The U.S. press corps appears to have learned little or nothing from the Iraq debacle as a new crisis looms with Iran.
Yet, the most dangerous parallel between the misreporting on Iraq and the current hysteria about Iran may be that major U.S. news outlets, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post, continue to paint the disputes in black and white and leave shades of gray out of the frame.
In doing so, these news organizations again are casting aside their own rules about objectivity and balance. Just like in the run-up to the Iraq War, they obsess about a villain (with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replacing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein) – and have thrown down the memory hole inconvenient facts and important context.
For instance, prior to the June 12 election in Iran, it was well known and widely reported that President George W. Bush had signed a covert action finding targeting Iran’s Islamic government with a major program of propaganda and political destabilization.
In the July 7, 2008, New Yorker magazine, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote that late the previous year, Congress had agreed to Bush’s request for a major escalation in covert operations against Iran to the tune of up to $400 million.
“The Finding was focused on undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change,” one person familiar with its contents told Hersh. The operation involved “working with opposition groups and passing money,” the person said.
Other news organizations reported similar facts, with Bush administration officials even citing the aggressive covert action as one reason why the Israelis should tamp down their heated rhetoric about launching a military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites.
Yet, when the campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi took on the appearance of a “velvet revolution,” with Mousavi claiming victory before any ballots were counted and then organizing mass demonstration when the official vote count went against him, the U.S. press corps mocked any suggestion from Ahmadinejad’s government that foreign operatives might have had a hand in the disruption.
Not to say that Mousavi’s campaign definitely was orchestrated from outside Iran – nor to suggest that it didn’t speak for genuine grievances inside Iran – but the U.S. press corps behaved as if it had forgotten its own earlier reporting about the CIA covert operation. It was hard to avoid the obvious conclusion that the big American media was taking sides with Mousavi.
Truly objective journalism at least might have included some historical facts about the three chief opposition leaders and their longstanding (often secret) ties to the West.
In the 1980s, then Prime Minister Mousavi was, in effect, the control officer for Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian agent who hooked up with neoconservative activist Michael Ledeen for clandestine Iran-Contra weapons shipments that involved both the United States and Israel.
In November 1985, at a key moment in the arms-for-hostages scandal as one of the missile shipments via Israel went awry, Ghorbanifar conveyed Mousavi’s anger to the White House.
"On or about November 25, 1985, Ledeen received a frantic phone call from Ghorbanifar, asking him to relay a message from the prime minister of Iran to President Reagan regarding the shipment of the wrong type of HAWKs,” according to Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s Final Report.
“Ledeen said the message essentially was ‘we've been holding up our part of the bargain, and here you people are now cheating us and tricking us and deceiving us and you had better correct this situation right away.’”
Ghorbanifar also had dangled the possibility of Reagan’s national security adviser Robert McFarlane meeting with high-level Iranian officials, including Mousavi. In May 1986, when McFarlane and White House aide Oliver North took their infamous trip to Tehran with the inscribed Bible and the key-shaped cake, they were planning to meet with Mousavi.
Another leading figure in today’s opposition, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, also sat at the center of the web of arms deals that Israel arranged for Iran in its long war with Iraq. Rafsanjani, who was then parliamentary chairman, built his personal fortune, in part, as a war profiteer benefiting from those lucrative deals with Israel. [For more on the arms deals, see Ari Ben-Menashe’s Profits of War.]
A third key opposition leader, Mehdi Karoubi , and his brother Hassan also were linked to the secret arms deals. Mehdi Karoubi has been identified as an intermediary as early as 1980 when he reportedly had contacts with Israeli and U.S. intelligence operatives and top Republicans working for Ronald Reagan. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
The brother, Hassan Karoubi, was another Iran-Contra figure, meeting with Ghorbanifar and Ledeen in Geneva in late October 1985 regarding missile shipments in exchange for Iranian help in getting a group of U.S. hostages freed in Lebanon, according to Walsh’s report.
Normally, such an unusual line-up of opposition leaders might be expected to raise some eyebrows in the U.S. press corps. If the CIA or Israeli intelligence were trying to achieve regime change in Iran, they might reasonably reach out to influential figures with whom they’ve had prior relationships.
But all that history, as well as the prior knowledge of Bush’s covert operation seeking “regime change” in Iran, disappeared, not to be mentioned in the volumes of reporting about June 12 election. The stories all were about supposedly spontaneous demonstrations in protest of Ahmadinejad’s allegedly fraudulent reelection.
Over time, some U.S. journalists even dropped the “alleged” ahead of “fraud,” treating Mousavi’s vague and sometimes contradictory accusations as fact, much as the Washington Post editorial page described Iraq’s WMD stockpiles as fact in the run-up to that war. [See the Post’s WMD excuse in Consortiumnews.com’s “Smearing Joe Wilson Again.”]
Yet, the evidence of substantial election fraud in Iran’s election was always thin and many of the allegations touted by the U.S. news media failed to stand up to serious scrutiny.
For instance, a prevalent complaint that Ahmadinejad’s claim of victory came too fast ignored the fact that Mousavi was out with a declaration of victory before any votes were counted. The partial results showing Ahmadinejad in the lead followed hours later.
Another claim was that Mousavi would have surely won his home Azeri district handily, rather than lose it outright to Ahmadinejad, but that argument collided with a pre-election poll sponsored by the New America Foundation which had shown Ahmadinejad with a 2-to-1 lead in that area.
Even if the election tightened in the final weeks – as some Mousavi supporters contend – Ahmadinejad’s lopsided lead in Mousavi’s home territory in May undercut the notion that Azeris would automatically back their favorite son. Some Iranian analysts have noted that Ahmadinejad poured government resources into that region, explaining his apparent popularity there.
