Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Citations Needed, Episode 06: The Media’s Default Setting of White Supremacy

(Artwork pictured by @/yesitsalex___)

On Episode 6 of Citations Needed, Adam and I explore how the media both consciously and subconsciously works to smear black victims, protect the police, and works overtime to ameliorate the sensibilities of white media consumers.

The white supremacist regime at work in the media can be broken down into three main narrative devices:
  1. The use of language to downplay state violence and assert false parity
  2. The uncritical dissemination of exaggerated or made up threats to police to turn the aggressor into the victim
  3. The posthumous smearing of black victims to rationalize their killing after the fact.
In this episode, we examine the mechanisms of these genres, how they influence public perception and why they create the media environment that makes more Mike Browns all but certain.

The Guest

Dr. Jared A Ball is a professor of Media, Communications, and Africana Studies at Morgan State University in Maryland. Dr. Ball is a prolific writer, speaker, and multimedia producer at His commentary can be read everywhere from the Washington Post to The Nation, the Grio to the Root, and beyond. A forthcoming book from Third World Press entitled, Not Our President: New Directions from the Pushed Out, the Others, and the Clear Majority in Trump’s Stolen America, will featured his essay “Agent Orange: Donald Trump as Political Chemical Warfare.”

Here's the episode:

Show Notes for this episode can be found here.


Citations Needed is a media criticism podcast, hosted by Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi, political commentators and media analysts working to call bullshit on (usually corporate) media’s ubiquitous reliance on and regurgitation of false and destructive narratives, tropes and stereotypes.

Citations Needed is produced by Josh Kross and Florence Barrau-Adams. Our theme song is ‘Nonphenomenal Lineage’ by Grandaddy.


Friday, August 4, 2017

The Return of the Media's Zombie Narrative About Iran's Nuclear Program

Democracy may die in darkness, but the Washington Post continues to murder truth when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program.

In an August 2, 2017 article about a recent bill, passed nearly unanimously in Congress and begrudgingly signed into law, that pointlessly imposes more sanctions on Russia and two other countries that don't toe the American line, the Washington Post described the measure, in part, as punishment "against North Korea and Iran for those countries' nuclear weapons programs."

(Screenshot via @thekarami)

Not only does this description misunderstand the contents of the bill itself, which actually targets totally legal conventional (read: non-nuclear) weapons and research programs, but it brazenly states as implicit fact that Iran has a "nuclear weapons program."

Similarly, a Washington Post analysis on the merits of pursuing regime change (in wholesale violation of international law or the will of the target's population, which are never mentioned), published just three days earlier on July 31, repeated a number of common tropes about Iran. Not least among these talking points, offered uncritically by two associate professors of political science, is that "[r]egime change in Tehran is thus the surest route to get Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program."

Leaving aside the imperial audacity of such a statement, that the Washington Post would publish this sentence is shocking. Why?

Because Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program.

In fact, it never has.

This is neither controversial nor a matter of nuance. It is plain and simple fact. Yet this point continues to be ignored in the service of the undying political and media narrative in this country that Iran is a malevolent, if not genocidal, monster that threatens peace and stability around the world and whose every nefarious move (which is every move, of course) must be opposed and resisted by the noble United States, simultaneously the world's policeman and Good Samaritan.

The Facts

Since the signing of the multilateral nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers in July 2015, the IAEA has routinely confirmed the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program. This assessment has been repeatedly affirmed by the United States government.

But this is nothing new.

International intelligence assessments have consistently affirmed that Iran has no nuclear weapons program, but rather a nuclear energy program with domestic uranium enrichment facilities. All of these facilities are legal and protected under international law; all of Iran's nuclear fissile material is under international safeguards, strictly monitored and routinely inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). No move to divert nuclear material to military or weaponization purposes has ever been detected in the history of the Iranian program.

These facts have been consistently affirmed by U.S., British, Russian, and even Israeli intelligence, as well as the IAEA. In fact, the IAEA itself has said that there is "no concrete proof" Iran's nuclear program "has ever had" a military component.

