Monday, January 23, 2017

Coup, Illustrated: Iran, Oil, and the CIA Overthrow of 1953

A panel from Operation Ajax: The Story of the CIA Coup That Remade the Middle East
(Verso Books)

In the sweltering late summer heat of 1953, a fifteen-year-old boy who would, a few decades and thousands of miles later, become my father, walked to his older brother’s shop near the center of Tehran, Iran. The streets of the densely-populated capital city were eerily empty. It was a Wednesday.

As he reached the edge of Baharestan Square, facing Iran’s majestic parliament building, and moved to cross the wide boulevard then called Cyrus Street, a convoy of trucks nearly ran him over. Dozens of scantily-clad young women, fists pumping in the air, filled the open cargo areas. In unison, they chanted support for the nation’s king, who had recently fled to Rome.

Three days earlier, a plot to remove the elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, by dubious royal decree had failed spectacularly. But now, new payouts had been made, mobs assembled and deployed, chaos and confusion successfully sowed.

It was August 19th, or 28 Mordad on the Persian calendar. This was the final, desperate phase of Operation Ajax. Iran’s nascent democratic movement wouldn’t last the night.

In most international espionage thrillers, you’re expected to root for the spies. Their clandestine meetings, coded messages, secret plans and covert actions are presented as ingenious and courageous; their dirty deeds are justified for the greater good; their bloodied hands a reminder of what it really takes for patriots to resist tyranny, exact extrajudicial justice, and safeguard democracy and freedom. The spies in the shadows are depicted as our secret saviors, our hidden heroes. They’re drawn in our cultural narratives and national mythologies as the sexy, suave, and surreptitious agents of positive change.

The reality, of course, is quite different. Not only is truth often stranger than fiction, but when it comes to the cloak-and-dagger tales of U.S. foreign policy and spy games, it’s also far uglier, messier, and infinitely more illegal and imperial.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the U.S.- and British-backed coup d’etat that overthrew Mossadegh in 1953. Considered by many the first successful CIA-led regime change operation and Cold War victory against the advance of Communism in the resource-rich Middle East, the coup toppled an embattled popular democratic movement in Iran, disemboweled constitutionalism and entrenched the absolute monarchy of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Operation Ajax: The Story of the CIA Coup That Remade the Middle East, a graphic novel by author Mike De Seve and artist Daniel Burwen, seeks to illustrate this little-known and oft-forgotten history in highly cinematic fashion. Lines are sharp, shadows dark and stark. Colors are inked in high-contrast, while the panel perspectives are often off-kilter and skewed in Dutch angles, reminiscent not only of legendary cinematographers like Gregg Toland, Robert Burks, and Robert Krasker, but also the violent mid-1980s comic illustration of Marvel’s Mike Zeck and DC’s Dave Gibbons.

The artwork is stylized without being overwrought; accessible and attractive, yet efficient and evocative. Scenery is rendered more strikingly than the huge cast of characters themselves. Cigar smoke wafts off the pages as thickly as the omnipresent dread that lingers in the air and the cynical depravity of officials and operatives at the highest levels of the ascendant American government, the waning British Empire and the unstable Persian monarchy. Sly glances and sideways sneers signal the devious plots to back despotism over democracy, hatched everywhere from the corridors of Whitehall and the White House to the back rooms of Foggy Bottom bars and Tehran safe houses.

A CIA Coup in Graphic Form

Published by Verso Books in 2015, Operation Ajax includes an introduction and epilogue by journalist Stephen Kinzer, and is based on his book, All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, a popular history of the 1953 coup. The nearly 250-page paperback is the physical companion to the award-winning interactive iPad app of the same name, released by Cognito Comics to great acclaim in 2011.

Indeed, the backdrop to the Iranian coup was made for a film noir storyboard.

In 1908, two years after Iran’s first ever Constitutional Revolution, English contractor William D’Arcy struck oil under the Khuzestan sand in Western Iran. It was the first time the Middle East’s rich fuel reserves had been tapped and it changed history. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was soon founded and a pipeline laid to a new refinery at the strategic port city of Abadan on the Persian Gulf.

British corporations soon established near-monopolistic control over Persian petroleum. Iranian oil fueled the machinery of the vast British Empire, upon which the sun never set, driving its military and industrial power farther and farther. Shortly before World War I, Great Britain’s Royal Navy was modernized at the behest of and through the business dealings of then-First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and running on Iranian oil instead of UK coal.

Iranian deference to British interests was extreme. The Iranian government lacked control over its nation’s own oil industry, receiving a mere 16% of net profit from British petroleum companies. Over time, popular opposition to this exploitation grew, and the ever-entitled colonial power fought back. At one point, after being voted out of parliament, Churchill himself was even hired as a lobbyist by British oil companies to press their Middle Eastern interests to the UK government. He was successful: in 1923, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was granted exclusive rights to Iranian oil resources.

By 1925, Iran had a new king – Reza Shah Pahlavi, former commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade. Oil concession and royalty terms were renegotiated, giving Iran 25% of British proceeds. Reza Shah, however, proved increasingly disloyal to Western interests during World War II, when he sought more resource revenue by triangulating between the Allied and Axis powers. The British (and Russians) responded by invading and occupying Iran, forcing his abdication in 1941 and replacing him with his more pliant son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The move paid off in spades. By the end of the decade, the British were reaping at least $100 million a year from Iranian oil – more than what Iran had recouped in total over the past half-century.

The new Shah was the perfect puppet, but ill-equipped to deal with the rising tide of anti-colonialism, nationalism, and democratization in Iran, led by the charismatic – and at times, melodramatic – parliamentarian Mohammad Mossadegh. When Mossadegh was popularly elected by his fellow representatives (and begrudgingly appointed by Pahlavi) as Iran’s new prime minister in 1951, the young Shah and his Western backers realized they were in trouble.