Generally speaking, Mousavi’s support was concentrated among the urban middle class and the well-educated while Ahmadinejad was more the candidate of the poor – of which there are many in Iran. They have benefited from government largesse in food and other programs, and they tend to listen to the conservative clerics in the mosques.
Mousavi seemed to acknowledge this point when he released his supposed proof of the rigged election, accusing Ahmadinejad of buying votes by providing food and higher wages for the poor. At some Mousavi rallies, his supporters reportedly would chant “death to the potatoes!” in a joking reference to Ahmadinejad’s food distributions.
Yet, while passing out food and raising pay levels may be a sign of “machine politics,” such tactics are not normally associated with election fraud.
The last real hope for definitive evidence proving Ahmadinejad’s victory was fraudulent may have passed when Mousavi rejected the possibility of a recount. Instead Mousavi insisted on an entirely new election.
Mousavi’s objection to a recount drew support from the New York Times’ top brass. “Even a full recount would be suspect,” the Times wrote in an editorial. “How could anyone be sure that the ballots were valid?”
But one reason for a recount is that it may unearth evidence of fraud, especially if ballot-box stuffing was done chaotically or if the tallies were simply fabricated without ballots to support them, as some Western observers have speculated regarding Iran.
The view inside Iran, however, appears to be different. A poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org questioned 1,003 Iranians across the country between Aug. 27 and Sept. 10, discovering that 81 percent said they considered Ahmadinejad to be the legitimate president of Iran. Only 10 percent called him illegitimate, with eight percent offering no opinion.
Sixty-two percent said they had strong confidence in the election results, which showed Ahmadinejad winning by about a 2-to-1 margin, and another 21 percent said they had some confidence in the official vote count, for a total of 83 percent expressing favorable views on the election. By comparison, only 13 percent said they had little or no confidence in the results.
Those poll results were either ignored by the U.S. news media or discounted as the result of fearful Iranians simply saying what their government wanted to hear. However, similar polls have been conducted in countries around the world, including during the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, and have been regarded as useful measures of public opinion.
It seems in the case of Iran – as earlier with Iraq – the U.S. news media starts with its desired answer and then picks out whatever supports that position and discards what doesn’t.
That pattern has continued into the latest round of fury about Iran’s newly disclosed nuclear plant near Qum. Both U.S. officials and media pundits have waxed eloquent about the need for Iran to “come clean” about its nuclear ambitions and to comply with international demands for transparency.
But there is almost never a reference to Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program, nor those in Pakistan and India. All three nations surreptitiously built nuclear bombs with either Western collaboration or acquiescence. Israel is believed to have one of the most sophisticated nuclear arsenals in the world, but has refused to openly acknowledge its existence.
Even if you agree that Iran represents a greater threat than those other three countries – although that point is arguable given the belligerent rhetoric emanating at times from all three capitals – it would still be traditional journalistic practice to note other factors that might be driving Iran’s thinking.
And, just as the reporting about the CIA’s “regime change” covert operation was forgotten in the context of the June 12 election, so too has the U.S. media forgotten about a possible reason for Iran to build a highly fortified nuclear plant away from its main facility in Natanz: the Israelis have been threatening to demolish Natanz in an air attack.
Besides the threat from Israel, Iran faced hostile rhetoric from President Bush, who famously counted Iran as part of his “axis of evil” and invaded Iraq another member of that alleged “axis.”
While the U.S. news media may laugh at the Iranians as paranoid for thinking they faced imminent attack, American pundits would surely take a different view if the United States were under a direct threat from a foreign power whose military had conquered a neighboring state and was poised on the U.S. border.
From the 1980s, I recall how the Reagan administration would suggest ludicrous schemes by Nicaragua or Cuba or even tiny Grenada to endanger U.S. national security – and how career-conscious U.S. journalists would dutifully scribble down those warnings for their news articles.
Once in late 1987, as a Newsweek correspondent, I was at a Pentagon background briefing when a senior U.S. military official asserted that Nicaragua’s Sandinista government was in position to send its army through Costa Rica and into Panama. “There would nothing to stop them from taking the Panama Canal,” the official warned.
I was alone in piping up with an irreverent question. “Mightn’t the 82nd Airborne show up?” I asked.
During the Reagan era, Republican officials learned they could pretty much get away with telling the Washington press corps anything about a supposedly dangerous foreign enemy and get away with it. The press corps had grown terrified of being labeled “liberal” or “not patriotic.”
Even after Bill Clinton became President, the big news outlets continued to operate as if the Reagan team were still in power, almost like Pavlov’s dogs, successfully conditioned by rewards and punishments. For instance, when San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb revived the story of drug trafficking by Reagan’s beloved Nicaraguan contras, the big newspapers trashed Webb and defended the contras, despite clear evidence that Webb was right. [See Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
The same pattern reasserted itself dramatically after the 9/11 attacks when George W. Bush found that he could exaggerate any threat and have the New York Times, the Washington Post and most other mainstream news outlets eagerly repeating his propaganda.
Now, even with Bush gone, the Pavlovian effect continues. The U.S. press corps struts about in outrage over Ahmadinejad – just as they did with Saddam Hussein. The journalists know intuitively what points to highlight and what context to leave out.
In doing so, the journalists may feel they are protecting their flanks from criticism about their patriotism or their toughness. But the risk for the nation is that such unprofessional journalism is contributing to a new hysteria, creating a political dynamic that may block President Obama from taking actions for peace that might well be in the best interests of the country.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on October 1, 2009.