Despite longstanding Iranian policy that has held, unequivocally, that nuclear weapons are not only strategically and geopolitically obsolete, but also ethically abhorrent and religiously prohibited, hysteria over an imaginary Iranian nuclear weapons program has been exploited for more than than three decades to justify sanctions, threats, assassinations, sabotage, surveillance, and other covert actions against Iran in the hopes of overthrowing the government that came to power after ousting the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979.

Even claims that Iran had a dedicated nuclear weapons program before 2002 or 2003 are dubious at best, and rely on evidence that is most likely completely fabricated. The authenticity of these allegations has been repeatedly questioned by the IAEA, as well as the United States. As former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei noted in his 2011 memoir, Age of Deception, U.S. intelligence officials "did not share the supposed evidence that had led them to confirm the existence of a past Iranian nuclear [weapons] program, other than to refer to the same unverified set of allegations about weaponization studies that had already been discussed with the Agency."

In fact, even the IAEA's "Final Assessment" of Iran's alleged past weapons work, published in December 2015 fell flat. The agency concluded that "a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003," and that "these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities." Moreover, the IAEA reaffirmed - as it has for the past decade - that there were "no credible indications of the diversion of nuclear material" from Iran's nuclear energy program at any point ever to a possible parallel military effort.

After reviewing these findings, former weapons inspector Scott Ritter insisted, "There hasn't been a more meaningless conclusion of such an over-hyped issue since the CIA assessed that Iraq had 'dozens of WMD program-related activities' in the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of that country." Ritter even added that the supposed "range of activities relevant" to a nuclear weapon "are far less threatening than the ominous description provided by the IAEA would lead one to believe. In every case, the IAEA was either forced to concede that their information was baseless (allegations concerning the manufacture of "uranium metal," for instance), or else could be explained through 'alternative applications' involving Iranian commercial and military activities unrelated to the Iranian nuclear program."

Professor Dan Joyner, a nonproliferation and international law expert, noted that the IAEA assessment wholly vindicates Iran against allegations that its past activities violated its legal obligations. The IAEA has "now given its opinion that Iran has not violated NPT Article II through any of the alleged PMD activities," Joyner wrote, "because none of the assessed activities can be said to rise to the prohibited level of the manufacture or other acquisition of a nuclear explosive device." Also, because there was never any diversion of nuclear material from peaceful to military uses, the IAEA had effectively "determined that none of these activities constituted a violation of Iran’s safeguards obligations. As Article 1 of Iran's comprehensive safeguards agreement makes explicit, the IAEA's safeguards activities in Iran are implemented 'for the exclusive purpose of verifying that such material is not diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.'"

The Never-Ending Problem

The offending "nuclear weapons program" phrase in the August 2 sanctions was caught immediately by journalist Arash Karami.

This is more than a matter of sloppy writing or editing, however, as it demonstrates the pervasive nature of a nuclear narrative that holds, despite all evidence, that Iran is, was, and always will be pursuing nuclear bombs with which to threaten American interests and dominance.

Indeed, the Washington Post has a troubling history of pushing this line. Back in December 2011, Patrick B. Pexton, then the Post's ombudsman, challenged the paper's routinely irresponsible and alarmist reporting on Iran's nuclear program, writing that the IAEA "does not say Iran has a bomb, nor does it say it is building one," and warned that such misleading characterizations of such an important issue "can also play into the hands of those who are seeking further confrontation with Iran."

Others in similar roles at leading media organizations - from the New York Times, NPR, and The Guardian - have concurred with Pexton's determination.

Nevertheless, the same damaging language has been used repeatedly by these very same outlets since. Rather than fix their reporting and editorial standards to adhere more closely to the truth, papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times have instead permanently eliminated the position of Ombudsman and Public Editor altogether.

As both the U.S. government has again put Iran in its crosshairs, the zombie narratives about Iran's nonexistent nuclear weapons program will continue to be resurrected by the dutiful mainstream media. It remains incumbent on readers to challenge such falsehoods as forcefully as possible before our brains all turn to mush.



August 6, 2017 - The Washington Post has posted a correction to its August 2 article and removed the word "nuclear" from the originally published sentence:

Kudos to Arash Karami for bringing to this to their attention.

