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The Race for Iran

DOES THE WEST WANT A REAL DISCUSSION WITH IRAN?

In the lead up to a likely resumption of Western “diplomacy” with Iran, conducting an interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, with questions designed to elicit substantive and revealing responses, could potentially yield real benefits for the international community.  The prominent German newsmagazine Der Spiegel had an opportunity to conduct such an interview today.  But Der Spiegel opted, instead, to engage in an egregious exercise of agenda-driven, ideologically-loaded journalism, see the full interview in Der Spiegel here or here for the reprint in the Tehran Times

The questions that Der Spiegel posed to Foreign Minister Mottaki were, with few exceptions, not formulated to elicit meaningful, substantive responses.  We reproduce below the first fifteen of these “questions” (we put the word “questions” in quotation marks because, as you will see, Der Spiegel did not punctuate most of their interviewer’s statements to Mottaki with question marks):

1) Mr. Foreign Minister, you are the senior diplomat of the Islamic Republic of Iran. You represent a nation that prides itself on a cultural history stretching back more than 2,500 years. Don’t you find it shameful that people are stoned to death in your country? 

2) It isn’t a matter of legal subtleties.  Stoning is a glaring violation of universal human rights.  It’s barbaric.

3) We are not talking about murder, for which the death penalty by hanging is imposed in Iran, but about the stoning of adulterers.  International human rights organizations report that there have been seven cases in the last five years alone.

4) The names of 14 other potential stoning victims are also known.  This places Iran on the same level as countries like Somalia and Afghanistan when it was under Taliban rule.

5) (interrupting Mottaki)…the impending stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani …

6) Will you lobby for Ashtiani not to be stoned?

7) This case is only one example of Iran’s contempt for human rights.  Iran, which executed 400 people last year, is second from the top of the list of countries that still impose the death penalty—behind China, with a population 20 times as large.

8) But it isn’t just criminals who are executed.  Death sentences are also passed against political prisoners.

9) The large wave of arrests after the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last June shows that your legal system is political.  Thousands have been arrested since then.  The revolutionary courts have imposed long prison sentences on people whose only offence was to oppose the president.

10) For the West, but also for millions of people in Iran, the most recent election was a huge fraud.

11) The victims of your legal system included highly respected people like Mohammad Ali Abtahi, vice president under the former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, Mohammed Atrianfar, an adviser to Khatami’s predecessor, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the well-known journalist Issa Saharkhiz, who was arrested after an interview with SPIEGEL.

12) But those were extorted confessions.

13) The charges included contact with the West. What’s wrong with that?

14) Isn’t the crackdown by the security apparatus a sign that the Ahmadinejad government is finished, and that the only way it knows to stay in power is to use repression?

15) Ahmadinejad came into office five years ago promising to fight mismanagement and corruption.  But the situation has only worsened under his leadership.  The inflation rate is estimated to be at least 25 percent, and half of Iranians live at or below the poverty level.

Mottaki manages to make some interesting points in the course the journalist’s “questions”.  But it is only with the sixteenth “question” that the journalist actually raises a substantive issue regarding the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy:  “The United States and the EU, in particular, have implemented sanctions that go beyond the United Nations Security Council resolutions.  They are now affecting the important oil industry and gasoline imports.  Were you surprised by the Europeans’ tough approach?” 

In response to this question—and several (highly charged) follow ups—Mottaki offers interesting observations about the Iranian view of sanctions and the Islamic Republic’s approach to upcoming discussions about its nuclear program:

“Europe will undoubtedly suffer more under the new sanctions than we will. Europe will be the big loser in relation to this policy.  We already reduced our trade relations with Europe considerably in recent years.  We now produce some of the goods ourselves, and we have found new suppliers for the rest.  We’re not concerned about our supply of gasoline and other energy sources…If [the German] government is not interested in expanding and deepening our relations, Iran doesn’t have to run after it.  We think it’s beneath the dignity of the German people to support a certain US policy.  My recommendation is for Germany (to pursue) an independent policy…I would like to direct a comment at your foreign minister, Mr. (Guido) Westerwelle, and his European counterparts:  We don’t want more than what is our right.  We have created this right without outside assistance.  And I think the best thing now would be to recognize this right, within the framework of the appropriate provisions and regulations…

