Thursday, October 31, 2013

Atomic Errors: Propaganda & Ignorance in Reporting on Iran


Nothing doth more hurt in a state than
That cunning men pass for wise.

-- Francis Bacon


Whenever tensions over Iran’s nuclear energy program appear to dissipate and rational, fact-based reporting begins to replace agenda-driven rhetoric in the press, the folks over at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington D.C. think tank that specializes in producing highly speculative assessments of the nuclear capabilities of countries loathed by the U.S. government, release a new study full of hypotheticals, allegations, and innuendo intended to restore alarmism to front pages and TelePrompTers.

Critical to the success of ISIS’s efforts and the endless self-promotion of its president, David Albright, are the dutiful stenographers in the media who eagerly promote to large audiences their claims as unchallenged fact, without even a shred of skepticism or hint of journalistic integrity.

On October 24, USA Today published a story that not only reached new lows of shameless alarmism over Iran’s nuclear program, but also contained myriad factual errors about the program itself and Iran’s relationship with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the organization which monitors the nuclear programs of nations around the world. Oren Dorell, the reporter who filed the story, along with his editors, bear significant responsibility for the spreading of disinformation, especially after a number of their mistakes were pointed out to them.

The Institute for Speculation and Iran Scaremongering

Under a hysterical headline – “Iran may be a month from a bomb” – Dorell posted what is effectively a press release for a new ISIS report. In his article, Dorell not only presents ISIS head David Albright, a former IAEA inspector, as an unimpeachable expert source and uncritically regurgitates his claims about the potential timeline for Iran achieving nuclear breakout capacity, but also deliberately omits vitally important information which might undermine the ultimate goal of fear-mongering about Iran.

Dorell writes that “Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear bomb in as little as a month,” and quotes from the ISIS report: “Shortening breakout times have implications for any negotiation with Iran. An essential finding is that they are currently too short and shortening further.”

What Dorell leaves out is the fact that Iran has never and is not currently enriching any of its uranium stockpile to levels required for use in a nuclear weapon. Iranian officials, including its most senior leadership, have consistently and explicitly condemned "the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons" for decades and routinely disavow any intention to ever do so.

Beyond this, despite the constantly repeated canard that “time is running out” to prevent Iran from acquiring the requisite matériel needed to build a single atomic bomb (with which Iran, presumably, would magically be able to conduct a nuclear test, existentially obliterate Israel, establish uncontested hegemony over the Middle East, threaten the United States, and deter any military attacks from foreign armies), all American and international intelligence assessments consistently affirm that Iran has no nuclear weapons program and that the Iranian leadership has not made any decision to actively pursue a nuclear bomb.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence has repeatedly noted that, even were this decision to be made sometime in the future, “Iran could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU [weapons-grade uranium] before this activity is discovered.”

As such, the speculative timeline crafted by ISIS for an Iranian breakout is just that: speculative. It is a hypothetical exercise conducted with the explicit use of unverified variables, making it no more credible or realistic than an academic thought experiment based upon manufactured circumstances.

In fact, the ISIS study makes this clear, explaining that “the estimates in this report do not include the additional time that Iran would need to convert WGU into weapons components and manufacture a nuclear weapon. This extra time could be substantial, particularly if Iran wanted to build a reliable warhead for a ballistic missile. However, these preparations would most likely be conducted at secret sites and would be difficult to detect.”

Indeed, the ISIS report is so reliant on fantasy for its alarming conclusions that it outlines a scenario in which Iran is operating “a covert centrifuge plant of advanced centrifuges.” With such a factor considered, it is surprising Albright and his staff didn’t simply decide that Iran could have enough WGU by tea time tomorrow, or yesterday’s break of dawn. Or three months ago. Or five days from now. Why rely on evidence for your analysis when inventing clandestine facilities that don’t exist is taken just as seriously?

The USA Today headline blaring a warning that Iran may only be a mere four weeks away from “a bomb” is thus wholly untrue, even by the absurd standards of both the ISIS report and the text of Dorell’s own article.

A History of Nonsense

David Albright has the dubious distinction of being a favorite of neoconservative crusaders both in government and the media and frequent guest at Capitol Hill hearings whenever Congress members need to ramp up hawkish sentiment and advocate for levying more illegal sanctions on Iran. His analysis also played an important role – and the imprimatur of disinterested expertise – in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Citing a study of satellite imagery of an Iraqi facility in September 2002, Albright claimed that “the international community cannot exclude the possibility that Iraq is secretly producing a stockpile of uranium in violation of its commitments under Security Council resolutions” and that this “uranium could be used in a clandestine nuclear weapons effort.” Still, at the time, Albright acknowledged that “Iraq is not believed to have nuclear weapons now.”

In October of that year, Albright wondered out loud on CNN, “In terms of the chemical and biological weapons, Iraq has those now. How many, how could they deliver them? I mean, these are the big questions.”

After the invasion, on April 20, 2003, Albright told the Los Angeles Times, “If there are no weapons of mass destruction, I’ll be mad as hell. I certainly accepted the administration claims on chemical and biological weapons. I figured they were telling the truth. If there is no [unconventional weapons program], I will feel taken, because they asserted these things with such assurance.”

Long ago, however, Albright had also set his sights on Iran.

In an article for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, published on July 1, 1995, Albright claimed that, although "Western intelligence agencies have not discovered clandestine Iranian nuclear weapon facilities" or "in fact, developed irrefutable evidence that Iran has a bomb program... they have assembled a substantial body of evidence suggesting that, although Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it is secretly pursuing a broad, organized effort to develop nuclear weapons."

A decade later, in an August 2005 paper published by National Defense University, Albright wrote, “The next several months may well decide whether Iran will develop a capability to make nuclear weapons,” yet concluded that “Iran does not appear to have nuclear weapons and seems unlikely to be able to make them for at least several years.”

On January 12, 2006, he co-authored a report that issued this “worst case” scenario: “Given another year to make enough HEU for a nuclear weapon and a few more months to convert the uranium into weapon components, Iran could have its first nuclear weapon in 2009. By this time, Iran is assessed to have had sufficient time to prepare the other components of a nuclear weapon, although the weapon may not be deliverable by a ballistic missile.”

On April 7, 2007, ABC News cited Albright as claiming that, due to Iran’s advancing uranium enrichment program, “you’re looking at them having, potentially having enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 2009,” adding, “I think we have all been caught off guard.”

The following February, ISIS released a report, which asserted that Iran had tested a new, and more efficient, centrifuge design to enrich uranium. If 1,200 new centrifuges were operational, the report suggested, Iran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb in one year.

On September 22, 2008, Associated Press reporter George Jahn – a well-known cipher for alarmist reports about Iran - quoted Albright as claiming that Iran “can be expected to reach [nuclear weapons capability] in six months to two years” and that “[a]dditional work – making a crude bomb to contain the uranium – would take no more than a ‘several months.’”

On December 2, 2008, an ISIS report co-written by David Albright concluded that “Iran is moving steadily toward [nuclear] capability and is expected to reach that milestone during 2009 under a wide variety of scenarios.”

The next year, he declared, "Iran continues to move forward on developing its nuclear capabilities, and it is close to having what we would call a 'nuclear breakout capability,'" adding, "That’s a problem because once Iran reaches that state then it could make a decision to get nuclear weapons pretty rapidly. In as quickly as a few months, Iran would be able to have enough weapons-grade uranium for nuclear weapons."