Unfortunately, the Post's July 31 article remains uncorrected.

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

Considering political and media propaganda about Iran's nuclear program is continually recycled, I too have reused parts of my own previous writing in this post. I mean, you can only write the same stuff in different ways so many times.


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Citations Needed, Episode 05: The Great American Socialist Whitewash

Fred Hampton

On Episode 5 of Citations Needed, Adam and I explore the history of the media erasing socialists of color from the history books and present day discourse––a tactic that serves to both commodity and water-down black radicalism and pawn off leftwing politics as a uniquely white or middle class enterprise.

Our guests this week are Robert Greene II and Roqayah Chamseddine.

Robert Greene II is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of South Carolina. His research covers American intellectual history, the history of the United States South since World War II, and political history since Reconstruction. Mr. Greene has a book chapter coming out as part of the Southern Studies collection Navigating Souths: Transdisciplinary Explorations of a U.S. Region, forthcoming from UGA Press, along with essays published by Scalawag, The Nation, Jacobin, Dissent, and Politico. He has also published the essay, “South Carolina and the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement,” in the journal Patterns of Prejudice, and is a blogger and book review editor for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians.

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Lebanese-American writer, published poet, and editor in chief of Wanderings. Magazine. Along with Kumars Salehi, she co-hosts “Delete Your Account,” a weekly podcast covering politics and pop culture. She is a staff writer at Shadowproof, contributing writer at Paste Magazine, and Mondoweiss, and former researcher for Abby Martin’s The Empire Files on TeleSur English.

Here's the episode:

Show Notes for this episode can be found here.


Citations Needed is a media criticism podcast, hosted by Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi, political commentators and media analysts working to call bullshit on (usually corporate) media’s ubiquitous reliance on and regurgitation of false and destructive narratives, tropes and stereotypes.

Citations Needed is produced by Josh Kross and Florence Barrau-Adams. Our theme song is ‘Nonphenomenal Lineage’ by Grandaddy.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Citations Needed, Episode 04: The Root of All Evil

A recent New York Times presents a Manichean worldview wherein the United States’ invasion of Iraq was noble and just, while Iran’s relationship with its neighbor is nefarious and dangerous. The article was written by Baghdad bureau chief Tim Arango (picture above, right).

Episode 4 of Citations Needed, my new media criticism podcast co-hosted by Adam Johnson, is out.

This week, we talk about a recent New York Times article — and the broader media habit of painting the United States as benevolent democracy-seeker, while Iran and other Official Enemies™ are presented only ever as cynical imperialists.

In this episode, Adam and I dissect the true history of what caused chaos in Iraq, who’s to blame and what the real motives were behind the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations’ designs for the country. All this in the context of a battle for control over remaining ISIS territory in Syria; and Washington’s, Riyadh’s, and Tel Aviv’s desire to stop the dreaded “Shia crescent.”

Show Notes for this episode can be found here.


Citations Needed is a media criticism podcast, hosted by Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi, political commentators and media analysts working to call bullshit on (usually corporate) media’s ubiquitous reliance on and regurgitation of false and destructive narratives, tropes and stereotypes.

Citations Needed is produced by Josh Kross and Florence Barrau-Adams. Our theme song is ‘Nonphenomenal Lineage’ by Grandaddy.


Friday, July 21, 2017

MSNBC's Joy Reid Fails History and Geography

MSNBC's Joy Reid

“Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
- James Baldwin

Seemingly apropos of nothing but shameless Red-baiting weirdness, MSNBC host Joy Reid tweeted today about two of Donald Trump's three wives hailing from Eastern European countries.

"Donald Trump married one American (his second wife) and two women from what used to be Soviet Yugoslavia: Ivana-Slovakia, Melania-Slovenia," Reid's tweet read.

There is so much wrong with this statement, beyond the sheer creepy xenophobic signaling oozing every word, it's difficult to know where to start.

