Monday, April 11, 2016

Revisiting 'Argo', Hollywood's CIA-Supported Propaganda Fable


Through his dogged pursuit of declassified government documents, VICE News reporter Jason Leopold has revealed that the CIA was directly involved in the production of Ben Affleck's Oscar-winning, propaganda fairy tale Argo.

Argo, along with other productions like an episode of Bravo's Top Chef , the USA Network series Covert Affairs; and CIA-related documentaries on the History Channel and the BBC, "all received 'support' from the CIA's Office of Public Affairs (OPA), the division that interacts with journalists and acts as the liaison with the entertainment industry," writes Leopold, who received the documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Additionally, and least surprisingly, the documents also confirm the agency's involvement in the making of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's pro-torture paean to the CIA.


While it's still unclear to what extent the CIA was involved in the production of Argo, Leopold quotes CIA public affairs director Dean Boyd as saying that, beyond protecting classified material and national security secrets, the CIA's engagement with the entertainment industry seeks to guarantee a positive portrayal of American spies - or, as Boyd puts it, "an informed, balanced portrayal of the women and men of CIA."

Leopold also notes that, in the case of Argo and a couple other projects, "foreign nationals 'may have participated in briefings, interviews, and visits provided by the CIA,'" and adds:
However, because of the lack of adequate records, we were unable to determine the extent of the CIA’s support to the eight projects, the extent to which foreign nationals participated in CIA-sponsored activities, and whether the Director/OPA approved the activities and participation of foreign nationals…. Failure on the part of CIA officers to adhere to the regulatory requirements could result in unauthorized disclosures, inappropriate actions and negative consequences for the CIA.
The CIA's support for Argo, which was released in 2012 and went on to win three Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, is not shocking. The film - which purports to tells the "true story" of six American diplomats who escaped the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, and hid out at the Canadian ambassador's house until finally leaving the country with the help of an American spy and a ludicrous cover story - is little more than a love letter to the CIA.

Nearly every fact about what really happened was either glossed over or totally reimagined in order to present a Manichean tale of American heroism and ingenuity triumphing over Iranian savagery and buffoonery, all but omitting any historical context for the Iranian revolution and deliberately downplaying the vital role of ambassador Ken Taylor and the Canadian government in the whole affair.

Indeed, even former President Jimmy Carter felt compelled to acknowledge that "90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian [while] the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA... Ben Affleck's character in the film was only in Tehran a day and a half and the real hero in my opinion was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process."

Taylor, who passed away last October, himself lamented in 2013 that Argo's Hollywood version of history demonized Iranians, playing into the long-maintained American narrative that Iran is merely "one long revolution and riot."

"The movie maybe didn't give a chance that there's another side to Iranian society which is unfortunate — that is a more conventional side, a more hospitable side and an intent that they were looking for some degree of justice and hope and that it all wasn't just a violent demonstration for nothing," Taylor said, describing the embassy takeover in realistic terms.

Summing up his own characterization of the film, Taylor added, "The amusing side is the script writer in Hollywood had no idea what he's talking about."

This view, from someone who actually spent three years in Iran, is strikingly different than that of Ben Affleck, who directed Argo. In an interview with Rolling Stone, when Argo was first released, Affleck described the embassy takeover and hostage-taking as having "no rhyme or reason," while in a Huffington Post interview, he claimed that he "tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual."

But the fingerprints of the CIA were all over Argo and, despite their covert protocol, little was done to wipe them clean.

When he won the Best Director Golden Globe in February 2013, Ben Affleck praised the "clandestine service as well as the foreign service that is making sacrifices on behalf of the American people everyday [and] our troops serving over seas, I want to thank them very much," a statement echoed almost identically by co-producer Grant Heslov when this movie won Best Drama later that night.

"I want to thank the folks from the clandestine services who don't always get the credit that they deserve, but they do a lot of great work. And thank you to them as well," said Heslov, who once co-starred as a CIA intel officer opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron's action blockbuster True Lies, which is widely regarded as one of the most Islamophobic and anti-Arab films ever made. That film "probably will stand the test of time as one of the most racist movies Hollywood has ever produced," said film scholar Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs, a study of Middle Eastern stereotyping in cinema.

The following month, Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. In his acceptance speech, Terrio saved his most heartfelt gratitude for CIA agent Tony Mendez, the spy who - the story goes - concocted a clever ruse to help get the six Americans out of Iran. "I want to dedicate this to a man named Tony Mendez. 33 years ago, Tony, using nothing but his creativity and his intelligence, got six people out of a very bad situation," he said. As those close to the actual operation have already pointed out, Mendez was only in Tehran for a single day; he came, not alone, but with a partner; and he hardly did anything.

Oh, and the "fake movie" he and his Hollywood buddies invented to fool unwitting Iranians? That cover story was never actually needed - it was never tested, as the actual departure of the diplomats from Tehran was fairly uneventful. "The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way," recalled one of the actual diplomats involved. "We got on the flight to Zurich and then we were taken to the US ambassador's residence in Berne. It was that straightforward." No angry mobs, no phony storyboards, no high-speed chase down the tarmac. Even Mendez himself noted the whole operation was "as smooth as silk." The only glitch? The flight departure time was delayed by an hour. Harrowing.

When Argo won the Best Picture Oscar at the end of the night, Ben Affleck took time not only to also thank Mendez, whom Affleck himself portrays in the film, but also "our friends in Iran, living in terrible circumstances right now." What?

Even before that, however, the cat was out of the bag. Shortly after the movie's release, Terrio said during a Hollywood Reporter's Writers Roundtable discussion that, in researching the story, "I spent a bunch of time with Tony Mendez and also bunch of other CIA officers."

