Fool Me Twice, Shame on You
Two articles regarding Iran’s nuclear program appeared in the New York Times yesterday. They could not have been more opposite.
The first article by Scott Shane, entitled “In Din over Iran, Echoes of Iraq War,” made a compelling case that the coverage and rhetoric vis-à-vis Iran is eerily similar to statements and logic espoused in 2003 before the invasion of Iraq. The author asks why, in “what by some measures is the longest period of war” in the United States’ history, “is there already a new whiff of gunpowder in the air?”
The article, refreshingly, goes so far as to criticize the New York Times own coverage of Iran in recent weeks. The article warns that journalists may be overstating Iran’s nuclear weapons progress and capability.
In the same issue, an article entitled “Nuclear Inspectors Say Iran Mission Has Failed” by David E. Sanger and Alan Cowell categorically ignored all of the warnings of Shane’s article. The title of the article portends a crisis, while it concedes in the body that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors were only denied access to one of Iran’s nuclear sites, a minor site at Parchin. IAEA inspectors remain active in the country and have access to Iran’s major reactors at Natanz and Isfahan.
Crucially, Iran would need to expel almost every IAEA inspector before making overt attempts to develop their nuclear weapons program, which for now remains only hypothetical. Sanger and Cowell’s article even quotes the IAEA (emphasis mine) as saying activity at Parchin consist of “strong indicators of possible weapons development.” Israeli and American intelligence officials have testified that Iran has not yet made the decision to weaponize.
In media coverage, phrasing, even of a single word, can frame an article in a decisive light. Shane’s article says “the oratory of American politicians has become more bellicose and Iran has responded for the most part defiantly.” The first phrase of this sentence is hard to argue with, especially after last night’s CNN Republican Presidential Debate in which candidates Gingrich, Romney and Santorum lined up to threaten Iran with military action in defense of Israel. Referring to military options regarding Iran, Mitt Romney said “They’re not just on the table. They’re in our hand.”
This contrasts with a passage from Sanger and Cowell article: “Iran struck an increasingly bellicose tone on Tuesday, with an Iranian official warning that the country would take pre-emptive action against perceived foes if it felt its national interests were threatened.” It would be difficult to find a country on earth that wouldn’t take the same actions to prevent threats to its national security. But the word “bellicose” changes the perception of the statement, the article, and Iran’s intentions drastically.
Their article concludes with a quote from Iran’s deputy armed forces head, “Our strategy now is that if we feel our enemies want to endanger Iran’s national interests, and want to decide to do that, we will act without waiting for their actions.” While this statement would not raise an eyebrow if it were made by an American, Israeli or European official, Sanger and Cowell characterize it and demonstrating “a new level of aggressiveness” from Iran.
Worrisomely, while both articles used the word bellicose in different contexts, Shane’s article is considered “news analysis” while Sanger and Cowell’s article passes for objective, expository reporting. Since Shane’s article was published, its title has been changed from “In Din over Iran, Echoes of Iraq War” to the tamer “In Din over Iran, Rattling Sabers Echo.”
Phrasing and framing matter a great deal in journalism because small details can change our perception of an issue. An article in Foreign Policy uses recent polling data on Iran to make this point clear with a recent PEW survey that said 58% of Americans would approve of war with Iran while 30% would be opposed. Only 17% of Americans, according to a CNN/ORC poll wanted to go war with Iran.
What explains the stark discrepancy? PEW asked is more important to “prevent Iran from developing weapons, even if it means taking military action” than to “avoid military conflict, even if Iran may develop nuclear weapons” while CNN/ORC asked if Americans would support “military action right now.”
Special consideration must be given to phrasing and coverage of Iran amidst this time of increased tension. The foreign policy debate has shifted from repeating commitments that all options are on the table, up to and including military force, to taking some important options off the table. Diplomacy has all but been scrapped, as Trita Parsi makes clear in his new book A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. Harsh, crippling sanctions, which are largely counterproductive, perversely pass as diplomacy today.
As for true diplomacy? A bipartisan group of senators wrote in a letter to President Obama that renewed talks with Iran over its nuclear program would be a “dangerous distraction,” allowing Iran more time to proliferate.
The same senators aver that containment of a nuclear Iran should be taken off the table. It is ominous that Congress is attempting to limit the President and the State Department’s options in the biggest foreign policy crisis of President Obama’s first term. The legislation “urges the President to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.” In an excellent article, MJ Rosenberg states that “Presidents need latitude to make decisions affecting matters of national security …But, in the case of Iran, the rules are changing.”
The word capability makes the legislation particularly distressing. The determination of whether or not Iran has nuclear weapons capability is subject to semantics and subjectivity. What defines capability? The worry is that this ambiguous red line, which the senators maintain should be enforced martially, could be judged to have been violated at any moment.
Many American politicians misunderstand Iran, and view it through Orientalist shaded glasses. Joe Lieberman has gone so far as to say that Iran can’t be contained like the Soviet Union was contained. Really? The second-tier regional power Iran? Certainly the Soviet Union, a global juggernaut with a vast nuclear arsenal and gargantuan reach was a more difficult opponent to contain. Newt Gingrich called Iran a “dictatorship” in last night’s debate. Even if that were true (Iran is more of a multi-institutional theocracy), he wrongly thinks the dictator is President Ahmadinejad and not Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
Fortunately, the Obama administration has handled the situation coolly enough thus far, maintaining that military options are on the table while making it clear that war is not the preferred course of action. General Martin Dempsey, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Israel that an attack on Iran would be “destabilizing” and “not prudent.” Israeli officials characterized Dempsey as “serving Iran’s interests.”
Congress and the GOP presidential candidates are attempting to use Iran as an issue to make Obama look weak, despite the testimonies of the American military and intelligence communities which largely play down the Iran threat.
It seems like behind the scenes, Obama hasn’t given Netanyahu the green light that he would need to carry out an effective attack on Iran. Netanyahu might still call Obama’s bluff, knowing that it would be hard for Obama to resist populist pressure to declare war with November looming. The Israeli Prime Minister knows all too well that he’ll have much less leverage during a second-term Obama presidency.
Perhaps the most tragic thing about the Iran warmongering is that the Iranian regime’s actual crimes are being overshadowed. The Ayatollahs have detained journalists and political dissidents, tortured prisoners, rigged elections, restricted civil liberties and killed protesters. If war with Iran is forthcoming, it will be for the wrong reasons.
The saber rattling, assassinations, threats and retaliations have made war in 2012 a distinct possibility. Furthermore, the truculent rhetoric during election season has provided a powder keg. We can only hope that the Lusitania doesn’t sink and Archduke Franz Ferdinand doesn’t get assassinated.