First, while Yugoslavia during the Cold War was indeed a communist state, it was not Soviet. Following a brief alliance with the Soviet Union following World War II, Yugoslavia under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito was expelled by Stalin from the Soviet-oriented Cominform (Communist Information Bureau) in 1948 and remained independent of Soviet influence. Yugoslavia was the only communist state in Europe not to join the Warsaw Pact.

History 1. Joy Reid 0.

Second, the socialist state of Yugoslavia was a federation of six separate republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Serbia, which included within its borders the two autonomous provinces Kosovo and Vojvodina.

So, while Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia, Slovakia was not; rather it was part of Czechoslovakia, along with the Czech socialist republic.

Geography 1. Joy Reid 0.

But that's not all. Ivana Trump was born in the Moravian city of Zlín, which was indeed part of Czechoslovakia at the time, but as part of the Czech republic, not the Slovakian one.

Geography 2. Joy Reid 0.

Unsurprisingly, these simple facts were immediately pointed out to Reid by countless people on Twitter.

In her attempt to correct herself, however, Reid wound up doubling down on her error. "Melania is from Slovenia (which plus Slovakia used to be Yugoslavia)," she tweeted.

Again, no. Slovakia was never a part of Yugoslavia. It was the "-slovakia" part of "Czechoslovakia." See how that works?

History 2. Geography 3. Reid 0.

This is not the first time Reid has flubbed European history in service of anti-Russian posturing. Back in September 2016, Reid sent a series of tweets designed to smear the vile Republican presidential candidate's penchant for lauding Russian leader Vladimir Putin by suggesting that she believed Russia was still a communist state.

Needless to say, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Russia may certainly be authoritarian, but it is definitely not communist.

MSNBC, the cable news network home to Reid's weekend show AM Joy, has a history of questionable geography skills. Its graphics department has virtually annexed the West Bank to Israel and claimed Jerusalem as its capital. In 2013, a map showing four upcoming stops on a presidential bus tour of New York and Pennsylvania got the locations of all four cities completely, egregiously wrong. The following year, a map shown during primetime's All In with Chris Hayes inexplicably spelled the word "Iraq" incorrectly.

But Reid's recent Soviet snafu isn't a mere typo or simply the result of intellectual laziness. It's ignorance couched in the nativism and nationalism of McCarthyite demonization.

Look, Donald Trump is already a loathsome, shitbag sociopath. Efforts to expose, oppose, castigate, and marginalize him and the threat his administration and supporters present to the entire world are vital. His awful wives, past and present, don't deserve any sympathy. But, with all this in mind, there's no need to use base xenophobia and Cold War-era Red Scare tactics to achieve these goals. And it's even more embarrassing to get basic facts wrong while doing it.

A couple years ago, Joy Reid delivered the inaugural Ida B. Wells lecture at Wake Forest University. Wells, the fearless journalist and fierce civil rights and suffrage activist, once noted, "The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press."

As a journalist with an often daily platform on a major news network, Joy Reid needs to do a much better job at educating - both herself and her audience.


Citations Needed, Episode 03: The Rise of Superpredator 2.0

"The press is so powerful in its image-making role, it can make the criminal look like he's a the victim and make the victim look like he's the criminal... If you aren't careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing."
- Malcolm X, Audubon Ballroom, December 13, 1964

Episode 3 of the new media criticism podcast, Citations Needed, which I host alongside Adam Johnson is here!

The episode, "The Rise of Superpredator 2.0," is about the media narrative surrounding the rise of so-called “gang raids” that have exploded over the past three years. These high-stakes, headline-grabbing spectacles target, almost exclusively, black and brown people and are carried out by hundreds of local, state, and federal officials.

Citations Needed is produced by Josh Kross and Florence Barrau-Adams. Our theme song is ‘Nonphenomenal Lineage’ by Grandaddy.

Emails obtained by Atlantic City Lab’s George Joseph (now at make clear that media perception is, at least, one major criteria for these raids. Joseph wrote in February:
As one ICE officer excitedly wrote, the operation “has more media interest than I can catalogue and the story was picked up worldwide.”
Another internal email by an ICE official insisted, “the operation has more media interest than I can catalogue and the story was picked up worldwide.”