Right before the movie came out, Affleck was interviewed on Fox News by Bill O'Reilly. The "serious aspect" of Argo, the director said, "was that this is really a tribute to the folks and our clandestine services and diplomats in the foreign service who are risking their lives over there... [and to] what they give up to serve us and to serve our country."

Responding to O'Reilly description of Argo as "a Valentine from Ben Affleck to the Intelligence Community - the same people who water-boarded, the same people who renditioned," Affleck said, "I've been to the CIA. I met General David Petraeus. These are extraordinary honorable people at the CIA. Make no mistake about it." He then went on to say that he "wouldn't oppose military action" against Iran in the event that "they need to be whacked."

Jason Leopold, in his article on the CIA's support for film and television projects, writes, "On the CIA's website, the agency says its entertainment industry liaison helps producers, screenwriters, directors, and authors 'gain a better understanding of [CIA's] intelligence mission.'" It continues:
"Our goal is an accurate portrayal of the men and women of the CIA, and the skill, innovation, daring, and commitment to public service that defines them. If you are part of the entertainment industry, and are working on a project that deals with the CIA, the Agency may be able to help you. We are in a position to give greater authenticity to scripts, stories, and other products in development."
Far from proving "greater authenticity," however, with the CIA's help, the producers of Argo spun truth into mythology. The "based on a true story" patina gives cover to a deluge of lies, carefully crafted and amplified to show noble American spies and diplomats vanquishing the bumbling barbarians of revolutionary Iran. As Salon's Andrew O'Hehir so deftly put it, Argo's supposed "authenticity" is "all elaborate window dressing for a propaganda fable," a "patriotic fantasy" and a "totalizing fiction" that "turns a fascinating and complicated true story into a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue."

I've previously noted that the relationship between Hollywood and the military and intelligence arms of the U.S. government has long been cozy.

"When the CIA or the Pentagon says, 'We'll help you, if you play ball with us,' that's favoring one form of speech over another. It becomes propaganda," David Robb, author of "Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies," once told The Los Angeles Times. "The danger for filmmakers is that their product — entertainment and information — ends up being government spin."

Now, thanks to Jason Leopold's FOIA request, we know just how true that really is.

***** ***** *****

UPDATE: It's important to note that the love-fest between the filmmakers and the Central Intelligence Agency was not a one-way street. The CIA, in 2013, took to its Twitter account not only to playfully debunk some of Argo's wilder scenarios (separating the "reel" from the "real"), but also to heap praise on its own personnel - and Affleck himself.



*****

Read my previous articles on Argo here:

10.12.12 - Argo's Asinine Auteur and his American Audience: Are We Hostages to Hollywood History?

02.23.13 - Oscar Prints the Legend: Argo's Upcoming Academy Award and the Failure of Truth

09.13.13 - New Documentary Reclaims “The Canadian Caper” from Affleck’s “Argo”

*****

Friday, April 8, 2016

Location Location Location: The Unintended Symbolism of the White House Haft-Sîn

White House Nowruz, 2015 (Photo: The White House)

This week, Michelle Obama hosted the second annual White House Nowruz, a celebration of the Iranian New Year. Though a relatively apolitical affair, the placement of the reception's traditional haft-sîn, however, should have raised some eyebrows.

Nowruz, which literally means "new day" in Farsi, is an ancient festival of new beginnings, deeply rooted in Zoroastrianism, celebrating the first day of Spring and the Persian calendar.

Of the myriad traditions and festivities associated with Nowruz, the most universally recognizable may be that of the haft-sîn (هفت سین‎), a table arrangement decorated with seven (haft) items – each beginning with the Persian letter S (sîn) – and symbolizing renewal, reconciliation, good luck, and prosperity.

The shindig, MC'ed by comedian Maz Jobrani and catered by renowned Persian chef Najmieh Batmanglij, was held on April 6 – a few days after the official holiday season (which lasts roughly 13 days) had actually ended.

The White House, naturally, had its own haft-sîn on display at its Nowruz party. However, its location in the East Room, where the celebration has been held both years, was a bit curious and (probably) unintentionally laden with symbolism all its own.

Nowruz-sevelt

The table containing such traditional items as wheat grass (sabzeh), garlic (sīr), vinegar (serkeh), apple (seeb), wheat germ pudding (samanu), sumac berries (somaq), and dried fruit (senjed) was placed - as it was last year as well - right beneath John Singer Sargent's 1903 presidential portrait of Theodore Roosevelt.

haft-sîn in the White House's East Room, on April 6, 2016. (Photo: Holly Dagres / @TheIranist)

One of the principal promoters of American imperialism at the end of the 19th century and in the first decade of the 20th, Roosevelt once wrote, "I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one." It is said he carried around a list of six target nations on three continents.

In December 1904, Roosevelt issued his official Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that the United States would not hesitate to use what he called its "international police power" to destroy and replace regimes deemed hostile to American interests. Though initially used to justify military intervention, invasion and occupation of Western Hemisphere nations such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, Roosevelt sent a similar message to the entire world in late 1907, when he deployed the nation's Great White Fleet to circumnavigate the globe in a show of power. The fleet consisted of16 battleships and support vessels, crewed by 14,000 sailors. It sailed for 14 months, covering over 43,000 miles and made twenty port calls on six different continents.

Just as it is common practice today for U.S. presidents to deliver Nowruz remarks to the people, and sometimes leaders, of Iran, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries "American presidents were encouraged to exchange telegrams with the Shah of Iran on the occasion of the Persian New Year's Day."

"In 1902," note scholars Kamran Scot Aghaie and Afshin Marashi, "President Theodore Roosevelt even presented the Shah of Iran, Muzaffar al-Din, and his brother, Zill al-Sultan, with a copy of his book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, recognizing that hunting was a favorite pastime of the Persian royal family as well."