We want to talk to the so-called Vienna Group about the exchange of fuel:  We deliver low enriched uranium in return for 20 percent enriched fuel for our research reactor in Tehran.  The negotiating partners are France, Russia, the United States, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.  There are also proposals to include Turkey and Brazil in these talks…[On uranium enrichment,] we want to talk, but first the structure of the group, which consists of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, must be changed.  Other countries must be added to the group.  The talks can then be resumed with this new structure.”   

Der Spiegel’s interviewer, however, seems reluctant to be drawn into a potentially serious discussion about Iranian foreign policy.  Again, he tries to go on the attack:

SPIEGEL:  In other words, Iran is continuing to try to stall for time.  You are aware that there is a substantial risk of a military strike against your nuclear plants?

Mottaki:  You cannot disregard a country’s rights and force it to make compromises.  We are determined to defend our right.  Anyone who attacks Iran will regret it.

SPIEGEL:  There are growing calls in Israel for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities—with or without Washington’s approval.

Mottaki:  Israel has been talking about this for years.  The Zionist regime knows exactly what fate awaits it here.  The regime would be putting its own existence at stake with an attack.

SPIEGEL:  You would attack Israel?

Mottaki:  I have just told you what would happen.

SPIEGEL: Your first reactor, in Bushehr, is scheduled to go online on Sept. 26 after more than 30 years of construction. Do you really want to see the Israelis reduce it to rubble?

Mottaki:  Do you have evidence that Bushehr will be attacked? How probable do you think such an attack is?

SPIEGEL: The likelihood is considered high.

Mottaki:  We don’t see this likelihood.

SPIEGEL:  Do you want to ignore reality?  Don’t you recognize the military threat?  Don’t you see the worldwide protest against the impending stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani?”

We will refrain from speculating about what Mottaki thought about the abrupt segue from the risks of a military confrontation over Iran’s nuclear activities to the Ashtiani case.  We simply note his response:

“What is the point of these questions?  You would be better advised to listen to us.  It was our interpretations of the situation in this region that have proved to be right.  We predicted that the United States would capitulate in Iraq, and that’s what has happened.  Instead, you are playing the human rights game.  You ask me about the possible killing of a human being.  But you show no sensitivity for the many, many people that are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  How long does the West intend to live with this contradiction?”   

Der Spiegel’s interviewer tries one final time to put Mottaki on the defensive.  We will let you judge how well he did:

Spiegel:  [N]ow the Ashtiani case has caused an international reaction.  And the international community is extremely alarmed in light of Iran’s nuclear activities.  It seems to be one minute before midnight.

Mottaki:  No.  On my watch it’s one o’clock, and precisely at that moment the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which was originally supposed to be built by the Germans, will be loaded with Russian fuel rods.”   

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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IRAN’S PROPOSAL TO RUSSIA: ENRICHMENT IS STILL KEY

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Salehi said today that the Islamic Republic has proposed to Russia that the two countries create a joint consortium to fabricate fuel for the Bushehr reactor and other nuclear power plants that Iran plans to build in the future.  Salehi reportedly told IRNA that the consortium would “do part of the work in Russia and part of it in Iran”.  Salehi said that “Iran does not intend to produce the whole amount of the fuel needed for its power plants on its soil”, but reiterated that “Tehran would not stop enrichment” and would “prove itself to be capable of producing uranium and transforming it into plates”. 

Salehi’s proposal is the latest signal from Tehran that, as we have argued previously, “American/international ‘acceptance’ of Iranian enrichment is critical if nuclear talks with Iran…are to have any chance of lasting success”.  It is further reaffirmation of our point that Iranian officials have “indicated their openness to multilateral cooperation on enrichment—so long as, under whatever cooperative arrangements might be established, uranium enrichment continues to take place inside Iran”. 