That which the government frames as a media operation should be dissected as such. In addition, local media is literally copy and pasting ICE press releases when “reporting” on their raids, often lifting 4-5 paragraphs word for word from government-issued copy. Beyond this, who is considered a gang member is based on criteria so loose and wide-ranging, it could be applied virtually to anyone living in certain areas. In this way, those caught up and arrested in these raids are treated much like "enemy combatants" in the so-called War on Terror, guilty by association, ancestry, or geography, able to be exonerated only after being destroyed. Nevertheless, the virtue and necessity of the uptick in “gang raids” is widely accepted without much criticism.

One activist and reporter looking at this trend with a skeptical eye is our guest Josmar Trujillo, who has endless insights on the topic. Josmar is a Harlem-based organizer, writer, trainer, and agitator.

Josmar has organized around education, disaster recovery and policing with groups like the Coalition to End Broken Windows and New Yorkers Against Bratton. His writing has been featured in the Village Voice, New York Daily News, amNY, City Limits, Newsday, Crain’s, Truthout, Huffington Post, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and SchoolBook.

Show Notes for this episode can be found here.


Citations Needed is a media criticism podcast, hosted by Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi, political commentators and media analysts working to call bullshit on (usually corporate) media’s ubiquitous reliance on and regurgitation of false and destructive narratives, tropes and stereotypes.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Citations Needed, Episode 02: The North Korea Memory Hole

Episode 2 of the new media criticism podcast, Citations Needed, which I host alongside Adam Johnson is here!

The episode, "The North Korea Memory Hole," tackles forgotten war crimes, broken promises, and the making of an official enemy. It is our first foray into the realm of the Official Enemy™, a staple of United States foreign policy discourse that we'll surely be revisiting a lot.

Citations Needed is produced by Josh Kross and Florence Barrau-Adams. Our theme song is ‘Nonphenomenal Lineage’ by Grandaddy.

The past few months have seen a significant increase in media coverage of North Korea, mainly — if not, exclusively—focused on its nuclear and missile programs. Emblematic of the tone of nearly all reports and commentary is a new cover story in The Atlantic, entitled “How to Deal With North Korea,” written by the magazine’s national correspondent Mark Bowden. In typically alarmist fashion, the piece opens with a horror story:
Thirty minutes. That’s about how long it would take a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched from North Korea to reach Los Angeles. With the powers in Pyongyang working doggedly toward making this possible — building an ICBM and shrinking a nuke to fit on it — analysts now predict that Kim Jong Un will have the capability before Donald Trump completes one four-year term.
This narrative of a maniacally single-minded nuclear menace working tirelessly toward our annihilation is pervasive in the media. It is no wonder then that the American public continues to hold overwhelmingly negative attitudes towards North Korea. Recent polling indicates that four out of five Americans (80%) consider North Korea to be a threat to the security of the United States. Approximately 60% believe North Korea poses a “major” threat, while 37% think of the threat as “immediate.” One survey from May found that a whopping 87% of US voters were either very or somewhat concerned about “the situation in North Korea.”

Polls from this past Spring, even before the most recent ramp up in coverage and political posturing, found that two-thirds of respondents (66%) would favor US action to “stop and search North Korean ships for nuclear materials or arms,” while 43–48% would support “air strikes against military targets and suspected nuclear sites in North Korea.”

This North Korea “crisis” is a knotty one and, to be understood, requires a good primer on a history we aren’t often taught to fully appreciate. For this we turn to — among others — no-bullshit University of Chicago historian and author Bruce Cumings. Definitely check out his book. Many of our figures on early war casualties and recaps of New York Times racism comes from this book — many more details like it.

Another commentator who’s not afraid to buck conventional wisdom is our guest, veteran investigative journalist Tim Shorrock, author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing.

Tim was raised in Japan and South Korea and has been covering the intersection of US foreign policy, national security and capitalism for over three-and-a-half decades. Tim is a contributor to The Nation and his work has appeared in many other publications, including Salon, Mother Jones, The Progressive, The Daily Beast and The New York Times. He’s also on Twitter.

Show Notes for this episode can be found here.