In February 2010, he erroneously asserted in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations that, when it comes to Iran, there is a "consensus that they are working on a nuclear weapon itself," and said, "In a sense, the day of reckoning when Iran could make a decision to build nuclear weapons and carry out that decision relatively rapidly is fast approaching. I don't think it's 2010, but it could very well be 2011." He also assessed that "Iran has the ability to build a weapon in less than six months."

By the time January 2011 rolled around, Albright was still saying that “his own analysis still indicated Iran’s nuclear research could reach a breakout point for bomb building in a year or two,” and was incredulous at estimates that a hypothetical Iranian breakout capability wouldn’t be realistic until 2015 at the earliest. Soon thereafter, he maintained, “There are several scenarios under which Iran could still manage to build a nuclear weapon before 2015, he said; it merely appears less likely now,” and claimed, “Iran could make enough for a bomb in little more than six months using 1,000 advanced centrifuges if it decided to divert its stock of U.N. safeguarded low enriched uranium in a dash for a weapon.”

In July 2011, Albright stated that were Iran to “reach a so-called ‘break out’ capability,” it would be able to “make enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon in a few months.” A couple of months later, in September 2011, he was quoted saying, “We believe if Iran broke out now they could have a bomb in six months,” adding, “They’ve done this right in front of our faces.”

Not only have Albright’s hypothetical assessments continued in the years since, they have taken a decisively aggressive turn. In 2012, Albright repeatedly assessed that “Iran is already capable of making weapon-grade uranium and a crude nuclear explosive device,” and suggested Iran could have a nuclear weapon by 2015.

The concept that Iran may not have any intention to actually acquire a nuclear bomb is never even entertained by Albright. “Without past negotiated outcomes, international pressure, sanctions, and intelligence operations, Iran would likely have nuclear weapons by now,” he insists.

In January 2013, Albright collaborated with numerous pro-interventionist hawks on a report that claimed, “Based on the current trajectory of Iran’s nuclear program, we estimate that Iran could reach critical capability in mid-2014,” and called for the implementation of a total international embargo against Iran. He and his co-authors also wrote, “The president should explicitly declare that he will use military force to destroy Iran’s nuclear program if Iran takes additional decisive steps toward producing a bomb.”

Considering Iran hasn't actually taken any such steps, let alone “decisive” ones, it is clear Albright has dropped the pretense of technical objectivity and fully embraced his role as a willing partner with those advocating military action against Iran. His role in promoting myriad fabrications and absurdities as evidence of Iranian intentions to build a nuclear bomb – from a computer rendering of a supposed detonation chamber to a mathematically-incorrect hand-drawn graph to a purchase order for ring magnets to the presence of bulldozers and a bright pink tarpaulin at a military complex – reveals a distinct disregard for critical thinking and factual analysis and a demonstrated obsession with demonizing Iran.

In March 2013, he and his co-authors, many of whom are ideologically disposed to support Israel’s Likud party line, channeled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, writing in the Wall Street Journal that Iran “will by mid-2014 be able to dash to fissile material in one to two weeks,” possibly even sooner. This past July, Albright published yet another analysis of Iran’s nuclear program that suggested Iran would achieve a “critical capability” to produce enough WGU for a nuclear bomb by mid-2014.

That Albright is still considered to be an expert worth listening to is evidence of just how shamefully irresponsible, distorted, and opportunistic the mainstream reporting on Iran really is. Then again, that Dorell would present Albright’s analysis as noteworthy and newsworthy is no surprise considering Dorell himself has a history of promoting dubious claims made by agenda-driven commentators, from the right-wing, Israel-focused media watchdog MEMRI to anti-Muslim hate group leader Robert Spencer.

Dorell has also dismissed any scrutiny or criticism of Israel’s own nuclear arsenal of hundreds of atomic warheads. His justification for Israel’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or endorse a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East? “Israel is [the] only M[iddle] E[astern] country whose neighbors tried to destroy [it] mult[iple] times,” he declared in a tweet.

Dorell’s Distortions

In addition to using David Albright’s alarmist analysis as the crux of his latest scoop, USA Today's Oren Dorell also published a number of erroneous statements about Iran’s nuclear program which reveal either a deliberate obfuscation of facts or surprising level of ignorance on the subject for a “foreign affairs and breaking news reporter” of a major mainstream news source.

Even ignoring Dorell’s reliance on a distinctly Albrightian view of Iran and the implication throughout that Iran has undeniably nefarious ambitions, the article he wrote is replete with factual errors. After he wrote that “Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said his country has no interest in nuclear weapons but that producing nuclear fuel is Iran’s right,” Dorell noted:


A few things are wrong with this. First is the implication – a near-constant device used in mainstream reporting on Iran – that Iran’s right to enrich uranium is something merely asserted by Iranian leaders and, therefore, subject to dismissal as politicized, disingenuous, or irrelevant. Yet this right is a matter of international law, not Iranian imagination, as affirmed in Article 4 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which acknowledges “the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.”

As Fred Kaplan recently wrote in Slate, “So, when the Iranians insist on their ‘right’ to enrich uranium for peaceful nuclear energy, they aren’t asserting some self-contrived privilege; they are quoting the NPT.”

But that’s not all. Dorell’s claims that “Iran has refused to let inspectors into its nuclear facilities” is – to be perfectly clear - a flat-out lie.

As I have often pointed out in my own writing, Iran has never refused IAEA inspectors admission to any of its safeguarded nuclear sites. All sites and facilities are under video surveillance, readily accessible to IAEA inspectors, open to routine inspection, and subject to material seals application by the agency.

In addition to the two regular inspections all of Iran’s enrichment facilities are subject to each and every month, “two unannounced inspections are conducted every month at Fordow and at the pilot enrichment plant at Natanz, where up to 20% enrichment also takes place. Any attempt to further enrich uranium to weapons grade at these facilities would be detected,” according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), which has its own history of promoting alarmist perspectives on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and intentions.

Nuclear expert Mark Hibbs has explained,”There are IAEA safeguards personnel in Iran 24/7/365,” pointing out that inspectors enter and examine enrichment sites “frequently and routinely,” where they carry out “two kinds of inspections: ‘announced inspections’ and ‘short-notice announced inspections.’” The “announced inspections” are conducted with “24-hour notification” given to Iran, while “Iran’s subsidiary arrangements in fact permit the IAEA to conduct a short-notice inspection upon two hours’ notice.”

Iran’s is the most heavily-scrutinized nuclear program on the planet and has been for years. Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian, now a lecturer at Princeton University, has noted, “Since 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has implemented the most robust inspections in its history with more than 100 unannounced and over 4000 man-day inspections in Iran.” And in 2012 alone, IAEA investigators spent 1,356 calendar days in Iran, conducting 215 on-site inspections of the country’s 16 declared nuclear facilities, and spending more than 12% of the agency’s entire $127.8 million budget on intrusively monitoring the Iranian program, which fields only a single functional nuclear reactor that doesn’t even operate at full capacity.

IAEA inspectors have also had consistently open access to the gas conversion facility at Esfahan and have monitored the heavy water production plant at Arak, despite these non-nuclear facilities not being explicitly covered by Iran’s Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

The agency has continued to verify - four times a year for the past decade – that Iran has never diverted any nuclear material for military purposes and has also affirmed “it has all the means it needs to make sure that does not happen with Iran’s enriched uranium, including cameras, physical inspections and seals on certain materials and components.”

