Major U.S. news organizations, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, are engaged in a replay of the kind of slanted coverage that paved the way to war in Iraq, only this time regarding Iran.
The treatment of Iran’s election last June, the depictions of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the alarm over Iran’s nuclear program all parallel the one-sided coverage that the U.S. news media directed toward Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s alleged WMD program before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
In both cases, the leading U.S. news outlets took sides; they cast developments in the “enemy” Muslim nation in the harshest possible light; they treated the leaders as unrelentingly evil; they exaggerated the threats (and potential threats) posed by the country’s weaponry, real and imagined.
Without doubt, there were many unsavory aspects to Saddam Hussein as there are with Iran’s Ahmadinejad. However, the U.S. media's depictions of the two leaders lacked nuance, with only the most extreme and unflattering interpretations of their words and actions allowed.
In short, the Times, the Post and nearly all other U.S. news outlets behaved more like propaganda vehicles than professional journalism organizations.
The anti-Iran bias, like the earlier anti-Iraq bias, is most notable on the editorial and op-ed pages but also pervades the news columns.
For instance, echoing U.S. policymakers, the U.S. news media often warns about the danger from a prospective Iranian nuclear weapon, claiming it would touch off an arms race in the Middle East.
What the news organizations almost never mention is that several countries in the region already have nuclear weapons, including Israel whose undeclared arsenal is considered one of the most sophisticated in the world.
Pakistan developed a nuclear bomb in the 1980s, with the acquiescence of the Reagan administration which saw the bomb as an acceptable tradeoff for Pakistan’s assistance in supplying the Afghan mujahedeen in a covert war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Reagan’s Bargain/Charlie Wilson’s War.”]
Pakistan’s bitter rival, India, also possesses nuclear weapons as does Russia, meaning that Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers.
The consistent failure of the Post, the Times and other leading U.S. news organizations to mention this relevant fact denies the American people the necessary context for evaluating Iran’s behavior. Instead, Iran and its purported interest in a nuke are portrayed as the behavior of irrational extremists.
Iran, of course, insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, not for a bomb. And there is at this point no clear evidence that Iran is lying. Indeed, U.S. intelligence agencies have asserted that Iran abandoned its pursuit of a nuclear warhead design in 2003.
So why is Iran being singled out for condemnation regarding its speculative interest in a nuclear weapon while Israel, Pakistan and India get a pass for their actual nuclear weapons?
One argument that U.S. news organizations make is that Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty while Israel, Pakistan and India are not and that therefore it is more objectionable for Iran to evade the treaty’s provisions than for the others to simply ignore the treaty outright.
But the argument makes little sense. It amounts to giving a pass to rogue nuclear states that have refused to sign the treaty.
The absence of this outrage is especially notable regarding Israel, even after it imposed draconian punishments against one Israeli technician, Mordecai Vanunu, for divulging facts about the nuclear program in 1986. Vanunu was kidnapped in Italy, spirited back to Israel and tried in secret. He was put in solitary confinement for 11 years during an 18-year sentence.
Even today, Vanunu faces arrest for speaking with foreigners, yet this whistleblower remains almost as big a pariah with the U.S. press as he does with the Israeli government. [See “Ellsberg on Vanunu’s Arrest.”]
While American journalists silence themselves about Israel’s secret nuclear arsenal and treat the persecution of Vanunu as somehow deserved, they rail against Iran’s nuclear program even though it is under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency and remains far short of any breakout capability for a nuclear weapon even if Iran’s government decided to build one.
Another argument, used to justify the double standard, is that Iran is a particularly dangerous nation; that it has supported Arab groups, such as Hezboilah and Hamas, which some governments in the West label “terrorist”; and that Iranian leaders reject Israel’s status as a Jewish state and have wished for that religious/ethnic designation to end.
However, many people in the Middle East and around the world consider Hezbollah and Hamas to be resistance and/or political groups that have struggled against Israeli occupation of Lebanese and Palestinian lands, respectively. While the groups have resorted to violence, sometimes against civilians, Israel doesn’t have clean hands on that point either.
Israel is renowned for its cross-border assassinations and for its conquest of neighboring territory. Israel invaded and occupied parts of Lebanon in the 1980s and engaged in a bloody offensive there as recently as 2006.
Israel also has conducted a harsh occupation of Palestinian lands, assassinating Palestinian leaders and taking prized lands for Israeli settlers in defiance of United Nations resolutions and the intermittent protests of Israel’s chief ally in Washington.
By contrast, Iran has for generations been a relatively peaceful regional power. Its eight-year war with Iraq began when Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Iran in 1980, possibly with a “green light” from the United States and Sunni Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, which feared the spread of Iran’s Shiite fundamentalism. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Lost History Hurts Obama’s Iran Bid.”]
The war was sustained by President Ronald Reagan’s secret decision to tilt toward Iraq. Further, any objective observers would have to recognize that the United States has been the most active nation on earth intervening in other countries’ affairs over the past six decades, often violently.
As for links to terrorist organizations, Pakistan and the United States have arguably dirtier hands than Iran.
In the 1980s, during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Pakistan collaborated with Sunni Muslim extremists, including Saudi Osama bin Laden and other violent operatives who later formed al-Qaeda . In the 1990s, Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, nurtured the Taliban and backed their takeover of Afghanistan, remaining their staunchest ally up to the 9/11 attacks.
