage all to read and ponder, hard, this important new report. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

 

What U.S. Failure in Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran Will Mean

In our newest Op Ed, published in The Hindu, one of India’s largest English-language newspapers, see here, and, in a different version, on Al Jazeera, see here, and Huffington Post, see here, we argue that the unwillingness of the United States and its Western partners (essentially, Britain, France, and Israel; that’s it) to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards is the primary cause for failure in nuclear diplomacy with Tehran.  And the main reason for U.S. obstinacy on the point is that “recognizing Iran’s nuclear rights would mean accepting the Islamic Republic as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests”—something that no U.S. administration has been prepared to do since the Iranian Revolution. 

As we go on to explain,

Washington’s unwillingness [to acknowledge Iran’s nuclear rights] is grounded in unattractive, but fundamental, aspects of American strategic culture:  difficulty coming to terms with independent power centers (whether globally or in vital regions like the Middle East); hostility to non-liberal states, unless they subordinate their foreign policies to U.S. preferences (as Egypt did under Sadat and Mubarak); and an unreflective but deeply rooted sense that U.S.-backed norms, rules, and transnational decision-making processes are meant to constrain others, not America itself. 

Because these attitudes are so fundamental, it is unlikely Obama will invest the political capital required to bring America’s Iran policy in line with strategic reality before his presidency ends.  And so the controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities will grind on.”         

We go on to explore what diplomatic stalemate will mean, focusing on prospects for continued development of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, American and Western reaction thereto, and growing risks of a U.S.-initiated war against the Islamic Republic.  

We append our piece below: 

Consequences of Western Intransigence in Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran

To maintain the illusion of some prospect for progress in nuclear diplomacy with Tehran, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will meet with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in Istanbul next week.  Purportedly, Ashton will see if the P5+1 dialogue with Iran can be put back on track after yet another round of nuclear talks with Iran failed last month.

Publicly, Western officials blame the failure either on the Islamic Republic’s upcoming presidential election or on that old fallback, Iranian “intransigence.”  In reality, talks failed because America and its Western partners remain unwilling to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards. 

As a sovereign state, Iran is entitled to enrich, if it chooses; as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it is entitled to do so under safeguards.  The NPT explicitly recognizes signatories’ “inalienable right” to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.  That this inalienable right includes the right to enrich is clear from the NPT itself, its negotiating history, and decades of state practice, with multiple non-weapons state parties having developed safeguarded fuel-cycle infrastructures potentially able to support weapons programs. 

If Washington recognized Iran’s right to enrich, a nuclear deal with Tehran could be reached in a matter of weeks.  As long as Washington refuses to do this, no substantial agreement will be possible.    

Yet the Obama administration is no closer than its predecessor to accepting safeguarded enrichment in Iran.  This is partly due to pressure from various allies—Israel, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France—and their American supporters, who expect Washington somehow to defy legal principle along with political reality and compel Tehran to surrender indigenous fuel-cycle capabilities.   

But the real reason for U.S. obstinacy is that recognizing Iran’s nuclear rights would mean accepting the Islamic Republic as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests.  No American president since the Iranian Revolution—not even Barack Hussein Obama—has been willing to do this.    

Washington’s unwillingness is grounded in unattractive, but fundamental, aspects of American strategic culture:  difficulty coming to terms with independent power centers (whether globally or in vital regions like the Middle East); hostility to non-liberal states, unless they subordinate their foreign policies to U.S. preferences (as Egypt did under Sadat and Mubarak); and an unreflective but deeply rooted sense that U.S.-backed norms, rules, and transnational decision-making processes are meant to constrain others, not America itself. 

Because these attitudes are so fundamental, it is unlikely Obama will invest the political capital required to bring America’s Iran policy in line with strategic reality before his presidency ends.  And so the controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities will grind on. 

The world has experienced such diplomatic stasis before.  In 2003-2005, Britain, France, and Germany worked (ostensibly) to prepare a nuclear settlement with Tehran; Iran suspended enrichment for nearly two years to encourage diplomatic progress.  The initiative failed because the Bush administration refused to join the talks unless Tehran was willing to abandon pursuit of indigenous fuel-cycle capabilities. 