When his baseless claim was countered on Twitter (by me), Dorell responded first by insisting on the accuracy of his statement:

Upon following the links provided by Dorell in his Tweet to support his claim, however, it becomes clear that Dorell – again, someone who gets paid money to professionally report on these matters for an international media outlet – doesn’t know the difference between a safeguarded nuclear site and a non-nuclear military installation that falls outside the legal purview of the IAEA.

Parsing Parchin

Dorell, in his allegation that Iran has blocked inspectors access to “its nuclear facilities,” is actually referring to a single non-nuclear site, the sprawling military complex at Parchin, and omits critical context from his report, probably because he is unaware of this information.

There is currently a technical dispute over obtaining IAEA access to the Iranian site, which – again – is not a nuclear facility and not legally subject to IAEA safeguards and inspections, despite Dorell’s claim that access to such a site is “required under international agreements” signed by Iran.

In fact, Iran has voluntarily granted IAEA inspectors access to Parchin; it did so twice in 2005. After IAEA inspectors returned from two rounds of visits to Parchin, they revealed they “did not observe any unusual activities in the buildings visited, and the results of the analysis of environmental samples did not indicate the presence of nuclear material at those locations.”

Despite his Twitter protestations, Dorell nevertheless changed the wording in his already published USA Today report - though he did so without adding any official clarification or correction to his original post. The paragraph in question now reads:



Replacing “its” with “some suspected” hardly makes Dorell’s claim any more accurate. He is still stating that multiple (he writes “some,” as in, more than one) Iranian “nuclear” sites are “suspected” of something; this is wrong, only access to the non-nuclear Parchin is being requested by the IAEA. Furthermore, Iran is not blocking inspectors, as the IAEA has no legal right to enter that site to begin with and Iran is certainly not “required” to grant access under any current agreement.

And, to repeat, the peaceful, purely civilian nature of every single safeguarded nuclear facility is consistently reaffirmed every three months by the IAEA. Any demands made by the IAEA that go beyond the safeguards agreement signed between the agency and Iran explicitly exceed the IAEA’s sole and exclusive legal mandate to verify “source or special fissile material… is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

While Dorell might not be thrilled with this state of affairs, that does not change the fact that his statement is inaccurate and irresponsible, designed as it is to deliberately portray Iran as intransigent and secretive, duplicitous and sinister.

Iran’s Understandable Skepticism

Furthermore, Iran has very compelling reasons to be wary of opening its non-safeguarded, military sites to international inspection and for insisting strict conditions are agreed upon in advance of any IAEA visit to Parchin. Iran is well aware it is arguably the world’s most spied upon nation; in March 2013 alone, the United States surveillance dragnet gathered more than 14 billion pieces of intelligence from Iranian computer networks. American spy drones routinely invade Iranian airspace and covert operations have been conducted on the ground in Iran for years. That military action and regime change are two leading prongs of both American and Israeli foreign policy is no secret.

There is also historical precedent for Iranian skepticism of international intentions. Back in 1999, journalist Barton Gellman reported in the Washington Post that “United States intelligence services infiltrated agents and espionage equipment for three years into United Nations arms control teams in Iraq to eavesdrop on the Iraqi military without the knowledge of the U.N. agency that it used to disguise its work, according to U.S. government employees and documents describing the classified operation.”

Facts, Fury, Fabrications and Forgeries

Regarding the current accusations centered around an alleged detonation chamber located at the site (a charge made in documents provided to the IAEA by Israel), nuclear expert and former IAEA inspector Robert Kelley has explained, “The IAEA is stretching its mandate to the limit in asking for access to a military site based on tenuous evidence.” Earlier this year, he told Bloomberg News, “The IAEA’s authority is supposed to derive from its ability to independently analyze information. At Parchin, they appear to be merely echoing the intelligence and analysis of a few member states.”

For Dorell, facts are irrelevant. He writes:


This is literally untrue. Not only has the IAEA (which is an autonomous organization and not, as Dorell writes, synonymous with the UN) never “found” any “evidence of a weapons program,” but Iran has never been found to have breached its NPT obligations as such a violation could only occur if Iran began “to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons.”

The IAEA itself has repeatedly affirmed that there is “no evidence” that Iran’s “nuclear material and activities” are in any way “related to a nuclear weapons programme.” In 2004, after Iran voluntarily implemented the intrusive Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement, the IAEA concluded that “all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for, and therefore such material is not diverted to prohibited activities.”

When allegations such as Dorell’s have surfaced in the past, the IAEA itself has spoken out. “With respect to a recent media report,” stated a press release in 2009, “the IAEA reiterates that it has no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapon programme in Iran.”

Hans Blix, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has headed both the IAEA and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, noted this past March, “Iran has not violated NPT and there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons.”

When asked (again, by me) about this clear inaccuracy in his reporting, Dorell pointed to the IAEA’s November 2011 report on Iran’s nuclear program as support for his claim. The report, often and erroneously exploited by anti-Iran hawks as detailing proof of a clandestine weapon program, does nothing of the sort.

After the report itself was leaked to the press and public (by David Albright, no less), it became clear that the hysterical reactions in obvious circles was little more than overblown hype. “There is something a little phoney about all the sound and fury,” wrote The Guardian's Julian Borger. “There is nothing in the report that was not previously known by the major powers.”

“The West and Israel supplied most of the original tip-offs for the annex on weapons development,” he added. The information detailed in the IAEA report is primarily based on suspected forgeries and fabrications passed along to the agency by the United States in 2005 and by Israel in 2009. The documents have never been made fully available to either the IAEA or Iran for verification or refutation.

Moreover, in early 2007, an unnamed senior official at the IAEA revealed to the Los Angeles Times, “Since 2002, pretty much all the intelligence that’s come to us [from the United States about the Iranian nuclear program] has proved to be wrong” and has never led to significant discoveries inside Iran.

“They gave us a paper with a list of sites. [The inspectors] did some follow-up, they went to some military sites, but there was no sign of [banned nuclear] activities,” the official told The Guardian. Additionally, the LA Times noted that “U.S. officials privately acknowledge that much of their evidence on Iran’s nuclear plans and programs remains ambiguous, fragmented and difficult to prove.”

When asked about the claims made by the material in 2009, IAEA Director General Mohammad ElBaradei said, “The IAEA is not making any judgment at all whether Iran even had weaponisation studies before because there is a major question of authenticity of the documents.”

After leaving the agency, ElBaradei lamented in his 2011 memoir the “willingness, on the part of Israel and the West, to treat allegations as fact,” and admitted that the IAEA “did not have the tools or expertise, however, to verify the authenticity of documents.” He added that, with regard to Israeli claims, the IAEA’s “technical experts, however, raised numerous questions about the document’s authenticity” and noted that “[t]he accuracy of these [Israeli] accusations has never been verified; however, it is significant that the conclusions of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate were not changed, indicating that they, at least, did not buy the ‘evidence’ put forward by Israel.”

In a 2011 interview, ElBaradei told The New Yorker, “During my time at the agency we haven’t seen a shred of evidence that Iran has been weaponizing, in terms of building nuclear-weapons facilities and using enriched materials,” before adding, “I don’t believe Iran is a clear and present danger. All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran.

Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor explained that “much of the information” about alleged Iranian research, which was included in the November 2011 IAEA report by ElBaradei’s malleable successor Yuikiya Amano, “is years old, inconclusive – and perhaps not entirely real,” and quoted Shannon Kile, head of the Nuclear Weapons Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), as saying that “there is no evidence they have a dedicated program under way” to develop a nuclear bomb.

“There is nothing to tell that those documents are real,” said SIPRI’s Robert Kelley, a former IAEA inspector who has personally reviewed the material in question. He called the allegations laid out in the IAEA report “unprofessional,” the result of “amateur analysis.”

Greg Thielmann and Benjamin Loehrke acknowledged in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that “has been no smoking gun when it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons intentions,” with Thielmann, who is a former State Department and Senate Intelligence Committee analyst, noting further that “there is nothing [in the report] that indicates that Iran is really building a bomb.” He added, “Those who want to drum up support for a bombing attack on Iran sort of aggressively misrepresented the report.”

Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has also maintained that “there isn’t any concrete evidence, any smoking gun” that Iran has a nuclear weapons program or intends to develop an atomic bomb.

When asked specifically about the November 2011 IAEA report (the same one referenced specifically by Dorell as vindication for his false claim), a spokesman for the Obama White House stated, “The IAEA does not assert that Iran has resumed a full scale nuclear weapons program.”

When In Qom

Dorell doesn’t merely traffic in disinformation, he inserts baseless editorial commentary into his reporting, claiming that Iran’s Fordow enrichment facility, located near the city of Qom, is a “covert” site and “was designed for optimal efficiency and minimal time to enrich enough uranium for bomb making.”

In fact, the site was announced by Iran to the IAEA on September 21, 2009, well in advance of the 180 days before becoming operational as required by Iran’s Safeguards Agreement. At the time, the facility was still under construction and did not actually begin uranium enrichment until early January 2012, roughly 840 days after it had been declared to the IAEA. The facility was subsequently described as “a hole in a mountain” and “nothing to be worried about” by then-IAEA Secretary General ElBaradei.

When the plant began operation, the IAEA confirmed that “all nuclear material in the facility remains under the agency’s containment and surveillance.” This remains the case now.

Nevertheless, Dorell quotes Albright, who speculates on an elaborate fantasy in which Iran has a secret site with advanced centrifuges churning out weapons-grade uranium and operating without IAEA supervision. “If they did that and they were caught it would be a smoking gun of a nuclear weapons program,” Albright says.

Yes, obviously. But that entire scenario was dreamed up by Albright and is not based upon any semblance of discernible reality or available evidence.

Conclusion: Dissent Denied

No opposing view is presented in Dorell’s article to counter the claims made by Albright and others, including government spokespeople and hawkish politicians. A follow-up report by Dorell even gave Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister the chance to respond to the conclusions of Albright’s ISIS report and an unchallenged opportunity to threaten Iran with a military attack. Dorell never even attempts to present a different voice or view.

For instance, the view of Christopher J. Bolan, a former army intelligence officer who served as a national security advisor to both Al Gore and Dick Cheney and who now teaches military strategy at the prestigious United States Army War College, may have provided a less hysterical perspective.

“Iran is not a threat to American vital interests. They don’t want nuclear weapons. I think it has just been overly alarmist when folks are advocating a more aggressive reaction,” he said recently, adding, “Even if they manage to get sufficient enriched uranium, it is going to be years before they can weaponize it. The timeline is not urgent. We have years, if that is the objective of the government, which, again, I think is a pretty questionable claim.”

At a time when the U.S. government may finally be willing to try real diplomacy rather than collective punishment and coercion with Iran, the continued emphasis on sanctions and threats by analysts like Albright and the false information relentlessly presented in the mainstream media by writers like Dorell do much to delay progress and promote conflict.

In a recent cover story for the resurrected online version of Newsweek, journalist and Vanity Fair editor Kurt Eichenwald wrote:
Interviews with military strategists and foreign and domestic intelligence officers, and a review of the 34 years of warnings about the Iranians’ threat to America’s vital interests, all show that the doomsaying is based on suspicion, supposition and precious little hard data. It is, in many ways, a repeat of the supposed threat from Iraq that led to war – except this time, the intelligence world knows there are no weapons of mass destruction.
If USA Today is interested in presenting truth, rather than merely serving as a platform for propaganda, it would do well to publish a number of corrections to Dorell’s report. Better yet, it would issue a retraction.

I'm not holding my breath.

*****

Originally posted at Muftah.

*****

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Persian Version of ‘The Sound of Music’ Hits the Stage in Tehran


Tehran’s Vahdat Hall is alive with the sound of music. Literally.

A groundbreaking theater troupe in Tehran, known for recently performing the first opera in Iran in over three decades, is once again making history. The Tehran Opera Ensemble, directed by Hadi Rosat, has mounted a Persian-language adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1959 musical, The Sound of Music, the first time an Iranian version of an American musical has been performed in the Islamic Republic.

The Sound of Music, which in 1965 was made into an immensely famous Academy Award-winning film directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, tells the story of the Trapp Family Singers and their flight from Nazi-occupied Austria in the late 1930s.

After a year of preparation and rehearsal, the new version, adapted for the Iranian stage by Rosat and entitled Tears and Smiles in Persian, is currently being performed at Vahdat Hall, Tehran’s magnificent opera house, which was built in 1967 and known before the revolution as Rudaki Hall, so named for a renowned medieval Persian poet. The ensemble performed Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi at the same venue this past March to great acclaim. The latest production is set to be showcased during Iran’s prestigious Fajr Festival in January 2014.

The vision for the Tehran Opera Ensemble is clear. Producer Ali Mirmohammadi told Iran's PressTV, “The opera ensemble is trying to open new path in the art of this country so that we can make use of the renowned Western works, whilst our audience is not familiar with these works. to bring works that have become nostalgic for people and are historic pieces and familiarize people with them.”

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin of the Huffington Post reports that, “despite Western sanctions, the art scene in Iran is thriving and theater festivals continue to be held every year.”

Actor Alireza Nasehi sees The Sound of Music as just the beginning of what he hopes will be a continuing trend in Iranian theater. “I think this is a new happening. The real thing is a musical going on stage for the first time,” he says. “I hope this will continue and other famous works will be acted out here.”

PressTV notes that traditional performances of the musical ”usually enjoys a complete orchestra but as this concept is still new in Iran, they started off with a smaller team.”

“Because of the lack of time and sponsors, while we would needed an orchestra of at least 90 musicians, I’ve arranged this piece for a piano and a string quintet,” says Bardia Kiaras, the theater troupe’s musical director and conductor. “The group has good singers and I’m pleased that this is happening in our dear country.”

The ensemble’s producers are scrambling to add more dates in the upcoming weeks, as tickets are already sold out for all currently scheduled performances. Who knew Iranian audiences would be so smitten with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens? (Actually, their fondness for cream colored ponies, crisp apple strudels, doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles is more surprising.)

Below is a PressTV report on the production by Pedram Khodadadi, along with more photos of the performance:



*****

Originally posted at Muftah.