At the time, Iranian leaders saw the United States - which had no imperial presence in the Middle East at that point - as a potential non-interventionist ally against persistent Russian and British encroachment on Iranian sovereignty. Following the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in 1906, Russia and Britain both occupied Iran in 1907 in an effort to dissolve the parliament and prop up the waning Qajar dynasty, dividing the country between them until 1911. Roosevelt remained neutral, however, a position subsequently maintained by Taft and all successive U.S. administrations through World War II, when Russia and the United Kingdom again invaded and occupied Iran to secure wartime supply routes for the Allied Powers and replaced the then Shah, Reza Pahlavi, with his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Kermit's Coup

On August 19, 1953, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in a military coup planned and orchestrated by the United States and Britain after nationalizing Iran's oil industry. Pro-Shah riots were staged, hundreds were killed, newspapers supportive of Mossadegh were ransacked and shuttered, and the prime minister was arrested and tried for treason.

The main architect of the coup, executed at the behest of British petroleum interests and under the guise of pro-active anti-communism, was the chief of the CIA's Near East and Africa division, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. - grandson of President Teddy Roosevelt.

The ouster of Mossadegh, and the reinstallation of the Shah, by American intelligence operatives is a seminal moment in Iranian history and political consciousness, setting the stage for a quarter-century of tyrannical dictatorship propped up by torture, corruption and U.S. military aid, as well as establishing the United States as an interventionist power in the region. Popular backlash against the Shah, and his American backers, culminated in his overthrow by the Iranian Revolution, and the establishment of an Islamic Republic in 1979.

Roosevelt's Shadow

By honoring Iranian culture with a haft-sîn table set under the watchful gaze of Teddy Roosevelt - the godfather of American military intervention and the grandfather of the man responsible for Operation Ajax in 1953 - the White House is unwittingly sending a message of continued hostility and imperial hubris toward Iran.

In his annual Nowruz message, delivered right before his historic trip to Cuba, President Obama said that, "even after decades of mistrust, it is possible for old adversaries to start down a new path." At a time when Iran is fully upholding its end of the nuclear accord, while the residual effects of U.S. sanctions continue to cause problems for Iranians, optics remain important.

One possible step on the path to better relations would be to move the haft-sîn to the other side of the room.

*****

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Mistakes and Missing History of CFR's #ThisDayinHistory Tweet on Iran

As part of its "This Day in History" series on social media, the Twitter account for the Council on Foreign Relations posted the following this morning:


At first glance a couple things are off about this tweet, admittedly minor, but worth noting nonetheless.

For one, the photo used in the tweet - taken by AP photographer Aristotle Saris, was taken not on "This Day in History" back in 1979, but actually on January 19 of that year, at a massive, million-plus person, pro-Khomeini rally against the government of the recently exiled Shah and in favor of the establishment of an Islamic republic in its place.

Also, "This Day in History" is actually yesterday. The advent of an Islamic republic in Iran was announced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on Farvardin 12, a date on the Iranian calendar that corresponds with April 1, except in leap years, when it's March 31.

This being 2016 - a leap year - CFR should have posted the anniversary tweet on Thursday, not today.

More importantly, however, the language used in the tweet's text is somewhat misleading. Of course, tweets are, by design, extremely limited in content - not too much context is possible in a mere 140 characters. Still, completely omitted from this quick retrospective is the fact that an Islamic republic replaced the Pahlavi dynasty - and with it millennia of monarchy - through the will of a popular referendum, not merely imposed by dictatorial mandate.

A Transitional Government, Two Referendums and a New Constitution

Just days after returning to Iranian soil after years of exile, Khomeini appointed Mehdi Barzargan as prime minister of the interim government. In a statement read by none other than Hashemi Rafsanjani, who would go on to become (and remain) one of the most powerful political forces in the country, Barzargan was granted not only "the authority to establish an interim government without consideration of any affiliation to parties or dependence on any factional groups," but also to arrange "a referendum and refer to a national public vote the issues of turning the country into an Islamic republic."

Iranians line up to vote to abolish the monarchy and establish an Islamic republic, March 30, 1979

Less than two months after the Shah was deposed, a referendum vote took place in Iran (and at Iranian embassies and consulates worldwide for Iranian citizens in the Diaspora) on March 30 and 31, 1979 to determine the future nature of the nascent post-revolutionary government. Over those two days, millions of men and women, 16 years of age and over, cast their votes.

Perhaps the outcome was never really in doubt. Placards and posters depicting Khomeini and the admonition, "Only an Islamic republic," were ubiquitous. An Iranian political economy professor, writing from Paris the day before the vote, noted that the "majority is expected to vote for replacement of the monarchy by an as yet undefined 'Islamic republic.'" A number of political and ethnic minority groups around the country boycotted the referendum on the reasonable grounds that not enough choices were presented to the electorate.

The ballot was binary, as described in a March 30, 1979 New York Times article entitled "In Iran Balloting, Only Victory Margin Is In Doubt," filed from Tehran by correspondent John Kifner:
The ballot came in three sections, like a perforated ticket. One section was for registration, the other two were the choices: the section in green, the color of Islam, had the word "yes" printed on it; the other was red, with the word "no."
'In the name of the Almighty,' the red and green choices said, enunciating the question on the referendum, which began today, 'to change the previous regime to an Islamic republic whose constitution will be approved by the people.'
...the voters presented a birth certificate or other identification, had it stamped and took the ballot, which was stamped again on the registration section. They would tear off either the green or red section and deposit it in a box on the table...The unused section of the ballot could be discarded or carried away.
The article also notes that, at that particular voting station, a precinct election judge "showed a visitor a wastebasket at the polling place at midday to indicate how the returns were going. Nothing but red 'no' slips could be found among the hundreds of crumpled papers."