Nasser Karimi of the Associated Press writes that the proposal described by Salehi “appeared to be an attempt by Tehran to gain some control over the nuclear fuel process at its Russian-built Bushehr nuclear plant”.  But we believe that the Iranian proposal is much more strategic in character.  And, on that point, we were struck by a piece, “Russia and the Future of Nuclear Talks” that Kayhan Barzegar published yesterday in Iran Review.

Kayhan argues that, with the fueling of the reactor at Bushehr and the prospect that the Bushehr power plant will soon be on line, “Russia has practically conceded that Iran is a nuclear state”.  This, in his view, will “enhance the peaceful nature and legitimacy of Iran’s nuclear program”, creating a “new political atmosphere” in which Tehran will have “greater bargaining power in future nuclear talks”.  In particular,

“As Iran gains membership to the world’s nuclear club, the direction and nature of negotiations will change.  In the past, the West’s prime aim was for the most part based on bringing Iran’s nuclear activities to an overall halt.  This time around, however, the focus of the talks will be on the preservation of the domestic fuel cycle capability, insisting upon independent enrichment on Iranian soil.  In this respect, the role of Russia will be significant in future talks.

The main reason behind the current standoff between Iran and the West is that the Tehran approach to enriching uranium within the framework of Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) aims to develop Iran’s domestic fuel cycle capability.  Iran strives to connect the different aspects of the fuel cycle and preserving the independent fuel cycle, might be viewed as Iran’s trump card in any nuclear talks…In this respect, the Bushehr’s launching can be seen as a turning point in the Russian stance towards Iran’s nuclear activities.” 

In Kayhan’s assessment, after the United Nations Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 1929 in June, “the Russians realized that uncritically pursuing the Western line would cause them to lose their importance in the diplomatic tug-of-war surrounding Iran’s nuclear program…Russia, as a result, in a shift of policy decided to launch the Bushehr plant”.   

Kayhan points out that, while Russia hopes it will provide the annual installments of new fuel required by the Bushehr reactor, “according to the two sides’ agreement this is not obligatory”.  More broadly, Russia will seek to be “the sole supplier of nuclear fuel to Iran and reap the benefits” and “to cooperate in the construction of Iran’s new nuclear reactors”.  While cautioning that “Iran should not limit itself to or be dependent on Russian goodwill”, Kayhan argues that, in the current climate, Moscow has real incentives to be more forthcoming on nuclear cooperation with Tehran. 

It is in this context that the strategic character of the Iranian proposal to Russia, as described by Salehi, becomes clear.  We have anticipated for some time that “preservation of the domestic fuel cycle capability, insisting upon independent enrichment on Iranian soil” will be at the forefront of Iran’s agenda for the next round of nuclear discussions with the Vienna Group (the United States, Russia, and France, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency) and the P-5+1.  A formal commitment by Russia to cooperate in the development of Iran’s enrichment capabilities would boost Tehran’s position on this issue. 

Kayhan’s underscores that China has never been overly concerned about safeguarded enrichment in Iran: 

“Beijing does not consider Tehran’s nuclear program a threat to its national and security interests and maintains that Iran is entitled to peaceful use of nuclear energy…China has set limits for cooperation with Western policies against Iran.  From China’s perspective, initiating war against Iran or adopting tough and coercive sanctions will endanger China’s interests and are as a result seen as undesirable”. 