The ISI also is known to deploy militants against India in the disputed territory of Kashmir, and Pakistan has been the base for bloody terrorist attacks such as the 2008 massacre in Mumbai, India.
The United States, too, is far from blameless on the terrorism front. To this day, U.S. authorities harbor known Cuban terrorists in Miami and elsewhere, including Luis Posada Carriles who was implicated in the mid-air bombing of a Cubana airliner in 1976. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush Hypocrisy: Cuban Terrorists.”]
Since detonating two nuclear bombs against Japan at the end of World War II, U.S. officials have periodically discussed or threatened nuclear attack against other countries if they didn’t comply with American wishes, including non-nuclear states like North Vietnam when President Richard Nixon was engaged in his so-called “madman” strategy.
Even today, while complaining about Iran’s suspected interest in building a nuclear weapon, U.S. authorities, including President George W. Bush and apparently President Barack Obama, have left open the possibility of nuking Iran. They have made a point to insist that “all options are on the table,” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while a candidate for President, threatened to “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel.
Yet, to read the leading American newspapers, one would assume that Iran was the only dangerous country operating in that part of the world.
There also the curious issue of the Iranian election last June 12.
The New York Times and the Washington Post editorialists routinely describe the election as “fraudulent,” without any qualification or factual substantiation. This is similar to how Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt pronounced in 2002 and early 2003 that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Only later, after the U.S. invasion and the discovery of no caches of WMD did Hiatt concede that maybe the Post should not have been so categorical.
“If you look at the editorials we write running up [to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction,” Hiatt said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. “If that’s not true, it would have been better not to say it.” [CJR, March/April 2004]
Yes, there was a time in American journalism when it was considered serious business to state as fact something that was not true. However, in Hiatt’s case – despite the deaths of more than 4,300 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis – there has been no change in the leadership of the Post’s editorial pages.
Hiatt, like his counterparts at the New York Times, is now certain that the Iranian election was “fraudulent” without equivocation. The evidence, however, points in a much more uncertain direction.
Many of the assumptions of the U.S. and Western press about election fraud turned out to be false, such as the belief that Azeris would have voted heavily for one of their own, Mir Hossein Mousavi, instead of for Ahmadinejad.
But a pre-election poll, sponsored by the New America Foundation, found a 2-to-1 breakdown for Ahmadinejad among Azeris. Part of the reason appeared to be that Ahmadinejad had poured government resources into that area.
Another frequent complaint from the Western press was that Ahmadinejad’s claim of victory came too fast, but that ignored the fact that Mousavi was out with a declaration of victory before any votes were counted. The first partial results, showing Ahmadinejad in the lead, came out hours later.
The reason why Ahmadinejad might have really won the election was that his support was concentrated among the urban and rural poor who benefited from government food giveaways and jobs programs and who tend to listen more to 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.
Generally speaking, Mousavi had the backing of the urban middle class and the well-educated, especially in the more cosmopolitan capital of Tehran where universities became a center for protests against Ahmadinejad. The president’s policies – and his offensive comments questioning the Holocaust – have created hardships for this voting bloc, which has found it hard to travel and do business in the face of Western sanctions and restrictions.
So, the election outcome could have been explained simply by Iran’s middle class and intellectuals voting heavily for Mousavi, while larger numbers of poor and conservative Muslims might have broken for Ahmandinejad.
The last real hope for definitive evidence proving that 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 examining ballots can 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.
This perception gap between the West and Iran over the legitimacy of the election now has become a powerful point of dispute between the two sides.
A poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org questioned 1,003 Iranians across the country between Aug. 27 and Sept. 10, 2009, 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 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.
In the six months following that poll, the Post, the Times and other Western news outlets have continued to insist that the Iranian election was “fraudulent,” thus giving moral backing to street protests seeking to overthrow Ahmadinejad.
However, if the election indeed was legitimate, then the American news media is helping to create political support for the removal of a democratically elected government.
A similar situation occurred in Iran in 1953 when the United States and Great Britain opposed Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who was seeking to nationalize Iran’s oil resources. The CIA undertook a propaganda campaign to depict Mossadegh as unstable while also passing out millions of dollars to rally big crowd demanding his ouster.
Given that history – and Iran’s inclusion on President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” list – it would not be unreasonable for the Iranian government to suspect that the United States, possibly with its UK junior partner, is conducting a new covert operation today.
Prior to the June 12 election in Iran, it was well known and widely reported that 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 Mousavi campaign 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 disruptions.
Not to say that Mousavi’s campaign 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 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, 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 media’s prior knowledge of Bush’s covert operation seeking “regime change” in Iran, disappeared, not to be mentioned in the volumes of reporting about the June 12 election. The stories all were about spontaneous demonstrations in protest of Ahmadinejad’s allegedly fraudulent reelection.
The U.S. news media may understandably view Ahmadinejad with disdain, for his bluster and especially his outrageous comments about the Holocaust. Sometimes that repulsion has been palpable, such as when New York Times executive editor Bill Keller personally traveled to Iran to witness the election and co-authored a news analysis that started with a joke about Ahmadinejad having lice in his hair. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Taking Sides in Iran.”]
But one might at least have hoped that the death and destruction in Iraq would have taught these media figures a painful lesson: that sometimes loose talk about foreign “enemies” can contribute to horrendous human suffering.
Journalists might also recall the old principles of the profession: fairness, commitment to facts, and objectivity.
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 February 18, 2010.