*****

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Crying of Flight 655:
The Washington Post and the Whitewashing of a War Crime

Mourners carry coffins through the streets of Tehran, July 7, 1988, during a mass funeral for victims who died when Iran Air Flight 655 was blown out of the sky by the USS Vincennes.
(Associated Press)

Here's how Washington Post foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher tells the story - virtually unknown here in the United States - of the downing of Iran Air Flight 655, which occurred 25 years ago during the Iran-Iraq War:
Toward the end of the war, on July 3, 1988, a U.S. Navy ship called the Vincennes was exchanging fire with small Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy kept ships there, and still does, to protect oil trade routes. As the American and Iranian ships skirmished, Iran Air Flight 655 took off from nearby Bandar Abbas International Airport, bound for Dubai. The airport was used by both civilian and military aircraft. The Vincennes mistook the lumbering Airbus A300 civilian airliner for a much smaller and faster F-14 fighter jet, perhaps in the heat of battle or perhaps because the flight allegedly did not identify itself. It fired two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 290 passengers and crew members on board.
Fisher - who based his post on a new TIME magazine piece noting a number of valid Iranian grievances with the West - writes that the "horrible incident" helped cement Iranian enmity toward the United States government, but intimates that the whole episode was just a random mistake, an innocent fluke, albeit with tragic and long-lingering consequences. To this end, he quotes notorious war propagandist Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute's Saban Center, presumably because Pollack was the most high-profile serial fabricator Fisher could find with a quick Google search of "Iran Air Flight 655" and "accident."

Quoting from Pollack's 2004 compendium of conventional wisdom and glaring inaccuracies, "The Persian Puzzle," Fisher adds, "The shoot-down of Iran Air flight 655 was an accident, but that is not how it was seen in Tehran. The Iranian government assumed that the attack had been purposeful... Tehran convinced itself that Washington was trying to signal that the United States had decided to openly enter the war on Iraq's side."

Fisher recounts this story in order to explain why Iranian officials and diplomats might not view their American counterparts as trustworthy interlocutors when it comes to diplomacy over its nuclear program. He writes, "If Iran believes that the United States is so committed to its destruction that it would willingly shoot down a plane full of Iranian civilians, then Tehran has every incentive to assume we're lying in negotiations."

Yet, both Pollack's explanation and Fisher's insinuation grossly decontextualize and sanitize the American role in the later stage of the Iran-Iraq War in general, and the destruction of Flight 655 in particular. To claim that - in mid-1988, no less - Tehran had to somehow "convince itself" that the Reagan administration was merely signaling its entrance into the war as a combatant, in aggressive and lethal support of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, is bizarre. Iran didn't have to invent such a scenario; it was already an established fact.

Beyond training Iraqi troops, providing intelligence and shipping arms to Iraq, and facilitating the use of chemical weapons against Iranian civilians, by 1987 the U.S. military was also helping Iraq "carry out long-range strikes against key Iranian targets, using U.S. ships as navigational aids," according to Barry Lando in his book, "Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush."

As one senior U.S. officer told ABC's Nightline, "We became forward air controllers for the Iraqi Air Force."

In July 1987, the CIA began a reconnaissance program, code-named Eager Glacier, that, as reported by John Barry in Newsweek some years later, "sent spy planes and helicopters flying over Iranian bases... Navy SEALs, manning Mark III patrol boats, were stationed on two giant floating barges, and special operations helicopter units first the Little Birds of the army's Delta Task Force 160, later joined by the specially built gunship Warriors of Task Force 118--roamed the gulf by night."

The purpose of this kind of American firepower in the Persian Gulf was clear. Lando writes, "Their mission was to destroy any Iranian gunboats they could find. Other small, swift American vessels, posing as commercial ships, lured Iranian naval vessels into international waters to attack them. The Americans often claimed they attacked the Iranian ships only after the Iranians first menaced neutral ships plying the Gulf. In some cases however, the neutral ships which the Americans claimed to be defending didn't even exist."

By August 1987, the U.S. Navy was conducting direct military attacks on Iranian aircraft and sea vessels. In early August, the Financial Times reported that "a carrier-borne F-14 Tomcat fighter unleashed two missiles at an Iranian jet spotted on its radar which had flown too close for comfort to an unarmed US surveillance aircraft." On September 23 of that year, the Washington Post reported, "U.S. Navy commandos yesterday boarded and captured the Iranian navy ship that was attacked by American helicopters Monday in the Persian Gulf," killing three Iranian sailors. An additional 26 Iranian crew members were detained. The same day, "the U.S. frigate involved in the attack fired warning shots at an Iranian hovercraft as it sped toward U.S. warships gathered near the disabled Iranian vessel, officials said."

A few weeks later, in early October, three Iranian ships were sunk by the U.S. Navy; later that month the Americans attacked two Iranian oil platforms. In April 1988, not only did a U.S. warship fire missiles at Iranian jets over the Persian Gulf, but two more oil platforms were destroyed and at least six Iranian ships were either crippled or sunk by American naval forces.

Fifteen years after these events, the International Criminal Court determined that "the actions of the United States of America against Iranian oil platforms on 19 October 1987 (Operation Nimble Archer) and 18 April 1988 (Operation Praying Mantis) cannot be justified as measures necessary to protect the essential security interests of the United States of America."

Then, on July 3, 1988, shortly after taking off from Bandar Abbas on the southern coast of Iran, the Dubai-bound Iran Air Flight 655 was blown out of the sky on the orders of U.S. Navy Commander William C. Rogers III of the USS Vincennes, a Ticonderoga class AEGIS guided missile cruiser, which had begun trolling the Persian Gulf in May of that year. The two surface-to-air missiles fired at the Iranian Airbus A300B2, a commercial flight that traveled along the same route every morning, obliterated the aircraft in broad daylight, killing all 290 civilians on board, including 66 children under the age of 12.

U.S. government whitewashing was swift.

In a statement issued soon after the attack, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called the incident "a terrible human tragedy," but justified it as "a proper defensive action by the U.S.S. Vincennes" after "the aircraft failed to heed repeated warnings."

Reporting on the downing of Iran Air Flight 655, an Associated Press report claimed on July 3, 1988 that the "Pentagon said U.S. Navy forces in the gulf sank two Iranian patrol boats and downed an F-14 fighter jet in the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday during an exchange of fire." Iran disputed this version of events, insisting that plane attacked had been a civilian airliner and that nearly 300 civilians on board had been killed in the assault. AP noted, "U.S. Navy officials in the gulf denied the Iranian claim."

In reaction to Iranian statements, President Reagan reportedly quipped, "Well, I don't go by what the Iranians say, ever."

Following the attack on Flight 655, Admiral William J. Crowe Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined what he called the "threatening flight profile" of the airplane the U.S. Navy ship had blown up. He told reporters that the Iranian plane had been "outside the prescribed commercial air corridor," that it "headed directly for Vincennes," that "there were electronic indications on Vincennes that led it to believe that the aircraft was an F-14" and that the plane was "decreasing in altitude as it neared the ship."

Crowe also maintained that the Vincennes, which, according to the Washington Post at the time, "was equipped with the most sophisticated radar and electronic battle gear in the Navy's surface arsenal," was "outside of Iranian territorial waters" when it fired at the Iranian aircraft.

"We do have some eyewitness reports that saw the vague shape of the aircraft when the missile hit," Crowe told reporters, "and it looked like it disintegrated." He also defended Commander Rogers' actions as "logical", saying, "The commanding officer conducted himself with circumspection and, considering the information that was available to him, followed his authorities and acted with good judgment at a very trying period and under very trying circumstances."

The official story was that the crew of the Vincennes mistook the massive, lumbering Airbus for a small, supersonic F-14 Tomcat making attack maneuvers. The bodies of men, women and children torn apart by American missiles and left floating in the blue waters of the Persian Gulf were simply collateral damage of a correct call to protect a Navy warship from a perceived threat.

The following day, July 4, Reagan issued a report to Congress in which he stated the USS Vincennes had been "operating in international waters of the Persian Gulf" and that following "indications that approximately a dozen Iranian small boats were congregating to attack merchant shipping, the Vincennes sent a Mark III Lamps Helicopter on investigative patrol in international airspace to assess the situation." The helicopter, Reagan claimed, was fired upon and returned to the ship.

Reagan further declared, "The actions of U.S. forces in response to being attacked by Iranian small boats were taken in accordance with our inherent right of self-defense." These actions included the downing of Flight 655, which, he said, was "believed to be a hostile Iranian military aircraft."

In a press briefing on the White House lawn the same day, Reagan claimed that the Iranian airliner had been "lowering its altitude," indicating an aggressive posture, at the time it was shot down.

In a news brief, the New York Times held the American line. Attributing the destruction of the passenger plane as an "error," the paper noted that "U.S. officials said the cruiser Vincennes mistook the plane for a hostile aircraft about to attack." While reporting that "[t]he downing of the Iranian jetliner is evidence of how split-second decisions in modern warfare may be based on incomplete electronic information," the Times added that "Iranian passenger plane failed to observe many precautions deemed necessary in a war zone, according to Western aviation experts. A U.S. official said the plane had apparently violated all the requirements."

The next day, the New York Times editorialized on the annihilation of the civilian airplane, stating that "while horrifying, it was nonetheless an accident. On present evidence, it's hard to see what the Navy could have done to avoid it," and adding that Vincennes captain Rogers "had little choice" but to blow a civilian airliner out of the sky. "It is hard to fault his decision to attack the suspect plane," the editors decided. The narrative of the events leading to the destruction of Flight 655 is taken directly from U.S. government talking points, with no independent investigation nor skepticism whatsoever. The Times concluded that Iran was to blame: "The onus for avoiding such accidents in the future rests on civilian aircraft: avoid combat zones, fly high, acknowledge warnings."

At the time, a report by Norman Solomon in Extra! revealed how the U.S. "government's public relations spin quickly became the mass media's: A tragic mishap had occurred in the Persian Gulf, amid puzzling behavior of the passenger jet. Blaming the victim was standard fare, as reporters focused on the plight of U.S.S. Vincennes commander Capt. Will Rodgers III, whose picture appeared on tabloid covers (7/5/88) with bold headlines: "Captain's Anguish" (Newsday) and "Captain's Agony" (New York Post)."

Naturally, if the Iranian military had blown up a Pan Am flight taking off from Dubai, protestations of self-defense probably wouldn't find many sympathetic ears in the United States; fewer still would empathize with the personal trauma of the murderer who gave the order.

Ten days later, on July 13, 1988, Assistant Secretary of State Richard S. Williamson continued to insist that the Vincennes was "at the time of the incident, in international waters." The next day, speaking in defense of American actions before the United Nations Security Council, Vice President George H.W. Bush declared, "One thing is clear - that is that the USS Vincennes acted in self-defense."

Bush also maintained that the decision to shoot down the Flight 655 "occurred in the midst of a naval attacked initiated by Iranian vessels against a neutral vessel and subsequently against the Vincennes when she came to the aid of the innocent ship in distress."

Iran's allegations that the warship was far too technologically advanced to make such a catastrophic mistake were dismissed by the American government. When questioned about the incident while on a presidential campaign trail the following month, Bush barked, "I will never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don't care what the facts are!"

Nearly all of these claims made by U.S. military and government officials about why Flight 655 was fired upon were lies, and the subsequent investigation was effectively one big cover-up, reports in Newsweek and by Nightline later revealed.

There had been no merchant vessel in distress and no helicopter was ever dispatched from the Vincennes, let alone fired upon. The warnings by Vincennes radio operators had not been broadcast to air traffic control frequencies. There had been no visual confirmation of an approaching or attacking aircraft. Iran Air Flight 655 - with its nearly 300 passengers aboard - was well within its flight corridor, flying comfortably at 12,000 feet and steadily climbing. It had been in the air less than seven minutes. At the time it was hit, it was gradually turning away from where the Vincennes was located. It would have landed in Dubai about twenty minutes later. As John Barry reported in 1992:
Captain [Mohsen] Rezaian of Iran Air was calmly reporting to Bandar Abbas that he had reached his first checkpoint crossing the gulf. He heard none of the Vincennes's warnings. His four radio bands were taken up with air-control chatter. "Have a nice day," the tower radioed. "Thank you, good day," replied the pilot. Thirty seconds later, the first missile blew the left wing off his aircraft.
There were other American naval vessels in the area at the time, none of which mistook the Iranian commercial airliner for a jet fighter, but were unable to act quickly enough to save Flight 655. "A few miles away, on the bridge of the Montgomery, crewmen gaped as a large wing of a commercial airliner, with an engine pod still attached, plummeted into the sea," Barry reported. "Aboard the USS Sides, 19 miles away, Captain [David] Carlson was told that his top radar man reckoned the plane had been a commercial airliner. Carlson almost vomited, he said later."

Vincennes commander Rogers was himself known to other naval officers as especially "trigger-happy." Captain Carlson, who commanded the Sides, a frigate in the same Surface Action Group as the Vincennes, later said that the Flight 655 disaster "marked the horrifying climax to Rogers' aggressiveness."

According to the subsequent government review of the downing of Flight 655, and particularly its Aegis targeting system and the "complex network of radar and computers" onboard the Vincennes, TIME magazine reported that "blame fell not on the machines but on the men who were operating them."

Nevertheless, not a single member of the crew of the Vincennes received official reprimand or opprobrium from the U.S. Navy or government. Moreover, in what can only be described as an act of staggering hubris, following the end of their deployment in 1989, all crew members aboard the Vincennes were awarded combat-action ribbons, while both Commander Rogers and Lieutenant Commander Scott Lustig, the ship's tactical coordinator for air warfare, were specifically granted the Navy's Legion of Merit for "meritorious service" and "heroic achievement."

Rogers was honored "for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer… from April 1987 to May 1989," while Lustig received his citation for his "ability to maintain his poise and confidence under fire," enabling him to "quickly and precisely complete the firing procedure."

Iran's only act of retaliation or retribution for the downing of Flight 655 was bringing forth a diplomatic and legal case for responsibility and restitution.  Speaking to the UN Security Council shortly after the incident and addressing the international support for Iraq against Iran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati said:
Our people will not be able easily to forget or forgive this series of injustices, which have cost dearly in human and financial terms in the course of the continuation and expansion of the war. But the tragedy of the attack on a civilian airliner and the horrible killing of innocent children and their mothers have so much affected public opinion among our people, as well as world public opinion, that we felt obliged to bring the carnage and its causes and consequences before the judgement of the international community for the sake of humanity and to safeguard international law.
Velayati then proceeded to detail the "true and substantiated story of a painful and unfortunate tragedy," by which he systematically debunked each and every one of the American claims regarding the events leading to the downing of Flight 655.

Vice President Bush spoke next. He accused Iran of levying "reckless, intemperate charges against my country" and spoke of the "legal right" of the United States "to help ensure the unimpeded flow of oil and to keep neutral commerce moving in the face of a very real threat to innocent shipping." He also laid the blame for the tragedy on Iran itself, saying, "Iranian authorities failed to divert Iran Air 655 from the combat area. They allowed a civilian aircraft loaded with passengers to proceed on a path over a warship engaged in active battle. That was irresponsible and a tragic error."

"The United States has never willfully acted to endanger innocent civilians, nor will it ever do so," Bush insisted, and announced that the United States "will continue to defend our interests and support our friends, while remaining steadfastly neutral in the war."

"Our naval presence is welcomed by peaceful nations," Bush said. "It is a threat to no one."

The International Court of Justice eventually awarded the victims of the attack $61 million in compensation for unwarranted loss of life. The U.S government has still never officially apologized to the Iranian people for this heinous crime.

Last year, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in commemoration of the tragedy. "This inhumane crime is clear proof of the innocence of the Iranian nation," it read, "and (provides) clear evidence that the United States is not committed to any international legal and ethical principles and norms, and (it) will remain in the historical memory of the Iranian nation."

The Washington Post's Max Fisher concludes his column, writing, "Americans might not know about Flight 655. But Iranians surely do -- they can hardly forget about it."

While he - and TIME's Michael Crowley - should be commended for reminding (or informing) their readership about the events of July 3, 1988 and its implications today, they should also remember that telling only part of the story - and allowing American aggression, dishonesty and denial to be dismissed uncritically as an "accident" - does a great disservice to the truth.

The 290 innocent victims deserve better.

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UPDATE:

October 17, 2013 - Following up on his piece about Flight 655, Max Fisher has posted a lengthy excerpt from a forthcoming book by Rutgers professor Toby Craig Jones, "America's Oil Wars," in which he "argues that the incident is a symbol and product of the U.S. strategy in the Gulf, where militarization and energy policies can often blur."

Jones' analysis is excellent, addressing as it does both American culpability for the attack and its subsequent cover-up. While in the aftermath of the downing of Flight 655 U.S. officials insisted that Iran "must share some responsibility for this tragedy," Jones explains, "It was the Vincennes, not the Iranian gunboats that provoked the clash between them. Rogers had the Vincennes pursue the gunboats into Iranian sovereign waters, from which it launched the two missiles that felled Flight 655."

More:
David Carlson, who commanded the cruiser USS Sides, and was in supporting role of and less than 20 nautical miles from Vincennes when it launched its attack, denied that the Iranians had been especially aggressive. Carlson later remarked that there “was no coordinated attack involving” the Iranian gunboats. He even challenged the prevailing assumption that the Iranian posture in the Gulf was threatening more generally. He reflected, “my experience was that the conduct of the Iranian military forces in the month preceding the incident was pointedly non-threatening.” While Carlson conceded that he thought the flight might have been an F-14 at the time, several of his crew rightly identified it as a civilian aircraft. Either way, Carlson never believed Flight 655 posed a risk and watched in horror as the Vincennes launched its missiles.
In disputing more apologetic accounts that sought to justify the Vincennes’s choices, the Sides’ commander offered a much less flattering analysis. “Having watched the performance of the Vincennes for a month before the incident,” he recalled that his “impression was clearly that an atmosphere of restraint was not her strong suit.” Revealing that his colleagues had taken to calling the Vincennes “Robo Cruiser” well before July 3, Carlson suggested that his “guess was that the crew of the Vincennes felt a need to prove the viability of Aegis [the ship’s new computerized system] ... and that they hankered for an opportunity to show their stuff.”
Jones continues to explain how American involvement in the Iran-Iraq War and, specifically, its destruction of Flight 655 "marked a critical moment in the late 20th century histories of the Gulf and to the shifting relationship between energy, the global political economy, and modern war."

"By the summer of 1988," Jones writes, "the U.S. Navy was patrolling the Gulf, shepherding oil tankers as they passed through the Strait of Hormuz, had established an elaborate anti-Iranian surveillance and policing network, and was trading shots with the Iranian Navy. Little reported at the time, just months before the July attack the U.S. staged its largest Naval confrontation since World War II against Iran. American antagonisms and work to thwart Iranian mobility in the Gulf have remained in place ever since."

Furthermore, he notes, "The downing of Flight 655 was rooted in a shifting politics around energy, and, in the making of a regional order in the 1980s in which 'energy' and 'war' became increasingly interdependent. The argument here is that the expansion of both the American presence and its use of violence resulted in the fundamental transformation of the relationship between energy and war, one in which the distinction between them was erased."

Jones highlights remarks made in 1987 by Richard W. Murphy, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and the Reagan administration's most visible spokesperson for its military policy in the Gulf, in prepared testimony before Congress, during which he said that "ready access to Gulf oil is critical to the economic well-being of the West," and continued to state that the Middle East "is strategically important to the United States. We would suffer a major strategic defeat should a power hostile to the United States sharply increase its power and influence in the region... The administration like its predecessors, is committed to maintaining the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and supporting the individual and collective self-defense of the Arab Gulf states."

Jones adds,
Ensuring the flow of oil, or stated otherwise, providing security for oil, was and remains a central tenant of the American case for its role in the Gulf. But the now-common idea of "energy security" is an articulation that obscures more than it reveals. The neat division of energy and security into related but still separate categories misses the more important ways in which the two have become inextricably connected, physically and technologically built into one another.
In creating a new techno-political order around energy and war starting in the mid-1980s, the United States and its allies engaged in a struggle to make and unmake space and movement in the Gulf, to create both a system of surveillance and control that privileged themselves as well as in a struggle to refashion the political geography of the region. The fluidity of the Gulf, the fact that both the seascape and the objects moving on it were always in motion, gave rise to a corresponding fluidity in the techno-political and geopolitical order in the region. The system was leaky and uncertain and mobility both on the sea and in the air was precarious. The result was the system was, according to those who sought to control, always in crisis and, thus, always at war. It has been ever since.
Such policies had been articulated for years by American officials. While Jones identifies such a shift in focus as occurring in the mid-1980s, it should be remembered that, during his 1980 State of the Union address, Reagan's predecessor, President Jimmy Carter, declared, "Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."

It is clear that, for decades now, the United States had considered the entire planet its backyard, the Persian Gulf its bathtub: American property free of any foreign sovereignty or international law, in which the U.S. military may act at will and with impunity.

It is indeed admirable that Fisher has allowed this context to appear on his Washington Post blog, especially in light of his previous post, which did little to illuminate the full scope of this tragedy and the American hubris behind it.

*****

Friday, October 11, 2013

As Usual, Orientalism Employed to Undermine Diplomacy with Iran

Blue Mosque, Jean-Léon Gérôme
"We are always wrong when we believe that Orientals think logically as we do." 
- President Dwight Eisenhower, in comments to his National Security Council, 2/17/1955 
"Really, it seemed hardly fair that dignified and correct western statesmanship should be defeated by the antics of incomprehensible orientals." 
- L.P. Elwell-Sutton, Persian Oil: A Study in Power Politics, 1955

As talks between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Great Britain, Russia, the United States and Germany) over Iran’s nuclear program are set to resume on October 15 after a long hiatus, much is being written by establishment analysts and the Beltway think tank commentariat about the potential for a diplomatic breakthrough and what it will take to get there. As always, racist and derogatory tropes – echoed, if not influenced, by the often disparaging and ignorant words of both Western and Israeli officials about Iran – are common in assessing what is often referred to as “the Persian mind.”