The front page of Kayhan showed voters casting ballots on 11 Farvardin 1358 (March 31, 1979) [source]

Voting hours were extended until 10pm and the margin of inevitable victory grew, amidst some reports of seemingly intimidating polling environments and peer pressure. For instance, one observer "criticized the lack of privacy for voters. There were no booths, and voting was done in the presence of Islamic officials, often amid dozens of posters calling for a yes vote." Also, reported The New York Times:
There were many reports of polling officers tearing off the green-colored "yes" portions of the ballots and stuffing them in the boxes on behalf of the voters, who meekly got their identification cards stamped and left. A number of young voters told reporters that they were afraid to openly vote n in the presence of so many other who felt otherwise.
On April 1, 1979, the result was announced.


New York Times reporter Gregory Jaynes wrote that "Ayatollah Khomeini was jubilant over the two-day vote on his proposed Islamic republic," quoting the revolutionary leader's published statement: "I am declaring today the day of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and I would also like to declare that such a referendum is unprecedented in history - to establish a Government of righteousness and to overthrow and bury the monarchy in the rubbish pile of history."

As for the turnout and resulting percentages, Jaynes reported that the referendum commissioner Ahmad Noorbaksh said that "97 percent of the electorate had voted for the Islamic republic, out of the 98 percent eligible to cast ballots," though this was an unofficial assessment. Official results would not be released for a few weeks.

Nine months later, when the new Iranian Constitution was adopted, Chapter 1, Article 1 read:
"The form of government of Iran is that of an Islamic Republic, endorsed by the people of Iran on the basis of their long-standing belief in the sovereignty of truth and Qur'anic justice...through the affirmative vote of a majority of 98.2% of eligible voters, held after the victorious Islamic Revolution led by the eminent marji' al-taqlid, Ayatollah al-Uzma Imam Khomeini."
It has subsequently been reported that the total number of voters was 17,129,896. Of those, a reported 16,821,557 (98.2%) voted "yes" in the referendum, as opposed to the 308,338 voting "no."

Another source reports, "According to published records in this referendum 20,288,000 people voted 'Yes' and 241,000 people voted 'No,'" while yet another claims that 20,147,855 voted 'yes' and 140,996 voted 'no." This figure puts the approval rate at 99.3% of voters.

Overall, the voter turnout has been generally placed at 92%, though obviously this "official" number could be disputed.

Nevertheless, with an "Islamic Republic" founded, Iran now needed a new constitution.

According to Iran Chamber, here's what happened next:
The Ayatollah Khomeini regime unveiled a draft constitution on June 18. Aside from substituting a strong president, on the Gaullist model, for the monarchy, the constitution did not differ markedly from the 1906 constitution and did not give the clerics an important role in the new state structure. Ayatollah Khomeini was prepared to submit this draft, virtually unmodified, to a national referendum or, barring that, to an appointed council of forty representatives who could advise on, but not revise, the document. Ironically, as it turned out, it was the parties of the Left who most vehemently rejected this procedure and demanded that the constitution be submitted for full-scale review by a constituent assembly.
After a month-long campaign, elections for this 73-member body - dubbed the "Assembly of Experts" - were held on August 3, 1979, and a new draft of the constitution combining elements of republican and clerical rule was hammered out by mid-November.

On December 2 and 3, 1979, a second referendum was held to adopt the newly-written constitution. It is reported that the new Iranian Constitution was approved by 99.5% of voters (15,680,218 in favor; 78,516 opposed), with a 71.6% turnout.
A newly created seventy-three-member Assembly of Experts convened on August 18, 1979, to consider the draft constitution. Clerics, and members and supporters of the IRP dominated the assembly, which revamped the constitution to establish the basis for a state dominated by the Shia clergy. The Assembly of Experts completed its work on November 15, and the new Constitution of the Islamic Republic was approved in a national referendum on December 2 and 3, 1979, once again, according to government figures, by over 98 percent of the vote.
Obviously, this is too much information to summarize in a single tweet. But knowing the context is important, especially if we are to understand the revolutionary and political history of a nation that is all too often misrepresented, maligned, and marginalized in our own media.

*****

Monday, March 21, 2016

Pandermonium! At AIPAC, Trump Makes Same Promise on Jerusalem We've Been Hearing Since 1972


Breaking news!


The news media is abuzz today with reports that, speaking before the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington D.C. - the annual gathering of rabid right-wing Israel supporters - a presidential candidate vowed to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

So who was it this time? Donald Trump.

"We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem," he bellowed, reading from a script written for him by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, publisher of the conservative, pro-Israel weekly The New York Observer. Kushner took over the business from his father Charles, a real estate mogul and convicted criminal once described by The Jewish Week as "one of the marquee names in American Jewish philanthropy."

So why is this news? It's not.

Promising to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital and to move the American embassy there is part of Pandering 101 for Oval Office hopefuls. It is one of those litmus test talking points; the thing a politician says to prove the depths of his or her obsequiousness to a minuscule but influential cadre of donors and king (or queen) makers.

Every candidate in the past few decades knows this. It's an easy vow to make, and no one ever pays any political price for inevitably breaking it (since half of Jerusalem remains occupied territory and actually moving the embassy there would be a clear violation of international law (and long-standing U.S. policy, recently upheld by the Supreme Court), which doesn't recognize Israel's claim over the historic city). Making such an absurd promise plays well to the writhing masses at AIPAC confabs, establishes one's Zionist bona fides, and is a quick and easy way to offend indigenous Palestinians living under occupation, apartheid and blockade without actually flipping them the bird.

Nevertheless, the press continues to report on this blustery promise, no matter who utters it, as if it actually merits attention.