In the wake of Bushehr’s launching, Kayhan anticipates that there will be “more differences of opinion” among European states about the appropriate goal of nuclear diplomacy with Iran:  “The main challenge now facing the EU is whether to come to grips with the existing realities and accept the international legitimacy of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, or insist on the effectiveness of past policies predicated on the adoption of tough sanctions to instigate negotiations with Iran.”  As a result of these developments: 

“The forging of a sustainable consensus between the 5+1 parties for the adoption of coercive policies against Iran will not be an easy task in future talks…International conditions have changed.  The West is no longer capable of creating a united front against Iran and this has been proven by Iran’s ability to bypass sanctions.  Russia, China, Turkey and even South Korea have major stakes in Iran and are, therefore, against unilateral sanctions against Iran…Sooner or later the great powers involved in the Iranian nuclear dispute should come to realize that Iran has crossed the line drawn by their demarcation of the traditional monopoly on enriching uranium.  Thus they should try to find a genuinely sustainable solution in the course of future nuclear talks with Iran.  With Bushehr’s launch and Iran becoming a member of the nuclear club, along with maintaining the strategic card of independent and domestic fuel cycle capabilities, Iran will have the upper hand in future talks.  This of course may further deepen the rift between Iran and the West.” 

We fully agree that the United States and its European partners should “try to find a genuinely sustainable solution in the course of future nuclear talks with Iran”, and that such a solution will necessarily entail Western acceptance of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil.  But we are skeptical that the Obama Administration is prepared to move in this direction.  Likewise, we are skeptical that Britain and France, the European states with the most rigid positions on the enrichment issue, are willing to “come to grips with the existing realities and accept the international legitimacy of Iran’s nuclear capabilities”.  And, if those assessments are correct, the next round of nuclear discussions could indeed “further deepen the rift between Iran and the West”.  But the enrichment issue is certainly not going away.    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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JUST LIKE BUSHEHR, IRANIAN ENRICHMENT IS NO THREAT

Photo from AFP/Getty Images

In recent days, a good deal of attention has been focused on Iran’s first nuclear power plant at Bushehr, still in its final stages of development.  We believe that there are some important lessons to be learned from the Bushehr experiences that could help move U.S. policy on the Iranian nuclear issue in a much more positive and productive direction—if the Obama Administration is sufficiently interested in successful nuclear diplomacy with Tehran that it is willing to take these lessons on board.    

Earlier this month, the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (ROSATOM) announced that fuel rods for the Bushehr reactor would be delivered to a “reactor storage facility” at the site, from which they would be installed in the reactor itself, on August 21.  News reports over the weekend confirm that Iranian and Russian engineers began installing the fuel rods on Saturday.  Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, says that he hopes the reactor will be sufficiently operational to be connected to Iran’s national electricity grid by mid-September, adding that it will probably take 6-7 months for the plant to achieve full operational capacity. 

Both Salehi and the head of ROSATOM stress that all of this will take place under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Nevertheless, these developments prompted the irrepressible John Bolton to argue that Israel needed to strike Bushehr before August 21.  In Bolton’s view, the facility represents a “major, major plus for the Iranian nuclear weapons program”, adding that “what this does is give Iran a second route to nuclear weapons in addition to enriched uranium.  It’s a very huge, huge victory for Iran”.  However, Bolton also worried that striking Bushehr after fuel rods begin to be inserted into the reactor “would almost certainly release the radiation into the atmosphere”—hence, his argument that Israel needed to strike before August 21.  

We must admit that we are somewhat surprised by Bolton’s acknowledgment of environmental considerations as a constraint on potential military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.  But, more than that, we are struck by how marginal Bolton’s position on Bushehr—that an internationally-safeguarded nuclear power plant, the fuel for which will be provided and (after use) removed by Russia, is an unacceptably dangerous source for weapons-grade fissile material which should be destroyed through military action—has become

Of course, assertions about the apocalyptically dangerous character of the Bushehr project were a staple of U.S. policy throughout the Clinton Administration and for much of the George W. Bush Administration.  But, before he left office, even President George W. Bush had come to recognize the non-threatening character of Bushehr.  For its part, the Obama Administration has never had a problem per se with Bushehr as a serious source of proliferation risk. 

Earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, see here, tried to get Russia to delay (once again) delivering the fuel rods, arguing that “we think it would be premature to go forward with any project at this time, because we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians”.  However, earlier this month, the State Department’s chief spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said that “Bushehr is designed to provide electricity to Iran.  It is not viewed as a proliferation risk because Russia is providing the needed fuel and taking back the spent nuclear fuel, which is the principal source of potential proliferation”.  And, over the weekend, as the fuel rods were beginning to be installed at Bushehr, one of Crowley’s deputies confirmed that “we recognize that the Bushehr reactor is designed to provide civilian nuclear power and do not view it as a proliferation risk”.  

According to the Washington Post, “Israeli officials also said they were not particularly worried about the fuel being loaded into Bushehr.  Even the Netanyahu government’s hard-right minister of national infrastructure, Uzi Landau, said that “our problem is with the other facilities that they have, where they enrich uranium”.   

So, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted about critics of Bushehr coming on line, “there will always be some, even regarding such an impeccable event from the standpoint of international law as the opening of Bushehr”.  But, at this point, the overwhelming weight of international opinion does not contest Lavrov’s description of the deal as “an important anchor that keeps Iran within the non-proliferation regimen”.  (And, while we are considering the international legal aspects of the matter, Salehi noted—correctly in our view—that a military strike against Bushehr would be a “crime”.) 

Today, the United States and some of its Western partners—in particular, Britain and France, which have their own narrow interests in not having the strategic cachet of their small strategic arsenals “cheapened” by the emergence of more states (especially in the “developing” world) that have mastered the nuclear fuel cycle—focus on Iran’s work on uranium enrichment as apocalyptically dangerous.  But we believe that there is an important lesson to be drawn from the Bushehr precedent about how the international community should approach the matter of Iranian enrichment.        

It should be clear by now that the Islamic Republic is going to continue enriching uranium.  From a non-proliferation standpoint, does the international community really want Iran pursuing enrichment under circumstances in which Tehran is progressively alienated from the non-proliferation regime’s “managers” because of the way the Iranian program is treated—with sanctions, talk about military strikes, and perhaps even the initiation of aggressive war against Iran by Israel or the United States?  Or, would it be preferable for major players in the international community to work with the Islamic Republic to develop its uranium enrichment capabilities in ways that are fully compatible with the non-proliferation regime? 

As we have written previously, see here, American/international “acceptance” of Iranian enrichment is critical if nuclear talks with Iran later this year are to have any chance of lasting success.  In our conversations with Iranian officials over a number of years, we have received a consistent message that American/international acceptance of enrichment on Iranian soil would facilitate Iranian cooperation with a wide range of non-proliferation measures—e.g., ratification and implementation of the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Iranian officials have also indicated their openness to multilateral cooperation on enrichment—so long as, under whatever cooperative arrangements might be established, uranium enrichment continues to take place inside Iran.  Four years ago, Sir John Thomson and Geoff Forden of MIT described one way in which such an outcome might be achieved; they have continued to update and refine their ideas in this regard, see here.  Just as the world has—John Bolton aside—learned to live with an Iranian nuclear power plant at Bushehr, it should learn to live with internationally-safeguarded enrichment inside the Islamic Republic.       

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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FLYNT LEVERETT DEBATES REUEL GERECHT ON BOMBING IRAN

On bloggingheads.tv, www.RaceForIran.com publisher Flynt Leverett and Reuel Marc Gerecht debate the wisdom of (either Israel or the United States) bombing Iran.  This debate is noteworthy, in our view, primarily as an entrée into the neoconservative mindset about Iran.  The full video can be watched at this link: http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/30306?in=00:00&out=58:41

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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CAN THERE BE A REAL IRAN DEBATE?

The Atlantic continues to heat up its “bomb Iran debate” by highlighting the views of Elliot Abrams, Patrick Clawson, Martin Indyk, Karim Sadjadpour, and a few other like-minded Iran “experts.” It is remarkable how The Atlantic seems to have systematically excluded analysts who do not support either bombing Iran or active support for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.  It really is becoming Iraq all over again.  Below, and in subsequent pieces, we will feature the views of important analysts who should have been included in The Atlantic’s one-sided discussion to make it an actual “debate.”  We will break down the real debate into a series of important questions that are becoming prominent in public discussions on Iran in the United States.    

