Sep 1 2005

Buying the Bush Line on Iran Nukes

Despite uncertainty, U.S. journalists take sides

How should U.S. journalists treat charges that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program? On the one hand, the track record of White House allegations about the weapons programs of the “axis of evil” is decidedly poor. On the other hand, Iranian officials who claim their country has only a peaceful nuclear energy program have their own history of deceptions and evasions.

With a story marked by uncertainty, the journalist’s job is to puncture official misinformation all around while digging for more solid information. Unfortunately, U.S. news media outlets have instead largely decided to echo White House charges despite the shortage of facts.

News articles in the New York Times, which often sets the tone for other news outlets, repeatedly treat the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program as a matter of fact. A front-page Times story by reporter Patrick Tyler (6/27/05) mentioned that China might block “efforts to bring the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program before the United Nations Security Council.” Another Times front-pager by Michael Gordon (10/19/04) suggested that a U.S.-friendly regime in Iraq might pressure “Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program.” And a Times article by Scott Shane (3/26/05), reporting on how U.S. intelligence on Iran is lacking, nevertheless took the administration’s view when it referred to “Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.”

The paper also tips its hand toward the White House by emphasizing official charges about Iran, while downplaying conflicting information. For instance, a front-page Times report (3/15/04) quoted George W. Bush suggesting Iran was violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by developing a nuclear weapons program: “We cannot allow rogue states that violate their commitments and defy the international community to undermine the NPT’s fundamental role in strengthening international security.” Bush cited no evidence that Iran was violating the NPT; neither did his National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who appeared in the article echoing his boss’s views.

One had to look further down in the article—between parentheses, at the end of a paragraph—to learn that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. organization responsible for inspecting and monitoring NPT compliance, had found “no compelling evidence” of an Iranian weapons program.

Exaggerated certainty

The New York Times isn’t the only news outlet confusing White House charges with what is actually known about Iran’s nuclear program. An article in Newsweek’s July 11 edition, headlined “Iran’s Nuclear Lies,” parroted the White House line on Iran, stressing Iran’s spotty history of compliance with the IAEA while failing to tell readers about the IAEA’s cautiously positive assessment of Iran’s current compliance.

On a European trip, Bush explained to reporters in Germany how Iran was violating the NPT (AP, 2/23/05): “The reason we’re having these discussions is because they were caught enriching uranium after they had signed a treaty saying they wouldn’t enrich uranium. . . . They’re the party that needs to be held into account, not any of us.’’

Despite the fact that Iran’s right to openly enrich uranium for non-military purposes is protected by the NPT, Bush’s false charges were reported unchallenged in many outlets (e.g., AP, 2/23/05; All Things Considered, 2/23/05). In this case, the New York Times was an exception: “In his public comments about Iran’s uranium enrichment,” the paper reported (2/24/05), “Mr. Bush appeared to have misspoken, because the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty permits uranium enrichment for commercial purposes as long as a country declares the activity and allows inspections.” The Times did, however, fail to mention that Iran’s enrichment program had been suspended for three months at the time of Bush’s statement.

Justifiable suspicions

There are good reasons to be suspicious of Iran’s nuclear intentions. The country hid its uranium enrichment program for years and, following its discovery, officials stalled IAEA inspectors and obfuscated details of the program. These facts have not been lost on U.S. journalists, who have routinely covered them.

More recently, the IAEA has found Iran to be more or less in compliance. A Christian Science Monitor story (3/31/05) citing Iran’s past record of secrecy and delayed inspections reported that Iran “has been relatively cooperative” and that the IAEA “says its inspectors have found no evidence of a weapons program.”

According to the IAEA, Iran’s enrichment program had only produced a small amount of non-weapons-grade uranium before Iran voluntarily suspended it in November 2004 as a result of negotiations with France, Germany and Britain. On June 13, IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei declared that Iran has “respected its commitment with regard to suspension of the fuel-cycle activities” (Agence France Presse, 6/13/05).

Under the NPT, non-nuclear-weapons countries agree not to pursue or possess nuclear weapons, while nuclear-armed countries agree to pursue disarmament and to share nuclear energy technology with the non-nuclear countries. (See Extra!, 7-8/05.) Under the agreement, non-nuclear-weapons states may develop nuclear programs, enrich uranium, etc., as long the programs are for non-military purposes and they are disclosed to the IAEA.

Lacking context

When pointing out Iran’s deceptions and evasions, evenhandedness would require reporters to provide context regarding Iran’s situation. A fair analysis would acknowledge that, whatever its sins, Iran has not been particularly well-served by the current nonproliferation regime. To its east, Pakistani and Indian nuclear arsenals have thrived outside the NPT regime; and to its west, Israel, another non-NPT state, receives a wink from the U.S. for its undeclared nuclear arsenal.

Nor do White House rhetoric and threats exactly encourage Iran to remain nuke-free. Besides dubbing it part of an “axis of evil,” the White House has spoken flippantly about possible attacks on Iran.

On February 22, reacting to a reporter’s question about whether the U.S. is considering attacking Iran, George W. Bush drew laughter from journalists when he dismissed the notion as “simply ridiculous” and then immediately added: “And having said that, all options are on the table” (Public Papers of the Presidents, 2/28/05).

And in an interview on MSNBC’s Don Imus Show in January (cited in New York Sun, 2/18/05), Dick Cheney glibly referred to a potential Israeli attack on Iran in what some saw as a green light:

If, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had a significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards.

Independent reporting

Washington Post journalist Dafna Linzer, one of few mainstream journalists to consistently challenge White House claims about Iran’s nuclear program, reported (8/2/05) on a major new intelligence review that, while cautious about Iran’s intentions, clearly undermines White House charges:

The carefully hedged assessments, which represent consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies, contrast with forceful public statements by the White House. Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal. . . . The new National Intelligence Estimate includes what the intelligence community views as credible indicators that Iran’s military is conducting clandestine work. But the sources said there is no information linking those projects directly to a nuclear weapons program.

According to Linzer, the intelligence review says Iran is about a decade away (twice as long as the White House has claimed) from having the fissile material needed for a nuclear bomb, but does not say if it would have the additional technology needed to complete a bomb at that time. While Linzer questions the White House line—“Administration officials have asserted, but have not offered proof, that Tehran is moving determinedly toward a nuclear arsenal”—she also includes more dire assessments of Iran’s intentions, for instance, quoting a “senior intelligence official” remarking that the consensus view of the intelligence community is that “Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons.”

Linzer has questioned other official claims as well. For instance, many news outlets have recited without challenge the White House argument that Iran, with its large oil and gas reserves, has no need for nuclear energy; thus its nuclear energy program must be a front for a nuclear weapons program (New York Times, 6/13/04; AP, 10/26/03). In a March 27 Post report, Linzer quoted Dick Cheney making the case: “They’re already sitting on an awful lot of oil and gas. No one can figure out why they need nuclear as well to generate energy.” Then she challenged the White House logic by pointing out that Cheney and other top Bush White House officials were highly placed in the Ford White House 30 years ago when it pledged to help Iran (then possessing even larger fuel reserves) develop a network of nuclear power plants.

But Linzer’s independent reporting is the exception rather than the rule. While it is proper for journalists to report official charges and suspicions regarding Iran’s nuclear program, it’s quite another thing for them to confirm or adopt those suspicions without hard facts. This should be especially clear in the wake of the catastrophic failure of American journalism to challenge White House claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.