Citations Needed is a media criticism podcast, hosted by Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi, political commentators and media analysts working to call bullshit on (usually corporate) media’s ubiquitous reliance on and regurgitation of false and destructive narratives, tropes and stereotypes.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Citations Needed, Episode 01: The Charter School Scam

I'm happy to announce the launch of a new media criticism podcast, Citations Needed, hosted by prolific media analyst Adam H. Johnson and... me!

The show, quite simply, will identify, demystify, deconstruct, and generally call bullshit on the media’s ubiquitous reliance on and regurgitation of false and destructive narratives, tropes, and stereotypes.

For those who might not know, Adam is a contributing writer for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. His writing has been also featured in The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, Alternet, and elsewhere. He also crushes on Twitter.

We'll cover issues both foreign and domestic and will often, though not always, feature interviews with knowledgeable and experienced journalists and analysts. I'm confident that it's only a matter of time before the gentlemen of Chapo Trap House will hand over their Patreon account to us on bended knee.

Actually, this is a brand new thing and it's certainly a work in progress. Thankfully, Adam and I are able to rely on the spectacular talents of our producers, Josh Kross and Florence Barrau-Adams, who are not only media veterans and miracle workers, but also quite lovely, generous people.

Citations Needed is available on iTunes, Soundcloud and LibSyn (here's the RSS feed). You can also check us out on Twitter, Facebook, and Medium, which is where we post a bunch of show notes to accompany each episode.

So, without further adieu, here's the pilot episode of Citations Needed. Enjoy!

Episode 1 features a discussion about charter schools and, basically, why they’re awful. We look into the agenda behind the pro-charter film Waiting for Superman, the ongoing demonization of teachers and their unions, the fudging, inflation and wholesale manufacturing of test scores that demonstrate “success”, and also try to find some silver linings among the dark clouds. For instance, the fact that everyone hates Betsy DeVos is helping. 
We are joined by the incomparable Jennifer Berkshire, journalist, podcaster, and education editor at Alternet.

Jennifer Berkshire’s writing and interviews regularly gain national attention and have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, The Baffler, Salon, Alternet, Jacobin, The Progressive, Huffington Post and plenty of other places. 
Check out her own podcast, Have You Heard.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dumbstruck: A Deafening Silence in Defense of American Hypocrisy

In orb, they trust.

Guess what? The United States of America doesn't actually care about democracy or human rights. Shocking, I know.

But rarely has the indefensible nature of American hypocrisy been more perfectly or publicly displayed than by high-ranking State Department official Stuart Jones at a press briefing yesterday.

Here's how Newsweek's Tom O'Connor set the scene:
Stuart Jones, who was appointed as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq by former President Barack Obama in 2014 before assuming the title of assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs in January, took a long, silent pause after an Agence France-Presse reporter asked the official how President Donald Trump could criticize Iran's democracy, while standing next to Saudi Arabian officials. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, where every position of power is appointed by either the king or other members of the Al Saud royal family from which the nation derives its name. Trump recently visited Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the U.S., and took the opportunity to deeply criticize the two nations' mutual foe, Iran, and its commitment to democracy weeks after it held its presidential election.
It's surprising and, frankly, frustrating that reporters don't routinely ask this very obvious question more often. Yet Jones' dazzling unpreparedness in the face of such a query is a testament not only to how infrequently US officials are ever put on the spot to defend their government's double standards.

In lieu of delivering an actual answer, Jones became visibly uncomfortable, signed audibly, stared blindly into nothingness and said nothing for roughly 18 seconds. You could see the squeaky gears laboring to rotate in his head. You hear the faint trickle of urine run down his thigh. You could feel Jones praying to be suddenly whisked away by a dragon-drawn chariot sent to him by the sun god Helios.

Watch it. It's beautifully painful.


Monday, January 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A CIA Coup in Graphic Form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Coup and Its Aftermath

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

President Eisenhower and the Dulles Brothers (Verso Books)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting the Record Straight on American Complicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dichotomies and Drawbacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning from History

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

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

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

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

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

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


Originally posted at Muftah.