The first of these questions, on which we focus today, is:  Is there an orchestrated campaign to build public support—and political pressure—in the United States for a U.S. or U.S.-backed Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear targets?  For our part, we clearly believe that there is such a campaign—and that this campaign is being brought to you by many of the same journalists, public intellectuals, and organizations that spearheaded the campaign to “sell” the Iraq war to the American public in the years leading up to the March 2003 invasion.  From this perspective, we see Jeffrey Goldberg’s attention-getting article published last week by The Atlantic as an important step in what we anticipate will be an intensifying push for war against Iran over the next 12-18 months. 

Interestingly, James Fallows argues that Goldberg—Fallows’ colleague at The Atlantic—is not, in fact, making the case for a military strike against Iran: 

“I think that those reading the piece as a case for bombing Iran are mainly reacting to arguments about the preceding war.  Jeff Goldberg was a big proponent of invading Iraq, as I was not—and those who disagreed with him about that war have in many cases taken the leap of assuming he’s making the case for another assault.  I think this is mainly response to byline rather than argument.  If this new article had appeared under the byline of someone known to have opposed the previous war and to be skeptical about the next one, I think the same material could be read in the opposite way—as a cautionary revelation of what the Netanyahu government might be preparing to do.” 

We think, see here, that Goldberg’s reporting on why so many Israeli political and policymaking elites want a military strike against Iran should be read as a “cautionary revelation,” because the reasons adduced by Israeli elites for a strike are extremely weak, especially from the standpoint of American strategic interests.  With regard to Fallows’ argument just cited, Ken Silverstein of Harper’s Magazine—who scrupulously catalogued Goldberg’s history of journalistic malpractice during the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq—holds, see here, that

“Goldberg’s past work as a dishonest advocate for the Iraq War and his long service in support of the Israeli military (literally for a time, when he served in the Israeli Defense Force) makes Fallows’s argument harder to accept.  Goldberg has never seen an Israeli military action that he didn’t approve of. Can anyone honestly believe that Goldberg wouldn’t support an Israeli attack on Iran in the event that it came to pass?

“Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic is more balanced than his Iraq war ‘reporting’, which ranked with British propaganda from World War I about German soldiers bayoneting babies, but it’s awfully sympathetic to the Israeli point of view.  If Israel does attack Iran, its supporters will surely point to Goldberg’s piece as evidence for why such a strike was necessary, just as President Bush cited Goldberg’s work in making the case for war in Iraq.”

In this regard, we also highlight Glenn Greenwald’s arresting, “How Propaganda Works”

“Jeffrey Goldberg, in the new cover story in The Atlantic, on an Israeli attack on Iran: 

“‘Israel has twice before successfully attacked and destroyed an enemy’s nuclear program.  In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, halting—forever, as it turned out—Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions; and in 2007, Israeli planes destroyed a North Korean-built reactor in Syria.  An attack on Iran, then, would be unprecedented only in scope and complexity.’

“Good news!  Israel can successfully end a country’s nuclear program by bombing them, as proven by its 1981 attack on Iraq, which, says Goldberg, halted ‘forever, as it turned out—Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions.’

“Jeffrey Goldberg, The New Yorker, 2002, trying to convince Americans to fear Iraq: 

“‘Saddam Hussein never gave up his hope or turning Iraq into a nuclear power.  After the Osirak attack, he rebuilt, redoubled his efforts, and dispersed his facilities.  Those who have followed Saddam’s progress believe that no single strike today would eradicate his nuclear program.’ 