Under Mossadegh’s leadership, the power of the monarch was minimized, natural resources secured, and democratic reforms implemented. In an act of brazen defiance to imperial interests, the Iranian parliament voted to nationalize the now-renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, after the British refused to renegotiate terms to ensure an equitable share of profits that would benefit the Iranian people.

Incredulous at the affront, the British froze Iranian assets and imposed crippling sanctions, banning all trade. The Royal Navy blockaded Iranian ports, threatening outright war if British control over Iranian oil was not restored. London even took its case against AIOC’s nationalization to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. This backfired, with the court finding in Iran’s favor. Meanwhile, English pleas for American support fell on deaf ears, as President Harry Truman refused to participate in crushing the fledgling democratic movement in Iran.

The Coup and Its Aftermath

Then, almost in the blink of an eye, things changed, putting Iran’s burgeoning independence from imperial influence in the crosshairs of one of the world’s emerging superpowers. The early 1950s saw the rise of McCarthyism and the revitalization of the right-wing in both the United States and United Kingdom. Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president, Churchill was again prime minister, and the Cold War was heating up, thanks in large part to Eisenhower’s appointment of a rabidly anti-Communist duo: John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and his brother Allen as head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

President Eisenhower and the Dulles Brothers (Verso Books)

Together with the British government, the Dulles boys manufactured the notion that the populist Mossadegh government constituted an imminent Soviet threat that required immediate action. CIA operatives Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of celebrated adventurer and American president Theodore) and Don Wilbur, with approval from Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon, covertly engineered a coup d’etat to oust Mossadegh, preserve the Shah’s authority, and protect Western interests. They bribed army commanders and police captains, planted anti-Mossadegh propaganda in the press and pulpit, and paid prostitutes and pimps by the truckload to shout pro-Shah messages. CIA agents and street gangs pretending to be Communists threatened Muslim clerics, bombed private homes, and rampaged through the city. The mission was codenamed TPAJAX, or Operation Ajax.

Navigating numerous setbacks and surprises, Kermit Roosevelt guided the operation to success in the eleventh hour. Mossadegh was imprisoned and eventually sentenced to lifelong house arrest. The Shah was re-installed as an absolute monarch, backed by the United States and its arms industry. American oil companies – along with French fuel giant CFP (later renamed Total), Royal Dutch Shell and, of course, the AIOC itself (renamed British Petroleum in 1954 and now known simply as BP) – claimed massive shares of Iranian oil.

The graphic novel Operation Ajax covers all this history and more, framed as the regretful, disillusioned recollections of a now-retired CIA spook haunted by his participation in the coup that changed the course of history in so many ways.

The consequences of the coup are legion. Armed with the lessons learned from the coup, the CIA spread its regime change agenda across countless other countries that dared defy American interests and geopolitical strategy, from Guatemala to Laos, Indonesia to Haiti, in the decades that followed.

By 1957, with the help of American and Israeli intelligence agencies, the Shah had established the SAVAK, a secret police force dedicated to brutal suppression of any and all dissent or opposition to his tyrannical reign.

In his Afterword to Operation Ajax, Stephen Kinzer reiterates the main thrust of All The Shah’s Men. As he wrote, after twenty-five years of dictatorship, “the Shah’s increasingly repressive rule ultimately set off the explosive revolution of 1979, which brought to power a militantly anti-Western clique of mullahs.” The coup also laid the groundwork for, among other things, the United States’ support for Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war against Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iranian hostage crisis. Kinzer explained:
Years afterward, hostage-takers wrote memoirs explaining why they had stormed the US embassy in 1979. It was all about 1953, they explained. In 1953 Iranians had forced the Shah to flee, but CIA officers working in the embassy staged Operation Ajax to bring him back. A quarter-century later, the same Shah had been forced to flee again, and had been received in the United States. Militants overran the embassy not out of nihilism, but to prevent a repeat of Operation Ajax. Westerners didn’t realize this because we had no idea Operation Ajax had ever happened.

Setting the Record Straight on American Complicity

Despite the tireless (and tedious) efforts of agenda-driven, anti-Iran commentators to rewrite history, there is no question of ultimate responsibility when it comes to the Iranian coup. Reflecting on this episode, Eisenhower noted in his personal journal, “Throughout the crisis the United States government had done everything it possibly could to back up the Shah. Indeed, reports from observers on the spot in Teheran during the critical days sounded more like a dime novel than historical fact.” The president added that upon “the Shah’s triumphant return, I cabled him,” to extend “congratulations.”

“The military coup that overthrew Mosaddeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government,” according to the internal CIA history of the operation, entitled The Battle for Iran, written in the mid-1970s. Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA point man who orchestrated the coup, published a memoir about the operation in 1979.

Despite being one of the worst-kept secrets in the history of covert operations, the full story has yet to be revealed, despite episodic British and U.S. government declassifications of critical documents.

Malcolm Byrne of The George Washington University’s National Security Archive, a nongovernmental transparency project, has reiterated that the State Department is still “declining to publish the relevant volume [regarding the coup] in its venerable series, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), the ‘official documentary historical record’ of U.S. foreign policy.”

“There is no longer good reason to keep secrets about such a critical episode in our recent past. The basic facts are widely known to every school child in Iran,” Byrne has pointed out. “Suppressing the details only distorts the history, and feeds into myth-making on all sides.”

Nevertheless, based as it is on available open-source evidence, Operation Ajax is a welcome corrective to the mainstream’s ubiquitous ignorance of U.S.-Iranian history, “a blow against that historical amnesia,” as Kinzer has called it.

Dichotomies and Drawbacks

Though colorfully drawn, the story is fairly black and white. It is a veritable hagiography for Mossadegh, who is presented as a nearly superhuman anti-imperial hero. His habit of holding court in pajamas, along with his infamous fits and faints, add flavor to his character. But the graphic novel never depicts Mossadegh as anything but noble and righteous. His opponents, on the other hand, are painted as invariably vainglorious and villainous, and perhaps rightly so. The dichotomy is stark. It’s clear whose side the authors are on. This isn’t necessarily a drawback, however, as it is indeed refreshing and rare to see American and British statesmen and spies so harshly rendered.