While he repeated the promise today for AIPAC, Trump had already said it back in January. And Ted Cruz has too (and even introduced legislation mandating the move in early 2015):


So has John Kasich (though, he's made clear that might not be his first priority when it comes to foreign policy):


And Jeb Bush before him:


So did Mitt Romney in 2012:


And Ron Paul and Rick Santorum the same year before they dropped out of the race:



And Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann (and Herman Cain) before them:


Both John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin made the promise back in 2008:



Four years earlier, John Kerry did the same, while also touting his record of making similar demands during his tenure in the Senate:


Before that was Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. As reported by The New York Times in May 2000:


(Supporters of moving the embassy were subsequently disappointed in Bush's failure to act on his promise.)

The year before, while beginning her campaign for New York's Senatorial seat, the then-First Lady Hillary Clinton weighed in on the matter herself:


The next summer, as election day neared, Clinton repeated her pledge, adding that "the embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv before year's end."

In the mid-1990s, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich similarly pandered like pros:


Before that, in 1992, the Clinton/Gore campaign hit the incumbent Bush administration for balking at the official recognition of "Israel's sovereignty over a united Jerusalem." Their campaign promised voters that "Bill Clinton and Al Gore will... support Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel."

Even Mike Dukakis tacked to the right of both the outgoing Reagan administration and George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988:


Al Gore, who tried to win the Democratic nomination for president that year, reportedly said in September 1987 that "he would consider moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem."

In April 1984, during a heated Democratic primary season, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart bent over backwards to assure voters in New York City that they too supported moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (a position even Israelis themselves understood as hollow political posturing).


The New York Times reported at the time:
Walter F. Mondale said he had supported such a move for 20 years, and he asserted that Senator Gary Hart had changed his position on the issue five days ago. In the past two weeks, Mr. Hart has denied that he suddenly changed his position, but has said his position has ''evolved.'' He has said firmly that if he became President, he would move the embassy to Jerusalem.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is the only one of the three candidates who opposes moving the embassy. The Reagan Administration also opposes such a move because the status of Jerusalem has long been disputed and the United States does not support Israeli sovereignty over the city.
Despite efforts by New York Senator Daniel Moynihan and California Congressman Tom Lantos to introduce a bill mandating the move, Reagan was adamant about not relocating the embassy, as such a divisive policy would, according to his Secretary of State George P. Shultz, "be very bad for the United States" and "damage our ability to be effective in the peace process."


The pandering was so thick, however, that a month later the Reagan administration had to pretend to consider supporting the move in order to stave off losing votes in the upcoming election.


Though the bill eventually stalled, Los Angeles Times syndicated columnist Nick Thimmesch, who called the proposal "one of the dumbest ideas to be advanced in Congress this session," lamented that "some of the election-year pandering in the Republic verges on the obscene" and credited the ill-conceived gambit to the lawmakers' "blind obedience to the Israel lobby (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee)." That was October 3, 1984.

By 1986, another bill was introduced to move the embassy, this time brought to the Senate floor by segregationist Republican Jesse Helms.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan attacked the Carter administration for abstaining from a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel's attempted annexation of East Jerusalem and calling upon all countries to remove their embassies from the city.

But even by the mid-1980s, though, this was an old political ploy. The New York Times pointed out that the 1976 Democratic Party platform - on which Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale ran for office - declared:
We recognize and support the established status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with free access to all its holy places provided to all faiths. As a symbol of this stand, the U.S. Embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Before that, on March 17, 1972, Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford, then the Republican Minority Leader, told a Zionist Organization of America regional meeting in Cleveland that the Nixon Administration should transfer the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Two years later, after first replacing Spiro Agnew as Vice President and then becoming President himself following Nixon's resignation, Ford backtracked on his previous position. "Under the current circumstances and the importance of getting a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, that particular proposal ought to stand aside," Ford said at his very first presidential press conference on August 9, 1974.

It's been over four decades since then and, sadly, while Palestine remains under brutal occupation, Israeli colonies continue to expand with impunity, and Palestinians are subject to ongoing oppression and violence, election-year pandering and blind obedience to the Israel lobby has become more obscene than ever.

*****

UPDATE:

March 22, 2015 - In his own grotesque AIPAC speech today, Ted Cruz reiterated his promise regarding moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.


"On my very first day in office," he declared, "I will begin the process of moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the once and eternal capital of Israel," using the AIPAC-approved epithets always used by fawning politicians to describe the historic city.
Nodding with acknowledgement of the fact that this vow is an repeated refrain for presidential hopefuls, Cruz sought to dispel any doubt that he would act on his illegal and immoral promise. "I recognize for years a whole bunch of presidential candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, have said that," he told the assembled Zionists. "Some have said that standing here today. Here's the difference: I will do it."

Thankfully, here's the thing: no, he won't.

*****

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Netanyahu's Zoomorphic Bigotry: A Retrospective

Benjamin Netanyahu pets his dog Kaia, a biter, at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem. (Credit: Facebook)

"Anyone who approaches the Zionist problem in a moral aspect is not a Zionist."
- Moshe Dayan, quoting David Ben-Gurion

Ha'aretz correspondent Barak Ravid reported yesterday:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a tour to the construction site of a barrier on the eastern border on Tuesday that he wishes to surround the country with fences and barriers "to defend ourselves against wild beasts" that surround Israel.
Dehumanization of one's real or perceived adversaries, often in the form of animalization, has long been a hallmark of propaganda. As Netanyahu reinforces Israel's garrison mentality, he continues building a literal fortress by extending the apartheid wall further around the Zionist state, promising more division, segregation, discrimination, and violence.

"For most human beings, it takes an awful lot to allow them to kill another human being," Anthony Pratkanis, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told ABC News back in 2003, as the United States was gearing up to invade Iraq. "The only way to do it is to justify the killing, to make the enemy look as evil as possible."

The report also quoted Hayward communications professor James Forsher, an expert on propaganda films. "The secret in propaganda is that when you demonize, you dehumanize," Forsher explained. "When you dehumanize, it allows you to kill your enemy and no longer feel guilty about it. That is why during World War II, a lot of caricatures became animals... You can kill a monkey a lot more easily than you can kill a neighbor."