“When it suited him back then, Goldberg made the exact opposite claim, literally, of the one he makes today.  Back then, Goldberg wouldn’t possibly claim what he claims now—that the 1981 strike permanently halted Saddam’s ‘nuclear ambitions’—because, back then, his goal was to scare Americans about The Threat of Saddam.  So in 2002, Goldberg warned Americans that Saddam had ‘redoubled’ his efforts to turn Iraq into a nuclear power after the Israeli attack, i.e.that Saddam had a scarier nuclear program than ever before after the 1981 bombing raid.  But now, Goldberg has a different goal:  to convince Americans of the efficacy of bombing Iran, and thus, without batting an eye, he simply asserts the exact opposite factual premise:  that the Israelis successfully and permanently ended Saddam’s nuclear ambition back in 1981 by bombing it out of existence (and, therefore, we can do something similar now to Iran).

“This is what a propagandist, by definition, does:  asserts any claim as fact in service of a concealed agenda without the slightest concern for whether it’s true.  Will the existence of a vast and menacing Iraqi nuclear program help my cause (getting Americans to attack Iraq)?  Fine, then I’ll trumpet that.  Now, however, it will help my cause (mainstreaming an attack on Iran) to claim that the Israelis permanently ended Iraq’s nuclear efforts in 1981, thus showing how well these attacks can work.  No problem:  I’ll go with that.  How can anyone take seriously—as a Middle East expert and especially as a journalist—someone with this blatant and thorough of an estrangement from any concern for truth?  Can anyone reconcile these factual claims?

“…[T]he core premise of Goldberg’s article—that Iran is currently pursuing nuclear weapons—is asserted, in the very first sentence, as indisputable fact without so much as acknowledging, let along resolving, the substantial evidence casting serious doubt on that scary claim…Goldberg’s latest historical assertion—that the 1981 Israeli attack ended Saddam’s nuclear efforts—is the precise opposite of reality:  Iraq had no genuine nuclear weapons program prior to 1981, but it was the Israeli attack which caused Saddam to conclude that he needed one.  That is what spawned the very substantial Iraqi efforts from 1981 to 1991 to develop nuclear weapons:  efforts which were actually ended by Operation Desert Storm and the subsequent U.N. inspection regime…Goldberg wants to obfuscate those facts lest one conclude:  just as happened with Iraq, nothing would spur an Iranian desire for nuclear weapons more than a bombing campaign against their country.” 

Drawing, in part, on the work of another blogger, Jonathan Schwarz, Greenwald insightfully describes Goldberg’s role in the current “propaganda effort” regarding Iran:

“Goldberg is not Bill Kristol or Charles Krauthammer, at least in terms of function.  He’s not going to run around overtly beating his chest demanding that the U.S. attack Iran (or that the U.S. support Israel’s attack):  at least not yet.  Although Goldberg did precisely that in the run-up to the attack on Iraq, his function now is more subtle, and more insidious.  He’s nothing if not shrewd, and certainly shrewd enough to know that if he spouts nakedly bellicose demands for a war with Iran, he’ll be quickly dismissed as a neocon fanatic, especially in light of his discredited and falsehood-filled campaign to persuade Americans to attack Iraq.  Indeed, Goldberg himself notes that even George Bush derided Kristol and Krauthammer as ‘the bomber boys.’  He’s much too smart to let himself be consigned to the lowly and limited (though important) role of fanning the flames of right-wing fanaticism; he’s intent on re-branding himself after what he did in 2002 and 2003 and preserving his mainstream influence.

“Thus, his pose is objective journalist.  He’ll feign ‘ambivalence’ about whether Iran should be bombed—thus showing how thoughtful and non-ideological he is—while infecting the discourse with the kinds of factual falsehoods documented here, all in service of skewing the debate towards ensuring an attack happens.  At its core, it’s only a slightly modified version of what he did with Iraq (I’m merely ‘reporting’ on Saddam’s extensive relationship with Al Qaeda and his nuclear program/I’m merely ‘reporting’ on the view of Israeli leaders that ‘a nuclear Iran poses the gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people’).  