Despite this admirable effort to fill gaps in the historical record and illuminate the truth, throughout the book, there is a frustrating crisis of credibility and, perhaps even authority, due to a number of seemingly small, but intellectually egregious, errors.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran – the antagonist of the story, the puppet of Western powers and private interests, the preening playboy, the foil to Mossadegh’s principled pathos and passion – is referred to in the dramatis personae and throughout the book as “Reza Pahlavi.” This is no minor copy-editing oversight; this confuses the Shah with his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who is referred to in Operation Ajax only as “Reza Khan.”

Here’s the problem: Khan is not an Iranian surname and it surely wasn’t Reza’s. Rather, it was an honorific often associated with military rank, akin in English to the title “Sir.” In fact, Iranians had no surnames until 1919, when the acquisition of a last name was mandated by the government. (That’s why so many Iranian surnames reflect piety – like Mohammadi – or places of origin – Tehrani, Esfahani, Shirazi, Khomeini.)

When Reza ascended to the throne after leading a military coup that overthrew the 140-year-old Qajar dynasty in 1925, he took the title Shah and aristocratic surname Pahlavi, thus ridding himself of the pedestrian trappings of his lower-class background. So intent was Reza Shah on reinventing himself that, during his reign as monarch, anyone overheard referring to him as “Reza Khan” risked being beaten, arrested, or worse. Indeed, “Khan” was used by his critics (namely the religious working-class ignored by his modernization schemes and disgusted by the rampant corruption), as a derisive epithet along with the dismissive taunt “stable boy.”

Referring to Reza Shah Pahlavi as “Reza Khan” and Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi as “Reza Shah” is not merely sloppy (like the book’s misspelling of Mohammad with a very un-Persian “e”), it unfortunately demonstrates a certain lack of mastery of the material and familiarity with its subjects. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the comic-style storyboard intro to the Oscar-winning film Argo made the same mistake.)

Beyond this, Operation Ajax suffers most when it tries to do too much. The scope of history it recounts is wide, the cast extensive, and the web of context, accomplices, interests, intrigue, and entanglements is unwieldy. While most characters are readily recognizable from chapter to chapter, others are not as deftly drawn – in ink or personality – and mixing them up and losing the thread becomes frustratingly easy to do.

In a way, publishing Operation Ajax in print is a step backwards, as much is lost in translation from the tablet to the coffee table. A triumph of interactive technology, the original 2011 iPad application was beautiful and haunting, rich with meticulous detail drawn not only from Kinzer’s book, but also backed-up by original source material, historical newsreels, period photography, character dossiers, and declassified documents, all readily accessible with the flick of a finger. Sound effects, music, and animation enhanced the storytelling experience, helping history come alive as something not only annotated, but immersive, astonishing and calamitous. On paper, unfortunately, the tale appears confined to the annals of foreign policy, as a historical comic rather than a historic tragedy.

Learning from History

Correcting the historical record, in order to learn from the past and make informed decisions for the future, is more necessary now than ever before. False narratives continue to permeate our politics, while the willfully ignorant and viciously ideological wield more and more power. Bluster and bullying reign; reductive and regressive reactionaries envision and enact reckless policies that will reverberate for generations to come.

And history, even if it doesn’t precisely repeat, still rhymes. Take, for instance, the dangers posed by the new American administration. Mike Pompeo, who is positioned to become CIA director, is a far-right, Islamophobic religious fanatic who opposes any diplomacy with Iran and favors overthrowing the country’s government. As reported by the Huffington Post, this past summer, Pompeo demanded that “Congress must act to change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.” The new national security adviser, General Mike Flynn, is an anti-Iran ideologue who actually told a House subcommittee in 2015 that he supported regime change in Iran because “we, the United States of America, must comprehend that evil doesn’t recognize diplomacy.” Other administration advisers, like John Bolton, have been calling for regime change for decades, encouraging airstrikes and supporting exiled terrorist groups.

On his very first full day in office, Trump addressed three hundred CIA employees at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.”There is nobody who feels stronger about the intelligence community and the CIA than Donald Trump,” he told the crowd, adding, “I am so behind you. I am with you one thousand percent.” Opining on the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, Trump lamented the missed opportunity for imperial plunder. “To the victor belong the spoils,” he declared. “We should have kept the oil.”

“Maybe,” he said, “we’ll have another chance,” suggesting that a re-invasion and full scale theft of Middle Eastern natural resources might yet be on the table.

Trump concluded his remarks by telling the CIA, “I love you. I respect you. We’re going to start winning again, and you’re going to be leading the charge.”

The history and repercussions of the 1953 coup persist today. If the release of Operation Ajax as a print comic will expose a wider audience to this little known but seminal episode, that’s certainly a good thing. Of course, the book probably won’t grace the president’s gilded bedside table any time soon. With Barack Obama out of the Oval Office, U.S.-Iran relations are likely to become fraught again, and whatever minute progress made over the past few years will surely dissipate. And perhaps that is what makes this graphic novel even more important now. It is vital not only to admit the mistakes of our past, as Malcolm Byrne suggests in Politico, “on the basis of historical fact rather than self-serving partisan invention,” but also to correct them. Operation Ajax is a step in the right direction, even if the strokes with which it’s drawn are, at times, a bit too broad.


Originally posted at Muftah.


Thursday, October 6, 2016

Kaine, Pence and Their VP Debate Fact-Checkers Are All Wrong on Iran

(David Goldman / AP Photo)

If anything was made clear during the Vice Presidential debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence it's that neither man knows much about the Iranian nuclear program. And neither do the fact-checkers tasked with judging the candidates' own statements about it.