Nazi dehumanization of Jews as "vermin" to be exterminated and American anti-Japanese caricatures of rats and snakes from the 1940s are especially grotesque, but the phenomenon was around long before that. Anti-Tsarist and, subsequently, anti-Soviet propaganda often employed the image of an octopus, spreading its imperial tentacles across the globe. During World War I, Germany was depicted as a crazed, club-wielding gorilla in a U.S. Army poster encouraging enlistment.

In their 1994 book, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam note that the common colonial/racist trope of "animalization" was "rooted in a religious and philosophical tradition which drew sharp boundaries between the animal and the human" and "renders the colonized as wild beasts... projected as body rather than mind."

Zionist colonists and Israeli officials have for years employed this type of rhetoric to dehumanize those they seek to forcibly displace, dispossess, disenfranchise, oppress, occupy and subjugate. The Zionist project is always presented as a bulwark of civilization against the savagery and barbarism of the brutish Eastern, Arab, African, and/or Muslim hordes; the settlement on the hill; the light amidst the darkness; the "villa in the jungle," as Ehud Barak once said.

"At the end, in the State of Israel, as I see it, there will be a fence that spans it all," Netanyahu fantasized yesterday. "I'll be told, 'this is what you want, to protect the villa?' The answer is yes. Will we surround all of the State of Israel with fences and barriers? The answer is yes. In the area that we live in, we must defend ourselves against the wild beasts."

The animalization of Palestinians, and other perceived enemies, in Israeli rhetoric goes back decades.

Dogs, Animals, Roaches, Grasshoppers and Worms

Shortly after Israel seized military control over the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan told officials in his center-left political party, Rafi, that unless Palestinians in the newly-occupied territories make "peace" with Israel, they "shall continue to live like dogs, and whoever wishes may leave, and we will see where this process leads."

On June 8, 1982, two days after Israel invaded Lebanon, Prime Minister Menachem Begin delivered remarks before the Knesset justifying the military assault as a defense of Jewish lives worldwide. Begin insisted that the widespread rallying cry of terrorists around the globe was that "there is no innocent Jew. Every Jew is doomed - he must be killed." In response, he declared, "This terror must be eradicated." Setting Jewish people apart from the rest of humanity, Begin said:
The fate of a million and half a million Jewish children has been different from all the children of the world throughout the generations. No more. We will defend our children. If the hand of any two-footed animal is raised against them, that hand will be cut off, and our children will grow up in joy in the homes of their parents.
In April 1983, outgoing Israeli Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan (who was losing his post due to his responsibility for the 1982 Sabra-Shatila Massacre) reportedly told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, "The Arabs will never win over us by throwing stones. Our response must be a nationalist Zionist response. For every stone that’'s thrown, we will build ten settlements. If 100 settlements will exist, and they will, between Nablus and Jerusalem, stones will not be thrown. If this will be the situation, then the Arabs will only be able to scurry around like drugged roaches in a bottle."

During the First Intifada, on March 31, 1988, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir told reporters at the ruins of an ancient Herodian fortress in the occupied West Bank, "Anybody who wants to damage this fortress and other fortresses we are establishing will have his head smashed against the boulders and walls," adding that Palestinians who resist the Israeli occupation "are like grasshoppers compared to us."

In late 2004, Yehiel Hazan, a Likud minister and leader of the biggest settler lobbying group, declared on the floor of the Knesset, "The Arabs are worms. You find them everywhere like worms, underground as well as above," adding, "Until we understand that we're doing business with a nation of assassins and terrorists who don't want us here, there will be no let up. These worms have not stopped attacking Jews for a century."

On June 30, 2012, Israeli lawmaker Ayelet Shaked of the religious nationalist Jewish Home party posted a Facebook message that identified "the entire Palestinian people is the enemy" and calling for the total elimination of Palestine, "including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure." The post, alleged written years ago by now-deceased settler leader Uri Elitzur, added that Palestinian mothers should be executed for giving birth to "little snakes," that is, Palestinian children. Less than a year later, Netanyahu appointed Shaked to be Israel's Minister of Justice.

Netanyahu, too, has a penchant for animal allusions when speaking about those he despises most, be they Palestinians, Iranians, or Muslims, in general.

Insatiable Crocodile

While a possibly apocryphal quote has then-Israel Prime Minister Ehud Barak saying in August 2000, "The Palestinians are like crocodiles, the more you give them meat, they want more," Netanyahu brought the reptilian analogy up to date when, during a typically verbose and combative speech before the UN General Assembly in September 2011, he said:
[Israel's] critics continue to press Israel to make far-reaching concessions without first assuring Israel's security. They praise those who unwittingly feed the insatiable crocodile of militant Islam as bold statesmen. They cast as enemies of peace those of us who insist that we must first erect a sturdy barrier to keep the crocodile out, or at the very least jam an iron bar between its gaping jaws.
Netanyahu probably didn't realize he was channeling his fellow apartheid champion, P.W. Botha, who led South Africa from 1978 to 1989, and is credited with complaining that "the free world wants to feed South Africa to the red crocodile [Communism], to appease its hunger." Botha, incidentally, was widely known by the Afrikaans nickname Die Groot Krokodil, or "The Big Crocodile."

Nuclear Duck

The following March, in one of his most tedious diatribes about the non-existent threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, Netanyahu told attendees at AIPAC's annual conference that Iran's fully safeguarded uranium enrichment facilities and medical research reactor were actually a cover for a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Ladies and Gentlemen, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then what is it? That's right, it's a duck – but this duck is a nuclear duck. And it's time the world started calling a duck a duck.
Quack.

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Appearing on Face The Nation on July 14, 2013, Netanyahu decried Iranian president-elect Hassan Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing," whose devious Persian strategy is to "smile and build a bomb." He repeated this description to a group of U.S. lawmakers the following month.