“It’s really one of the strangest and most revealing facts that the ‘objective journalist’ to whom America’s political elites most faithfully turn for ‘reporting’ on the Middle East is someone whose loyalty to Israel is so overarching that he actually went and joined the IDF (just try to imagine an American journalist reporting on this conflict for a large media outlet who previously joined the Iranian military or the military of any predominantly Muslim country).  There’s nothing wrong per se with his doing so or with maintaining loyalty to other countries; many Americans do so with all sorts of countries and for all sorts of reasons.  It’s also true that Goldberg’s intense, Israel-devoted agenda doesn’t preclude some good reporting; there are interesting and even revealing aspects in his article about how Israeli leaders think about Iran, or at least how they want Americans to believe they think about Iran.  

“But Jeffrey Goldberg is no more of an objective reporter on such matters than Benjamin Netanyahu is, and the fact that so many are willing to treat him as though he is provides a valuable testament to the ongoing vitality of the Supreme Law of Beltway Life:  Seriousness credentials, once vested, can never be revoked, no matter how grave one’s past sins of falsehood and error are.  The purpose of this Atlantic article is as obvious as it is odious:  to mainstream the debate over an Israeli or American attack on Iran by defending its rationale, all masquerading as objective reporting (I’m merely describing the substantial possibility that it could happen and, if it does, why it would be justifiable).  I’m tempted to say that anyone who falls for Jeffrey Goldberg’s act again deserves what they get, except that—as always—they’re not the ones who will pay the price for the fallout.” 

Greenwald also usefully underscores Goldberg’s frequent comparisons of Iran to Nazi Germany, reminding us “it was endlessly claimed that it was Saddam who was the New Hitler in order to ratchet up fear levels and justify an attack on that country, too.  How many times can we be persuaded to attack the New Hitler?”  (We have argued that the comparison of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Hitler’s Germany is particularly misplaced; see here.)    

Finally, Flynt’s New America Foundation colleague Robert Wright, writing on The New York Times’ “Opinionator” blog, suggests that the main issue with regard to “Goldberg as propagandist” is the way in which his article helps to frame future public debate: 

“His piece leaves you thinking that Israel will attack Iran very soon unless America does the honors.  So the debate becomes about who should bomb Iran, not about whether Iran should be bombed. 

“And this is the way Israel’s hawks want the debate framed.  That way either they get their wish and America does the bombing, or, worst case, they inure Americans to the prospect of a bombing and thus mute the outrage that might otherwise ensue after a surprise Israeli attack draws America into war.  No wonder dozens of Israeli officials were willing to share their assessments with Goldberg, and no wonder ‘a consensus emerged that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike be next July’…I’ve long felt that most ulterior motives are subconscious, and Goldberg seems to be a case in point.  Back in 2002, when he was vociferously arguing for an invasion of Iraq, he just wanted to believe that his Kurdish sources were giving him solid evidence of Saddam Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda—notwithstanding the fact that they, as fellow invasion advocates, had an interest in fabricating evidence.  Now Goldberg again seems eager to accept the testimony of people whose testimony is obviously suspect.” 

In a subsequent piece for www.RaceForIran.com, we will look at how the “bomb Iran” debate is shaking out on another important question:  what is the justification for what some euphemistically describe as “preventive war” against Iran?  Note:  Some advocates of starting a war with Iran use the phrase “pre-emption”, but this is a misleadingly inaccurate formulation.  Pre-emption means that there is an imminent threat—the gun is not just loaded, but cocked, and the “evildoer” is pointing the gun at an innocent victim with his finger around the trigger, preparing to fire.  A “preventive war” scenario means, by definition, that there is no imminent threat, but that a national government somehow concludes it should act anyway to prevent such a threat—which may not even be theoretically possible now—from emerging.  

We think that “preventive war” is itself a somewhat euphemistic formulation, which could be used, as Flynt’s former colleague Paul Pillar put it so well, to “make aggression respectable”.  Nevertheless, it is important not to let those making the case for initiating military action against Iran get away with labeling this “pre-emption”. 

But we will save a discussion of the case for “preventive war” with Iran—as we have written before, we think it is a very bad idea, on multiple levels (see, for example, here and here—for another day.  

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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