In 2009-2010, efforts to negotiate the exchange of most of Iran’s then-stockpile of enriched uranium for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor collapsed for similar reasons.  In the May 2010 Tehran Declaration brokered by Brazil and Turkey, Iran accepted all of Washington’s terms for a fuel swap, yet the Obama administration rejected the Declaration because it openly recognized Iran’s right to enrich.  Three years later, the administration is once again undermining chances for diplomatic success with its inflexibility regarding Iran’s nuclear rights.            

The world has also seen what happens when America and its European partners demonstrate bad faith in nuclear diplomacy with Tehran—Iran expands its nuclear infrastructure and capabilities.  When Iran broke its nearly two-year enrichment suspension in 2005, it could run less than a thousand centrifuges; today, it has installed 12,000 centrifuges, more than 9,000 of which process uranium gas to produce enriched uranium.  In February 2010, Iran began enriching uranium to the near-20 percent level needed to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) after the United States and its partners refused to sell the fuel; Iran consistently offered to suspend near-20 percent enrichment if it could obtain an adequate fuel supply for the TRR.  After Obama torpedoed the Tehran Declaration, Iran accelerated production of near-20 percent uranium and began indigenously manufacturing fuel plates for the TRR.   

With America and its European partners once again blowing an opening to accept Tehran’s nuclear rights and close a nuclear deal, we are likely to see another surge of nuclear expansion in Iran.  Certainly Iran will continue enriching, at the 3-4 percent level needed for power reactors and at the near-20 percent level needed for the TRR, and installing more efficient centrifuges.  Iran also plans to commission a heavy water reactor, perhaps as early as next year. 

Although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) consistently certifies that no nuclear materials have been diverted from safeguarded Iranian facilities, all of these steps will be cited by Israel, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and other U.S. constituencies hankering for military action as evidence that time for diplomacy has run out.  Additionally, the Islamic Republic may find legitimate reasons—for example, building maritime reactors—to begin enriching above 20 percent.  While such higher-level enrichment would be done under IAEA safeguards, this would also be interpreted in America and Israel as provocative Iranian “escalation.”   

Obama would prefer to avoid another U.S.-initiated war in the Middle East; thus, he will keep endorsing ploys (like Ashton’s trip to Istanbul) to maintain a façade of diplomatic “engagement.” But his unwillingness to revive America’s deteriorating regional position through serious diplomacy with Tehran will increase pressure on him to order U.S. strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities before his presidency’s end.   

Rather than openly abandon the delusion of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, Obama will try to placate hawkish elements by escalating America’s ongoing “dirty war” against the Islamic Republic—including economic warfare against civilians, threatening secondary sanctions against third countries in violation of U.S. WTO commitments, cyber-attacks, support for groups doing things inside Iran that Washington elsewhere condemns as “terrorism,” stoking sectarian tensions, and fueling further violence in Syria to prevent Tehran from “winning” there.  But that, too, will only further destabilize the Middle East and bring America and Iran ever closer to overt confrontation.          

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

 

Dissecting America’s Iran Debate: Flynt Leverett on “Conversations from Penn State”

 

 

WPSU, Penn State’s public broadcasting station, did a thoughtful interview with Flynt about our book for its “Conversations from Penn State” series, which was broadcast last night and is now available online.  The discussion delves into an array of topics, including

–our motives for writing Going to Tehran;

–the highly polarized reaction to it;

–the strategic and moral imperative of preventing a U.S.-initiated war against the Islamic Republic;

–Iran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards, and Israel’s bogus “red lines” for Iranian nuclear development;

–the myths and cultural blinders that warp American views of the Islamic Republic;

–the George W. Bush administration’s efforts to censor our criticism of U.S policy;

–how Obama’s Iran policy is, in some ways, worse than Bush’s; and  

–why “Nixon to China”-style rapprochement with the Islamic Republic is the only way for the United States to avoid strategic disaster in the Middle East.    

The half-hour episode, also titled “Going to Tehran,” is available on You Tube, see here, and on WPSU’s Web site, see here (with about 15 minutes of additional discussion).  We encourage everyone to take a look.      

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett