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 as 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.


Friday, May 6, 2016

The Washington Post Repeats Its Nuclear Error

In late April 2015, The Washington Post published an article about then-recent poll numbers showing that 13% of Americans (and 21% of self-identified Republicans) supported a unilateral, unprovoked, wholly illegal military attack on Iran. The report's author Aaron Blake at one point referred to what he described as "Iran's nuclear weapons program," despite the fact that Iran does not currently have - nor has it ever had - such a program.

Well, The Washington Post is at it again. In its coverage of a new blockbuster New York Times Magazine profile of Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, the Post's media columnist Paul Farhi recycles the very same error his colleague did a year ago.

In describing the Obama administration's efforts to garner support for diplomacy with Iran and to build Congressional support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in July 2015, otherwise known as the Iran Deal, Farhi notes that "Rhodes’s boss, President Obama, has been a strong and consistent advocate for the agreement with Iran, which requires the country to stop its nuclear weapons program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions."

As I've noted before - and, unfortunately, ad nauseam - Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. Indeed, long before the recent negotiations that led to the signing of the JCPOA, international intelligence agencies and the organization empowered to ensure compliance with nuclear safeguards had affirmed that Iran was not weaponizing its nuclear energy program.

In fact, Iran's nuclear program, which is regularly monitored and protected by treaty, has never been found to have had any military dimensions of any kind.

Nevertheless, against all facts, the pernicious narrative of Iran's relentless pursuit of atomic bombs persists.

Repeating falsehoods has dangerous consequences. It is incumbent on reporters like Farhi to get the story straight.



May 7, 2016 - Apparently Farhi got the message.

The Post article on the Rhodes profile has been updated to include a slightly more accurate description of the Iranian nuclear program and the JCPOA itself:

The correction is in the text of the piece only; no additional note identifying the initial error has been appended to the article. For reference, the original article - as first published - can be found here.


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.


Monday, April 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I want to thank the folks from the clandestine services who don't always get the credit that they deserve, but they do a lot of great work. And thank you to them as well," said Heslov, who once co-starred as a CIA intel officer opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron's 1994 action blockbuster True Lies, which is widely regarded as one of the most Islamophobic and anti-Arab films ever made. That film "probably will stand the test of time as one of the most racist movies Hollywood has ever produced," said film scholar Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs, a study of Middle Eastern stereotyping in cinema.

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

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

When Argo won the Best Picture Oscar at the end of the night (and remotely presented with the award by non-other than First Lady Michelle Obama, beamed in live from the Diplomatic Room of the White House, while surrounded by U.S. military personnel), Ben Affleck took time not only to also thank Mendez, whom Affleck himself portrays in the film, but also "our friends in Iran, living in terrible circumstances right now." What?

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

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

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

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

It is no surprise then which film the U.S. government was rooting for on Oscar night. The day before the ceremony, a message from the State Department's official Twitter account, and attributed directly to Secretary of State John Kerry, declared: "Good luck @BenAffleck and #Argo at the Oscars. Nice seeing @StateDept & our Foreign Service on the big screen.-JK"

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

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

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

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

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


Read my previous articles on Argo here:

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

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

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