During the course of 90 excruciating minutes, Tim Kaine accused Iran of "racing toward a nuclear weapon" and repeatedly boasted that his running mate Hillary Clinton was responsible for "stopping" that "nuclear weapons program without firing a shot." Meanwhile, Donald Trump's veep pick Mike Pence kept insisting that the Iran deal, signed by six world powers and Iran in July 2015, effectively guaranteed that "Iran will someday become a nuclear power because there's no limitations once the period of time of the treaty comes off."

None of these claims is even remotely true.

Obviously, claims put forth by both Kaine and Pence rest on a wholly false presumption: that Iran is/was desperately trying to acquire nuclear weapons and has/had an active "nuclear weapons program" to achieve that goal.

As I have written endlessly:
International intelligence assessments have consistently affirmed that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. What Iran does have, however, is a nuclear energy program with uranium enrichment facilities, all of which are under international safeguards, strictly monitored and routinely inspected by the IAEA. No move to divert nuclear material to military or weaponization purposes has ever been detected. This is consistently affirmed by U.S., British, Russian, and even Israeli intelligence, as well as the IAEA. In fact, the IAEA itself has said there is "no concrete proof" Iran's nuclear program "has ever had" a military component.
Eventually, due to the distinct and consistent lack of evidence for any nuclear weapons program, the United States echo chamber sidelined accusations of an active militarization program in favor of the round-about, jargon-laden claim that Iran was "intending to obtain the capability" to make nukes, rather than actually trying to make nukes. This, conveniently, put Iran in the position of having to prove a negative, despite being under the strictest IAEA inspection regime in history and providing access to its facilities above and beyond what was required by law.

The rhetorical bait-and-switch was plain for all to see when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta admitted in 2012, "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No." For good propagandistic measure, however, he added, "But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability, and that's what concerns us."

Around the same time, an unnamed U.S. intelligence official told the Washington Post that no decision had even been made in Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, explaining, "Our belief is that they are reserving judgment on whether to continue with key steps they haven't taken regarding nuclear weapons."

Early the following year, Panetta begrudgingly reaffirmed this assessment on Meet The Press. "What I've said, and I will say today," Panetta told Chuck Todd, "is that the intelligence we have is they have not made the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon. They're developing and enriching uranium. They continue to do that." He added, "I think-- I think the-- it's a clear indication they say they're doing it in order to develop their own energy source." The NPT guarantees signatory states the right to enrich uranium for nuclear energy production. There is nothing illegal or sinister about this and Iran has operated its enrichment program openly and under IAEA safeguards.

Panetta, in response to Todd's repeated goading, eventually disputed the entire premise so often repeated by politicians and pundits: "I can't tell you they're in fact pursuing a weapon because that's not what intelligence says we-- we-- we're-- they’re doing right now," he said.

U.S. intelligence assessments have consistently affirmed this. In 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Congressional committee, "We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons." This finding has been repeated year in and year out.

Even the final report on outstanding allegations made by the United States and Israeli governments by the IAEA, released last December, was sensationalized to the point of absurdity. At most, the agency found, the "Possible Military Dimensions" of its nuclear energy program or the "Alleged Studies" that Iran had long been accused of conducting turned out to be merely "feasibility and scientific studies"(of nuclear and non-nuclear technology that has proven civilian uses), not active procedures or policies directed at making atomic bombs.

Moreover, and more importantly, this supposed research involved absolutely no diversion of nuclear material for non-peaceful uses, and therefore were not violations of either Iran's commitments under its safeguards agreement with the IAEA or a breach of the NPT itself.

By actually assessing the facts, it is beyond clear that, despite decades of alarmism, hype and hysteria, Iran never violated the NPT, and there has never been any evidence of the existence of an "Iranian nuclear weapons program."

Beyond this, Tim Kaine's claims that Hillary Clinton was the driving force behind diplomacy with Iran are absurd. Quite the contrary, the breakthrough for talks - that is, the Obama administration deciding to drop the "zero enrichment" demand that had soured diplomatic efforts since 2005 - occurred despite Clinton's insistence that Iran be denied their inalienable nuclear rights. This shift in policy was due primarily to the efforts of John Kerry, both as Senate Foreign Relations Chair during Obama's first term and then as Secretary of State after Clinton left the office. 

But Kaine wasn't alone in his mistakes. Even fact-checkers didn't get their facts straight.

For instance, in response to Kaine's claim that Clinton "worked a tough negotiation with nations around the world to eliminate the Iranian nuclear weapons program without firing a shot," PBS National Security Correspondent Mary Louise Kelly wrote this:
The deal slowed but does not eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons program. Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium enriched uranium, to dramatically cut its stockpile of low enriched uranium, and to allow international inspectors to visit nuclear facilities — in exchange for relief from sanctions.
Again, Iran didn't have a nuclear weapons program for anyone to eliminate. Furthermore, there is no such thing as "medium enriched uranium," according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. There's only low and high - Iran has never, ever, enriched uranium close to weapons-grade levels. Also misleading is Kelly's assertion that the deal allowed "international inspectors to visit nuclear facilities," considering that IAEA inspectors already had access to Iran's nuclear infrastructure long before the deal was struck.

Other fact-checkers - from ABC to the New York Times - were similarly wrong on the facts, as noted by longtime Iran watcher Ali Gharib:
Hillary Clinton didn't help to eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program because the talks weren't about eliminating Iran's nuclear weapons program because Iran didn't have a nuclear weapons program at that time to eliminate. Kaine, therefore, did exaggerate Clinton's role: he credited her with participating in talks that didn't actually do what he said they did.
Pence's insistence that the Iran deal failed at its primary mission was also wholly false. "The goal was always that we would only lift the sanctions if Iran permanently renounced their nuclear [ambitions]," said Pence, adding, "They have not renounced their nuclear ambitions. When the deal's period runs out, there is no limitation on them obtaining weapons."