On October 1, 2013, Netanyahu returned to the UN General Assembly and accused Rouhani of being a "wolf in sheep's clothing."

"Rouhani doesn't sound like Ahmadinejad," Netanyahu wailed. "But when it comes to Iran's nuclear weapons program, the only difference between them is this: Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf's clothing. Rouhani is a wolf in sheep's clothing, a wolf who thinks he can pull the eyes -- the wool over the eyes of the international community."

Fittingly, Netanyahu's faithful lapdog, Yuval Steinitz, also took to the media in July and September that year to describe Rouhani the same way.

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Updated 02.11.16 to include references to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing," which I inexplicably omitted in my original post. Thanks to @PersianSteel for bringing this to my attention.

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UPDATE:

February 16, 2016 - Israel-based journalist David Sheen, who has cataloged and reported extensively on Israel's treatment of African immigrants and refugees, posted this on Twitter yesterday:
The image was obtained by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev student Moran Mekamel.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Andrea Mitchell Said British Sailors Were Held by Iran in 2007 for 'Months and Months.' That's Not True.


Appearing tonight on MSNBC in advance of Barack Obama's final State of the Union address, foreign correspondent Andrea Mitchell spoke to Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews about Iran's seizure of two U.S. Navy riverine gunboats (and 10 crew members) that had entered Iranian territorial waters on their way from Bahrain to Kuwait - perhaps accidentally, perhaps due to a mechanical malfunction or engine failure, perhaps not.

The timing of this event "could not be worse," Mitchell explained, noting that Obama was poised to laud the success of the multilateral nuclear deal negotiated and signed last year by Iran, the United States and five other world powers. Important terms of the deal - such as the lifting of international sanctions on Iran - are set to go into effect just a few days from now. As it turned out, Obama's speech was not rewritten to specifically address the naval issue.

Beyond discussing the political implications of this situation for Obama, and his Republican critics, Mitchell provided a little context for MSNBC viewers about a previous scenario involving foreign troops held by Iran for violating its borders:
"The backdrop here is that years ago, 2007, British sailors were taken, they were not released for months and months."
While the term "taken" is a highly suggestive one considering Iranian allegations that British navy vessels had entered Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf, Mitchell was referring to the March 23, 2007 incident when 15 members of the Royal Navy - eight sailors, seven marines - were taken in Iranian custody and subsequently transferred to a detention center in Tehran.

'Months and months'

Yes, similarities between the 2007 incident and today's are obvious. Immediate and incessant were the claims that Iran was engaged in outrageous, aggressive behavior, with the British sailors and marines, dubbed "hostages," said to have been "kidnapped" and "abducted." Such outrage, regardless of knowing the full facts of the situation, has once again been on display after news broke about today's incident (as if an Iranian patrol boat entering American territorial waters wouldn't be instantly either detained or attacked by the U.S. Coast Guard).

But it is not true that the British personnel, as Mitchell said, "were not released for months and months."

In fact, harrowing as their ordeal may have been, they were held in Iran for less than two weeks: from March 23 to April 4, 2007. That's a far cry from "months and months," yet nobody felt the need to fact-check the veteran reporter.

'A bit like a camping trip'

In another incident from late 2009, five British nationals were traversing the Persian Gulf from Bahrain to Dubai in a 60-foot yacht in order to take part in an international boat race to Muscat when their propeller broke and they drifted into Iranian territory. They were picked up by an Iranian Navy patrol and held at a naval base on Sirri island for about a week before being released.

At a press conference in Dubai afterwards, one of the sailors said their Iranian guards had been "excellent hosts" and that "the crew passed the time playing chess and darts and trying to keep each other's spirits up."

"For the first few days the door was locked all the time, then gradually it was left open more often, till one evening one of the guards asked if we wanted to sit out on the patio and watch a football match on TV," he said said. "We were brought three meals a day, crisps and snacks. We always had a bowl of fresh fruit. If anything, we may be a bit overweight because they were feeding us so much. They discovered one of us liked Iran tea, so it arrived by the flask."

"It was a bit like a camping trip, actually. It wasn't bad at all," he added.

'Our sailors are safe'

Reuters is reporting that both American and Iranian officials have affirmed the detained U.S. sailors are "safe and well-treated." White House spokesman Josh Earnest told the press, "We have received assurances from the Iranians that our sailors are safe and that they will be allowed to continue their journey promptly."

Hopefully the current incident will be resolved quickly, especially due to the recently renewed direct channels of communication between senior diplomats of both nations.

In the meantime, however, getting the facts straight and keeping hysteria at bay is important. Chances are this will all be over soon.

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You can watch the segment here:


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UPDATE:

January 13, 2016 - The American sailors have already been released. Yet hysteria about Iranian aggression and lazy, knee-jerk comparisons to hostage-taking are already ubiquitous.


This morning, Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept points out how "the U.S. media instantly converted the invasion of Iranian waters by U.S. ships into an act of aggression by Iran" because of "the permanent narrative that any countries adverse to the U.S. are inherently evil and aggressive."

He concludes:
But the media reaction last night is also explained by the fact that their self-assigned role in life is to instantly defend their government and demonize any governments that defy it. Even when the White House was saying it did not yet regard the Iranian conduct as an act of aggression, American journalists were insisting that it was. The U.S. does not officially have state TV; it has something much better and more effective: journalists who are nominally independent, legally free to say what they want, and voluntarily even more nationalistic and jingoistic and government-defending than U.S. government spokespeople themselves.
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UPDATE II:

January 15, 2015 - It turns out the Navy boats didn't suffer mechanical problems, but rather - the U.S. government tells us - "made a navigational error that mistakenly took them into Iranian territorial waters." Reasons why this may have happened are apparently being spit-balled: "A sailor may have punched the wrong coordinates into the GPS and they wound up off course. Or the crew members may have taken a shortcut into Iranian waters as they headed for the refueling ship, officials said," according to a report in The Los Angeles Times.