We hear that Iranians can’t be trusted, that they are wily rug merchants fooling the world with soothing talk tinged with jasmine and saffron. We hear they are wolves (in both wolf’s and sheep’s clothing – but never in denim, of course), that they are snake charmers, and are warned against succumbing to their silky and seductive talk of constructive engagement because “leopards do not change their spots.”

A week ago, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman - who will be the United States' lead negotiator at the upcoming talks with Iran - told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "deception is part of the DNA" of Iranians.

This is par for the course. Nearly a year and a half ago, with a new round of nuclear negotiations on the horizon, in a post entitled, “Perceptions of Persia: The Persistent and Pervasive Orientalism of the West’s Iran Policy,” I wrote:
As renewed negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 over the former’s IAEA-supervised nuclear energy program are set to continue on May 23 in Baghdad, politicians, pundits and the press have been energetically reinforcing the Orientalist narrative. Well-connected American journalists Barbara Slavin and Laura Rozen recently penned an article entitled, “Can Western Women Tame Iran’s Nuclear Negotiators?,” invoking psychosexual models of “Persian proverb[s]” and Scheherezade as a basis for nuclear talks [between American and European female interlocutors and] the male Iranian negotiators. Meanwhile, Iran hawks are taking every opportunity to paint Iran and its government as caricatures of irrational, untrustworthygenocidal, suicidal lunatics – serial liars and deceivers bent on world domination
This Orientalist rhetoric, which serves to sufficiently dehumanize and objectify Iranians to the point where collective punishment through economic sanctions, assassination, sabotage, surveillance, cyber attacks, regime change and even threats of bombing and devastation are justified and normalized in Western commentary, has remained unchanged.

Take, for example, some comments made by Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of Britain’s MI6 secret intelligence service, this past March at the UK Zionist Federation’s annual gala dinner. After describing Iran as “a state with many flaws and weakness, and a political system that is very fragile,” he told the crowd that “Iran is equivalent to a dangerous adolescent, [and] one does not want that adolescent to have access to certain technologies and weapons. The route the international community is on is the best and most practical.” At the same event, former Mossad chief and head of Israel’s National Security Council Efraim Halvey noted his ”indelible impression that Iran is dead scared of Israel.”

One is immediately reminded of the way in which the Western press described Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who led Iran to nationalize its oil industry in the early 1950s. A TIME magazine profile called Mossadegh a “weeping, fainting leader of a helpless country,” and a “strange old man” who “put Scheherazade in the petroleum business and oiled the wheels of chaos.” The magazine derided him as a “dizzy old wizard” who ”knows the value of the childlike tantrum.” The British media called him a “fanatic,” “impervious to common sense,” “nervously unstable” and “martyr-like.”

These days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – whose words are often approvingly parroted by influential American journalists - routinely describes Iran’s current leadership as a “messianic, apocalyptic, radical regime” with “wild ambitions” and “bent on world domination.”

In an article for Al Jazeera English, headlined, “Of Persian snake charmers: Racism and global hegemony,” foreign affairs analyst (and, full disclosure, one of Muftah‘s excellent editors) Murtaza Hussain addresses the very phenomenon of Orientalizing Iran and points to a number of recent examples:
The neoconservative hawks who were the architects of Iraq’s destruction – apparently unfazed by their ghoulish record in this regard – have in recent years set their sights on the nation of Iran as their next target. To this end, crippling sanctions – designed to literally “take the food out of the Iranian peoples’ mouths” – have been implemented in an effort to inflict maximum suffering on the civilian population and to generate favourable conditions for another war. Disregard for the basic humanity of the many Iranians who will die in the course of such policies is a necessary accomplice to this project. 
However, in recent weeks it would seem that a major setback has occurred to the neoconservative plan for another US war. A new Iranian government – conciliatory in its tone where its predecessor was shamelessly provocative – has come to power with the stated intention of reaching peaceful detente with the United States. Such a development necessarily makes the possibility of war more remote, and, to the chagrin of the neoconservatives, these overtures appear to have been cautiously welcomed by the administration of President Barack Obama. 
With their prized new war seemingly snatched from their grasp, it has been remarkable to watch the vast tantrum of anger and indignation among some hawks, in which the same racist beliefs which characterised past imperialism have bubbled back to the surface with remarkable speed. 
From warnings to "beware of Persian snake charmers", to allegations that for Iranians "deception is part of their DNA", the prospect of a peaceful detente with Iran has brought out a seemingly inexhaustible cavalcade of frankly racist rhetoric. 
As part of this campaign, long-time Pentagon official and neoconservative stalwart Harold Rohde has published a helpful primer on the apparently-monolithic “Iranian mind” and the dangers it poses in any negotiation. According to Rohde: 
“Compromise (as we in the West understand this concept) is seen as a sign of submission and weakness. When the West establishes itself as the most powerful force and shows strength and resolve, Iranians will most likely come on board … it is for this reason that measures of good-will and confidence-building should be avoided at all costs.” 
In this are clear echoes of the stunningly ignorant claim – popularised during the era of the Iraq War – that "Arabs only understand force", and that thus uniquely among human beings, they are incapable of appreciating empathy or conciliation. 
Similarly, according to this overtly racist argument, Iranians too are unlike any other humans on Earth and are in fact more akin to animals or small children who must be shown firm discipline as opposed to respect or decency in the course of any negotiation. 
With remarkably ignorant worldviews such as these informing their strategies, it is unsurprising that US foreign policy in the Middle East has been such a catastrophic failure over the past decade. 
Dispatches from ‘the villa in the jungle’ 
On October 1, Binyamin Netanyahu attended the UN General Assembly to deliver an unapologetically aggressive, demeaning and hostile speech directed towards the just-elected president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. In his address Netanyahu used language completely alien to the typically careful discourse of international diplomacy, calling Rouhani “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, characterising him as an untrustworthy liar, and bizarrely stating at one point that “Rouhani thinks he can have his yellowcake [uranium] and eat it too”. It is difficult to imagine such language openly directed against any other elected leader in a diplomatic forum such as this. 
But as a representative of Ehud Barak’s “villa in the jungle” and the state that Theodor Herzl correctly said would exist as “a rampart of Europe against Asia”, Netanyahu was not alone in his overt condescension towards Iran and the Iranian people. A senior Israeli official also advised his US counterparts not to trust any Iranian offers of dialogue as "Persians have been using these [duping] tactics for thousands of years, before America came to be"
The darkly humorous coda to this spectacle was Netanyahu’s suggestion – days later – that he would “consider” taking a phone call from Rouhani if one were proffered. Ostensibly, this consideration would come only if the Iranian president were to grovel on his knees and beg for such an opportunity, even in the wake of Netanyahu’s unabashed insults and threats towards him.
Casting Iranians as inherently duplicitous, devious and irrational is a sure-fire way to undermine diplomacy before it even begins. Of course, this is precisely the point.

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Originally posted at Muftah.

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