Everything about this is wrong. Iran has publicly, repeatedly and consistently renounced any and all interest in acquiring nuclear weapons on legal, strategic and moral grounds for literally decades. Therefore, the phrase "their nuclear ambitions," which Pence uses as a dog whistle for "pursuit of nuclear weapons," doesn't mean what Pence thinks it does.

As Gharib has also pointed out, Iran's commitment not to obtain nukes goes well beyond the stipulations of the Iran deal. Even after the terms expire (and some of the most important ones never do), "having a nuclear weapons program will still be prohibited not only by Iran's signature to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but also by express promises the country made as part of the nuclear deal itself. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran deal's formal name) says, 'Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.' It's plain as day, right there in the first paragraph. And there's no sunset clause on that pledge; it stays in force forever."

The facts are plain, and are essential when discussing issues like this. But when it comes to Iran and American politics, there is no depth to which the propaganda won't sink, with fact-checkers being dragged down with it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

More Misleading Reporting on the Iran Deal and 'Heavy Water'

It's not hard to learn what heavy water is, folks. Just look it up.

Nuclear technology is complicated. Explaining the minutiae of enrichment levels, dual-use material, and the legal frameworks of international law and supervision is hard to do. So is good journalism. Deadlines, reader accessibility and editorial demands put a lot of pressure on reporters who cover a range of topics to use shorthand and shirk details.

The combination of the two, therefore, can be deadly. Reporters covering the Iranian nuclear program and, namely, the terms of the multilateral nuclear deal - known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - signed by Iran and six world powers a year ago don't have it easy.

But that's still no excuse for getting basic facts wrong. Errors and misrepresentations, especially in media coverage, have a tremendously negative impact on the public's ability to know the truth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in reporting about the Iranian nuclear issue, where news and commentary outlets routinely publish egregiously incorrect information without fact-checking or correction.

These mistakes are endemic and bipartisan; supporters of diplomacy with Iran get things wrong almost as often as those avidly pushing for more sanctions and regime change. This is why, for instance, the false narrative that the deal "stopped" Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is so common among deal boosters, despite the fact that Iran was not weaponizing its nuclear energy program in the first place (and therefore there was no "weapon" or "weapons program" to "stop").

A 2013 University of Maryland study found that when media "coverage did address Iranian nuclear intentions and capabilities, it did so in a manner that lacked precision, was inconsistent over time, and failed to provide adequate sourcing and context for claims."

Sadly, with the Iran deal now a year old, nothing much has changed.

In a July 12 Foreign Policy dispatch on a failed Republican scheme to pass new sanctions on Iran before the summer recess, senior reporter John Hudson mentioned an effort to ban the United States from purchasing heavy water from Iran.

In an apparent effort to explain an unfamiliar term to his readers, Hudson describes "heavy water" as "a byproduct from the production of nuclear energy." This is incorrect.

Heavy water is actually just a denser form of normal water, containing a hydrogen isotope called deuterium, which acts as both a moderator and coolant in the nuclear fuel process. It is not fissile material. It poses absolutely no danger and has no military capabilities. It can not make bombs, nor is it a necessary component of the bomb-making process. Heavy water can literally be consumed just a regular H20, although that would be a particularly pricey way to quench one's thirst.

Because heavy water is so benign, the material is not typically subject to IAEA monitoring or safeguards.

The reason heavy water is even a topic of conversation when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program is because, before the JCPOA was signed, Iran was in the process of constructing a heavy water research reactor at its Arak facility. Heavy water reactors are fueled using natural uranium rather than enriched uranium. These reactors are said to pose a potentially enhanced proliferation threat due to the amounts of plutonium produced as a byproduct of their spent nuclear fuel (which is more than what naturally occurs in spent fuel from other reactors), material that could then be separated from the irradiated fuel and further processed to weapons-grade levels.

The heavy water reactor at Arak was never operational. It has never been fed with uranium, never been turned on, never produced even one Watt of energy or a single atom of plutonium. Iran has no reprocessing facilities to turn its nuclear waste into weapons-grade material and has, for years now, committed never to build any.

As part of the nuclear deal, Iran also agreed to deliberately minimize the plutonium production capabilities of its reactors and avoid all production of weapons-grade plutonium in the future. In January 2016, Iran removed the reactor core from the Arak plant and filled it with concrete, thus rendering it unusable.

Furthermore, the deal specifies that, even though it will still use heavy water as a moderator, the "redesigned and rebuilt Arak reactor will not produce weapons grade plutonium" and that "[a]ll spent fuel from Arak will be shipped out of Iran for the lifetime of the reactor."

Contrary to what Hudson writes, heavy water is not a byproduct of nuclear energy production. Saying so makes it sound far more ominous, and linked directly to the hypothetical production of nuclear weapons.

This is the difference just a few misinformed words make.

Hudson isn't the only one to get this wrong. Vox does it all the time.

An Associated Press report from March 2016 used this misleading description: "Heavy water, formed with a hydrogen isotope, has research and medical applications, but can also be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium."

The same month, Joe Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert who heads the Ploughshares Fund, touted the success of the Iran deal in a piece for Politico. Unfortunately, he relied on a number of explicit falsehoods to make his point. Claiming that "we just stopped Iran from getting the bomb," Cirincione explained that, as part of the deal, "Iran ripped out centrifuges, shipped out uranium and filled the core of its new plutonium reactor with concrete." Philip W. Yun, executive director of Ploughshares, repeated this formulation in a June article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Even the fact-checking Goliath PolitiFact gets it wrong. In an April 2016 fact-check, heavy water is described alarmingly and erroneously as "material is a key component of making nuclear weapons and producing nuclear energy." That's pants-on-fire wrong.

Facts are important. It's about time reporters and experts starting getting them right.



July 16, 2016 - It appears that, following my tweet (below; forgive the "nyclear" typo!) about Hudson's incorrect description of heavy water, the Foreign Policy article was updated to remove the offending reference.

The sentence has now been edited, omitting the description of heavy water as "a byproduct from the production of nuclear energy." It appears this way now:

A note added to the bottom of the article reads only, 'This post has been updated."