Glenn Greenwald, who previously noted the media's uncritical parroting of official claims when news of this incident first broke on Tuesday, reminds us that "no matter how many times the U.S. government issues patently false statements about its military actions, those statements are entitled to unquestioning, uncritical treatment as Truth the next time a similar incident occurs."

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Consistency of Official Iranian Commentary:
What 'Death to America' Means Is Obvious

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Photo Credit: Bloomberg)

In a meeting with students this week, Iranian leader Ali Khamenei addressed the meaning of the phrase "Death to America," which gained popularity as a revolutionary slogan over three and a half decades ago in defiance of the U.S.-backed Shah.

"Obviously by 'Death to America', we don't mean death to the American people," Khamenei said. "The American nation is just like the rest of the nations." Rather, he explained, the phrase "means death to the United States' policies, death to arrogance."

Condemning American imperialism in the Middle East and the thirty-five year emphasis on promoting regime change in Iran, Khamenei said, "The truth is that the United States' objectives regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran have not changed at all. And they would not spare a moment if they could destroy the Islamic Republic; but they can't."
That the ubiquitous chant "Death to America" is not a murderous threat (or aspiration) directed at individuals, but rather at the policies and actions of the U.S. government, should be obvious. Nevertheless, many mainstream media reports seemed astounded by Khamenei's explanation, as if this revelation was brand new and signaled a shift from past statements from Iranian officials.

CNN's Don Melvin, for instance, was baffled by Khamenei's explanation, calling it "new" and "convoluted." Melvin was convinced that the Iranian leader was futilely attempting to "redefine the meaning of the slogan."

The Moon of Alabama blog breaks down this phenomenon perfectly:
A typical part of propaganda campaigns is to claim that the "villain" has very recently changed his political positions. Then follows "analysis" which interprets the "change" as a sure sign that the villain is under pressure and on the verge of loosing the fight. Often such claims are completely unfounded as the villain only repeated a long standing position. They are only made to repeat, repeat, repeat ... that the villain is or was up to something bad.
But the actual - and again, obvious - meaning of the phrase has been pointed out numerous times, both in recent memory and beyond.

In an interview with CBS in September, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was perfectly clear about what "Death to America" means:
This slogan that is chanted is not a slogan against the American people. Our people respect the American people. The Iranian people are not looking for war with any country, but at the same time the policies of the United States have been against the national interests of Iranian people. It's understandable that people will demonstrate sensitivity to this issue. When the people rose up against the Shah, the U.S. aggressively supported the Shah until the last moments. In the eight year war with Iraq, the Americans supported Saddam. People will not forget these things. We cannot forget the past, but at the same time, our gaze must be towards the future.
A month earlier, in August, journalist Reese Erlich reported for the Global Post (and syndicated by USA Today) how Iranians have always understood the slogan's meaning:
"Death to America" expresses the anger many Iranians feel about U.S. policy toward Iran, said Foad Izadi, an assistant professor of world studies at the University of Tehran. Iranians remember that the U.S. overthrew the legitimate government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and supported the dictatorial Shah who followed.
The slogan "means death to American foreign policy," said Izadi. Iranians "have problems with the American government, not the American people." In fact, he said, Iranians are friendly to Americans. "When you walk around town, and people see you're an American, everyone wants to take care of you."
In July, it was more of the same. Speaking with The New Yorker's Robin Wright, Rouhani's chief of staff Mohammad Nahavandian noted:
If you go and ask anyone who uses that slogan... what he is against, it is interference in Iran's policies by overthrowing a nationally elected prime minister at the time of Mossadegh. For them, what they are against is the kind of government who shoots an airplane full of innocent passengers. For them, it's not the people of America, per se. For them, they are opposed to that sort of policy, that sort of attitude, that sort of arrogance. It's not a nation. It's a system of behavior.
On January 26, 2014, CNN's Fareed Zakaria aired an interview with Rouhani, during which Rouhani said, "Well, the people, when they say 'Death to America,' do you know what they are really saying? What they mean to say relates to the aggressive policies of the U.S. and intervention and meddling by the U.S. We don't want those to continue. We want people to decide for themselves."

But this definition is not only the position of the current administration. Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one of the West's favorite bogeymen, was equally clear about what the phrase means.

In a February 12, 2007 interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer, Ahmadinejad said this:
When you heard death to America slogans, I think you know it yourself, it is not related in any way to American public. Our people have no problem with American public and we have a very friendly relationship and this friendship is so great, that I wrote a letter to the American government, the aviation sector of our country and we wanted to establish direct flights from Tehran to New York and we want to have free travel of citizens.
We do not have any problems with the people and right now, for example, we have our scientists and a sportsman traveling to the U.S. The "Death to America" chant you have heard, they go back to some of the policies of Americans, American politicians in Iran. People still remember the support of American politicians for some murders. For example, Saddam, who was hanged, and eight years of war to us, and the current American administration. The current incumbent [vice] president provided support. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian youth were killed and the U.S. administration, instead of doing what was right and supporting Saddam... People are now wishing death for these policies.
Statements by Iranian officials about the "Death to America" slogan have been consistent for a long time. It's about time the press started paying attention and not act so surprised when it inevitably happens again.

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To read about other examples of consistent Iranian commentary that has shocked our lazy press, click below:

Part I: Are Rouhani's Statements About the Holocaust Really a Huge Break from the Past?
Part II: Are Rouhani's Statements About Palestine Really a Huge Break from the Past?
Part III: On Khamenei's Referendum Rhetoric, Reuters is Wrong
Part IV: Javad Zarif and the Detrimental Perception of Nuclear Intentions

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