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Boo! If By Sea: More Scary Tales of US-Bound Iranian Ships

Breathless reports are again circulating that Iran will deploy warships to the Atlantic Ocean. Based on a mid-June announcement by Iranian Navy chief Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, news is spreading that Iran plans to establish a naval base somewhere along the Atlantic coast. Sayyari said, “We have yet to determine which country will assist us regarding the presence of our naval fleet. When the name of the chosen country is confirmed and announced, our strategic naval forces will deploy a training and military flotilla to the Atlantic Ocean.”

Taking this declaration at face value, Al-Monitor contributor Abbas Qaidaari noted that while "Iran's limited fleet is incapable of facing possible threats of much stronger naval fleets... the presence of a middle power such as Iran in the Atlantic Ocean could have a major psychological impact on its rivals, especially the United States." Qaidaari continues, "It thus appears that Iran, just as is the case with its missile program, is trying to use its navy to achieve the goals of its broader gunboat diplomacy," speculating that "countries such as Venezuela and Cuba would be likely hosts."

But this kind of talk from Iranian military officials is nothing new (Qaidaari even points this out in his own report). In fact, news of an imminent Persian Armada docked off American shores has been floating around for years, despite never actually holding water. Here's a quick look back at previous iterations of the same story, beginning with the latest:

Al Monitor, June 30, 2016:

Arutz Sheva, June 19, 2016:

Breitbart, April 4, 2016:

The Algemeiner, March 22, 2016:

Trend, March 18, 2016:

Daily Mail, October 29, 2015:

Ha'aretz, February 9, 2014:

Ynet, February 8, 2014:

USA Today, February 1, 2014:

The Diplomat, January 22, 2014:

ABC News and Fox News, September 28, 2011:

The Iranian bogeyman establishing a foot (or flipper) hold in the Western hemisphere is a tried-and-true trope of right-wing alarmism, seen now for years in Israeli propaganda, the press and overwrought political theatrics. We hear endlessly from right-wing rags of Iranian infiltration and expanding influence in Latin America; a Muslim menace wading waist-deep across the Rio Grande to surprise us in our sleep and steal our precious bodily fluids. Just look at these spooky headlines:

In September 2012, Congressman Jeff Duncan, a Republican from South Carolina, argued in favor of passing his own "Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012," warning of an "emerging Iranian-backed terror network here in the Western Hemisphere" and insisting that the "U.S. must have the capabilities to defend itself from a potential Iranian attack on the homeland."

In his litany of nefarious Iranian activity, Duncan lamented, "Since 2005, Iran has increased its embassies from 6 to 11 and built 17 cultural centers in Latin America. Iran's diplomacy has led to soaring trade with Latin American countries. Brazil increased its exports to Iran seven-fold over the past decade to an annual level of $2.12 billion. Iranian trade with Argentina and Ecuador has grown, and economic contracts between Iran and Venezuela have exploded to more than $20 billion in trade and cooperation agreements."

Oh, the horror.

Still, the hysteria worked. Not only did both houses of Congress pass the bill, President Obama actually signed it into law in December of that year. A mere six months later, a State Department assessment concluded that "Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning."

But Duncan hasn't let up his crusade to play Paul Revere warning of the coming Iranian invasion. Hyping the threat of bloodthirsty Iranians lurking beneath our southern border is an obsession of his. On July 9, 2013, he held a House Subcommittee hearing, entitled, "Threat to the Homeland: Iran's Extending Influence in the Western Hemisphere," featuring a who's-who of neocon think tankers like Douglas Farah, Matthew Levitt of AIPAC-offshoot WINEP and Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council.

In March 2015, he held another hearing about the same thing.

"The real purpose of the hype is to bring the Iranian threat home," writes journalist Belén Fernández, "justifying the increased militarization of our backyard and Iran's in one stroke. It's the same playbook Reagan drew on when he warned that the Sandinistas were 'just two days' driving time from Harlingen, Texas.' Such rhetoric means more money for the defense and border fortification industries, and preemptively validates any eventual Israeli or U.S. aggression against Iran."

Similar propaganda both preceded and followed the Reagan administration's invasion of Grenada in 1983. In a televised speech to the American people, President Reagan declared on March 24, 1983, "On the small island of Grenada, at the southern end of the Caribbean chain, the Cubans, with Soviet financing and backing, are in the process of building an airfield with a 10,000-foot runway. Grenada doesn't even have an air force. Who is it intended for? ... The Soviet-Cuban militarization of Grenada, in short, can only be seen as power projection into the region."

After the invasion, Reagan was triumphant. "We got there just in time," he crowed, claiming that the military mission had prevented a planned "Cuban occupation of the island." Grenada, he said, "was a Soviet-Cuban colony being readied as a major military bastion to export terrorism and undermine democracy."

A week later, news reports told a very different story. "In the aftermath of last week's invasion of Grenada," reported The New York Times on November 6, 1983, "it has become clear that Reagan Administration officials and military authorities disseminated much inaccurate information and many unproven assertions. They did so while withholding significant facts and impeding efforts by the journalists to verify official statements." It was soon discovered that breathless claims of the number of Cuban military personnel on the island had been massively inflated, while the purported discovery of warehouses with "weapons and ammunition stacked almost to the ceiling, enough to supply thousands of terrorists" were grossly exaggerated.

American Bathtub

Now, decades later and with no Cold War to keep military fires burning, the Red Scare has been replaced with a Persian Menace. As always, what's also missing from all of these terrifying tales of America-based Iranian argonauts and agents is the fact that Iran - like most nations on the planet - doesn't actually have a single permanent overseas base. When it comes to foreign military outposts, however, no one even comes close to the United States.

"Despite recently closing hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan," American University professor David Vines wrote last year, "the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad—from giant 'Little Americas' to small radar facilities. Britain, France and Russia, by contrast, have about 30 foreign bases combined." This means that "the United States has approximately 95% of the world’s foreign bases."

Based primarily on the Pentagon’s annual Base Structure Report, Vines mapped the global footprint of the US military. (Graphic by 5W Infographics / Politico)

Vines, author of Base Nation, explains that "[a]lthough few Americans realize it, the United States likely has more bases in foreign lands than any other people, nation, or empire in history." Consequently, our own imperialism goes unquestioned and ignored as "we consider the situation normal and accept that US military installations exist in staggering numbers in other countries, on other peoples' land. On the other hand, the idea that there would be foreign bases on US soil is unthinkable."

Even the US Navy's own recruitment commercials boast of omnipresence. Not only self-labelled "a global force for good" that's "100% on watch" across the seven seas, the Navy is also positioned as operating without limitation or restraint in the American bathtub known as Planet Earth.

Just check out this creepy ad:

And that's what this hysteria about Iran is all about, really. The threat doesn't actually exist, but the mere implication by Iran that it would dare send soldiers or sailors so far from home and so close to the shores of the US empire is so unimaginable that bills must be passed, sanctions imposed, walls built, troops deployed, and brows furrowed. In essence, all reactions to Iranian pronouncements echo a similar tune: just who do they think they are and why don't they know their place?

So, no, the Iranians aren't coming. But, fear not, more frenzied headlines and incredulous pearl-clutching surely will be.


Saturday, April 30, 2016

Self-Proclaimed Iran Expert Continues to Get Iran Election Predictions Wrong

Meir Javedanfar (Image: RT)

There's an apocryphal saying, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, that goes, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

There's another one, not attributed to Twain, that goes, "The only predictable thing about Iranian politics is that it's unpredictable."

Nevertheless, despite these phony aphorisms, many of those who claim expertise on the machinations of Iranian politics and are often loudest in voicing in their opinions in the media make a habit of confidently prognosticating - to the point of hubris - about who will win when Iranians go to the polls to elect their presidents, parliamentarians, and other assorted representatives.

And, inevitably, they're almost always wrong.

There are plenty of examples. For instance, prior to the June 2013 election that saw moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's president, the neoconservative editors of The Washington Post declared that "Mr. Rouhani, who has emerged as the default candidate of Iran's reformists, will not be allowed to win."

As if by a miracle, following the vote and Rouhani's election, the Post suddenly had it all figured out, declaring that "there was good reason" why Khamenei "chose to accept [Rouhani's] victory."

Similarly, Iranian-born Israeli commentator Meir Javedanfar predicted before the June 2013 vote that "it is safe to say that moderate candidate Hassan Rowhani has no chance of success," because, contrary to the potential will of the Iranian - "the supreme leader would not allow votes in [his] favour to be counted."

Once Rouhani had won, however, Javedanfar came up with all sorts of excuses as to why "the Supreme Leader allowed Rowhani's victory to stand," none of them of course having to do with the number of ballots the candidate had actually received.

Persistently committed to misinformed political analysis and refusing to learn from his egregious predictive track record, Javedanfar - who is somehow allowed to teach a course on "Contemporary Iranian Politics" at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv - decided to chime in on the February 2016 Iranian elections for Majlis (parliament) and Assembly of Experts, the official body responsible for selecting a successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Expounding in the Jewish Chronicle, a conservative British online outlet, Javedanfar wrote on February 25:
For the upcoming elections this weekend, the majority of reformist candidates who are considered President Hassan Rouhani's allies have been disqualified, as well as many of Mr Rouhani's own candidates who belong to his party. This means the chances of Mr Rouhani's 2013 presidential election allies winning a majority in the both the Parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections - which take place the at same time - are almost nil.
He added, with confidence: "In both elections, the best Mr Rouhani can hope for is to belong to a powerful minority" and predicted that "moderates will make up only 20 per cent of next Assembly," suggesting that conservatives clerics - who already made up about 77 percent of the Assembly - would pick up more seats than they already held.

This inevitability, Javedanfar explained, "may come as a shock to Western leaders who believed that the nuclear agreement would boost the position of Mr Rouhani and his moderate allies at home."

The implications of such tired, hackneyed commentary are obvious. They are meant to reinforce the already ill-informed assumptions of an audience predisposed to hostility toward Iran.

It works like this: if Iranian electoral politics are dismissed as wholly inconsequential, then it follows that change can never be made through the ballot box. Therefore, less conservative elected officials are seen as having no ability to affect policy, while more conservative politicians can be said to have no legitimacy abroad and no popular mandate at home.

So what's the point of making these claims? To question the sincerity of diplomatic agreements with Iran and doubt the commitment of the Iranian government to uphold its end of the deal - in this case, the nuclear accord signed last year between Iran and six world powers. By predicting setbacks for less reactionary elements of the Iranian state, those sympathetic to hawkish interests in both the West and Israel can convince themselves that, unless overthrown and replaced with a government deferential to the United States and Israel, the Iranian "regime" will never truly reflect the will of the Iranian people and that any attempts at what the West perceives as "moderation" or "liberalization," even by Iranian standards, will be met with a swift reprimand from up on high. Basically, this line of reasoning goes, Rouhani will be either a puppet of the most reactionary elements of the Iranian state or rendered politically impotent as punishment for defying it.

It is no surprise then that editors at the Jewish Chronicle applied an even more heavy-handed headline to Javedanfar's commentary: "Iran prepares to sideline Rouhani, the 'moderate' in which the West invested," making sure to put the word moderate in quotes, a backhanded dismissal of Rouhani's centrism and commitment to diplomacy.

There are so many errors inherent in this mode of thinking it's difficult to know where to begin challenging them. Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that describing Iranian politicians as either "reformists" or "hardliners" is reductive and inaccurate. Political alliances and allegiances often shift, coalitions are versatile, strategic and frequently opportunistic. There are hundreds of registered parties, but, as Reuters has pointed out, Iran "has no tradition of disciplined party membership or detailed party platforms."

Moreover, Iranian citizens are never considered to have similar cares, concerns, worries or priorities as their counterparts in Western nations. They are all assumed to be one issue voters - and that issue is always foreign policy; or, more specifically, whether or not they approve of their government's relationship to the United States.

The idea that this election would be effectively a public referendum on the Rouhani administration handling of nuclear negotiations was pushed relentlessly in the Western press, ignoring the fact that Iranians - like most people on the planet - often weigh domestic issues, such as the economy, more heavily than foreign policy.

Nevertheless, even if the Iran deal played an outsized role in determining voter turnout and priorities, the media routinely ignored the fact that Iranian head of state Ayatollah Khamenei has never been an enemy of diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program. Quite the contrary, the negotiations were conducted with his express support; the deal was legitimized not only by a parliamentary vote, but also by his approval. Throughout the multilateral talks and the subsequent signing of the nuclear deal, Iranian public opinion strongly supported diplomacy and approval levels for both the Rouhani administration and the deal itself remain high.

The First Round - February 26, 2016

So what wound up happening when Iranians went to the polls?

Despite the outrageous purging of many (if not most) reformist and moderate candidates from the ballots by the Guardian Council, Iran's conservative electoral vetting body, deft political maneuvering (coupled with calls for a large voter turnout) on the part of President Hassan Rouhani and allies like former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani led to a veritable rout of so-called "hardliners" in both elections.

As the Associated Press noted following the vote,
Reformists, who favor expanded social freedoms and engagement with the West, won at least 85 seats, according to final results released by the Interior Ministry and broadcast on state TV. Moderate conservatives — who split with the hard-line camp and support the nuclear deal — won 73, giving the two blocs together a majority over hard-liners in the 290-seat assembly.
The coalition of candidates endorsed by Rouhani and Rafsanjani, made up of mostly reformist and centrist candidates for parliament known as "The List of Hope" and a slate of 16 centrists and moderates running for Tehran's Assembly of Experts seats, enjoyed particularly massive success, especially in Tehran, the nation's political and economic heart.

All 30 pro-Rouhani candidates in the influential capital district won their parliamentary seats, while, as analyst Adnan Tabatabai pointed out, "all but one of the 16 Tehran seats in the 88-member Assembly of Experts will be in the hands of this alliance of Reformists, moderates and government-leaning Principlists." Moreover, two notoriously ultra-conservative clerics lost their seats in the Assembly (one was even the sitting chairman), singling a strong popular rebuke of the most hardline elements.

Reuters described the results as "an emphatic vote of confidence" for Rouhani and his policies.

Moreover, the Rouhani and Rafsanjani-endorsed list of candidates won a whopping 59 percent majority of the Assembly of Experts. This is a far cry from the paltry 20 percent prediction of Javedanfar, who boasts on his website of having "briefed officials and academics from more than 30 countries on Iran" and being "the most frequently quoted Israeli expert on Iranian affairs in the international press."

In an effort to avoid acknowledging the error of his bogus predictions, two days after the vote Javedanfar cautioned against "jump[ing] to any conclusions yet." He even dismissed the results in Tehran as unsurprising since, as he wrote on his blog, "Tehran has always been more Reformist." If this was so obvious, it's curious Javedanfar didn't include this nugget of wisdom in his pre-election commentary in the Jewish Chronicle.

Due to the large number of independent candidates (Iran does not have a formal political party system, so officials are not necessarily obligated to toe a party line or particular platform), Javedanfar noted - rightly - that "it's difficult to know to which camp some of the winning candidates belong" and that it was impossible to confidently identify which side - reformists and moderates or conservatives and principlists - would eventually walk away with a majority of parliament. Also, of the total 290 seats in the Majlis, 68 spots still required runoff elections which wouldn't happen until late April.

When the dust settled after the first round, the Rouhani-Rafsanjani alliance held 106 seats against 64 won by conservatives. Independents won 52 seats.

For Javedanfar's prediction about the near impossibility of Rouhani allies winning a majority in parliament to come to fruition, reformists and moderates would have to suffer a crushing defeat in the runoff.

But that's not quite what happened.

The Second Round - April 29, 2016

"Iranian moderates and reformists who support last year’s landmark nuclear deal have won the largest number of seats in parliament following runoff elections," reported The Associated Press, after the runoff, "marking a shift away from hard-liners and boosting moderate President Hassan Rouhani as he looks to secure a second term in office."

While a number of news outlets were quick to note that no faction garnered enough wins to secure an absolute majority, the biggest gains were made by Rouhani allies, who make up a undeniable plurality of incoming MPs.

An Associated Press tally of the final results noted that the "reformist and moderate list claimed 37 seats in Friday’s vote, giving them a total of 143 seats in the assembly — just two seats shy of 50 percent. They are followed by hard-liners, with 86 seats, and independents, with 61. Twenty-two hard-liners and nine independents won seats in the runoff."

A more tentative roundup in the Iranian media gave Rouhani supporters at least 121 seats, while conservative principlists, more of whom oppose the president's policies, won only 83. The remaining seats were said to be held by independents, that could tip the scales in either direction.

Former Iranian diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian suggested that "the real unprecedented development of this election" was "the huge gains" made by independents. "How these independents act," Mousavian, now a scholar at Princeton University, "will determine what direction the next parliament takes and what decisions it makes."

Mousavian also noted:
Many of the MPs who opposed the nuclear deal were voted out, particularly those who were most vitriolic in their attacks on Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. This is a clear sign that the majority of the Iranian people support the nuclear deal and that the majority of the new MPs will uphold it. This ensures that the deal will not be undermined from the Iranian side.
If one thing is certain, it's that Iranian politics and elections will remain unpredictable. And while the fate of Rouhani and his political allies in the years ahead, namely the 2017 presidential election, is anyone's guess, it probably shouldn't be Meir Javedanfar's.