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How US media manipulates Iran’s nuclear program into a sinister myth

A prominent NYT journalist got called out for sloppy reporting on Iran’s nuclear program; but the offenses go far beyond the paper of record.

Experts, media elites, and other Iran observers lit into New York Times national security reporter David Sanger this week for his sloppy — and perhaps “Judith Miller-level bad” — reporting on Iran’s nuclear program following the assassination of one of the country’s top nuclear scientists last week. 

The offense in question involved the opening line of Sanger’s “News Analysis” which asserted that the scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, had “led Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon for the past two decades.” 

Of course, as has been repeatedly documented by the U.S. intelligence community and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran ended its military nuclear program sometime in 2003, and has not been ongoing over the past two decades, a point that journalist and former NBC News anchor Ann Curry made to Sanger on Twitter

In response, Sanger didn’t directly refute or even address the substance of the critique. Instead he referred Curry to the reported piece on the assassination he and his colleagues published just days prior, which, he claimed, “with significant attribution — lays out the case of what Fakhrizadeh is believed to be doing.” 

But again, that article offered no proof that Iran has been working on a nuclear weapons program for the past two decades. Instead, while also referring to the purported — and unverified — two-decades old program, it presented even more misinformation about Iran’s program by passing along, without challenge, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s baseless claim that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is currently ongoing: 

Israeli officials, later backed up by American intelligence officials who reviewed the archive, said the scientist had kept elements of the program alive even after it was ostensibly abandoned. It was now being run covertly, Mr. Netanyahu argued, by an organization within Iran’s defense ministry known as S.P.N.D. He added: “You will not be surprised to hear that S.P.N.D. is led by the same person who led Project Amad, Dr. Fakhrizadeh.”

Except there is no Iranian nuclear weapons program being run covertly. 

The State Department’s most recent arms control and nonproliferation compliance report does indeed note that some of the scientists who worked on Iran’s nuclear weapons program are now employed at the SPND. The report also notes that the SPND “conducts military research and development – on weaponization-relevant dual-use technical activities…which suggests that Iran preserved this information at least in part potentially to aid in any future nuclear weapons development work in the event that a decision were made to resume such work.” 

That last line is important — “future nuclear weapons work” and “in the event that a decision were made to resume such work.” In other words, that decision has not been made. Indeed, in the very next paragraph, the report states clearly that “the United States continued to assess that Iran is not currently engaged in key activities associated with the design and development of a nuclear weapon.”

It’s not just the New York Times

It hasn’t just been the Times’ reporting on Iran that past few days that’s been bad. Reporting from a variety of other mainstream — and presumably well-respected — media outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and the Washington Post wasn’t great either.

For example, the Journal article on the assassination appeared as if it was written by one of Washington’s hawkish think tanks pushing for regime change, framing the context as if Iran had just decided out of thin air to restart its nuclear program after Donald Trump became president. 

The article’s lede claimed Fakhrizadeh’s assassination “has dealt a setback to the country’s nuclear program” —  it hasn’t —  which “had staged a partial rebound after the 2015 nuclear deal brokered under President Obama unraveled.”

So the nuclear deal just … unraveled? Anyone have any idea how that happened

The very next line is even more comical: “Yet, the U.S. and its allies still face major hurdles in trying to constrain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, current and former officials said.”

It’s unclear what “ambitions” the Journal is referring to here but most often this is code for nuclear weapons (and, once again, no evidence currently exists for such ambitions). 

But the United States and its allies don’t really “face major hurdles” in constraining Iran’s nuclear program. All Trump has to do is go back into compliance with the agreement that was already successfully constraining it. That would be one hurdle — and a relatively small one. 

To its credit, the piece got around to mentioning that Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions (even though Iran was in compliance with the agreement at that time, a point that Journal did not mention). But the article didn’t frame that decision in terms of how it has failed to achieve any of its goals, or less charitably, what a disaster that policy has been. Instead, the Journal says Trump has actually helped President-elect Biden by giving him “considerable economic leverage in his dealings with Tehran.” 

Well how about that. Maybe Biden will send him a thank you note. 

The Washington Post’s article on the assassination wasn’t as bad as the Times or WSJ. But it did include some odd framing that needs to be unpacked. Here is the paragraph in question: 

Iran has recently increased its stockpile of enriched uranium, insisting it is intended only to power its nuclear energy plants and a research reactor. Its adversaries have countered that it puts the nation closer to producing warhead-grade material.

It is true that Iran has increased its stockpile of (low) enriched uranium needed for civilian nuclear power (from 300kg under the JCPOA’s confines to about 2,443kg now). But that was only after Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions. 

So yes, it is also true that Iran is “closer to producing warhead-grade material” as it takes roughly 1,100kg of LEU to be enriched further for enough bomb-grade material needed for one nuclear weapon. 

But so what? Simply stating that fact doesn’t serve as a counter to Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is intended for civilian purposes. It’s as irrelevant as saying “yeah, Iran says its program is peaceful but its adversaries say Tehran is the capital of Iran.”

In other words, to counter Iran’s claim that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, its “adversaries,” as the Post put it, would have to provide proof that Iran is actually enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels, and that proof does not exist.

Finally, the misinformation in Reuters’ story on the assassination wasn’t necessarily about Iran’s nuclear program. It reported that “an opposition group” may have been, in part, responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s assassination. That information came from an Iranian official, who said, “We have some clues but surely the ‘Monafeghin’ group was involved and the criminal element behind it is the Zionist regime (Israel) and Mossad.” 

“Monafeghin,” Reuters then explained, “is a term officials employ to refer to the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a bloc of opposition groups in exile that seek an end to Shi’ite Muslim clerical rule.”

Well that sounds like a fairly benign, if not benevolent, group of folks. How bad could a group of Iranian exiles opposed to a tyrannical regime in Tehran be?

Yes it’s true that the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and its armed affiliate Mujahedin-e-Khalq (or MEK) exist, and they oppose the regime in Tehran. But Reuters left out a few key details that might give its readers a better sense of who this group is and what they’re about.  

In fact, the NCRI and MEK are also what some have called a cult masquerading as an opposition group, and it pays American hawks to grant it legitimacy by giving anti-Iran speeches at its rallies. 

The MEK is also notorious for its human rights abuses (even against its own members) and it has conducted terror attacks — including those that have killed Americans. The group was only recently delisted from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations after an intense lobbying campaign, of which many of the same hawks paid by the MEK participated in.

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The above criticism of the Fakhrizadeh assassination coverage and current status of Iran’s nuclear program probably doesn’t even scratch the surface of how bad this issue has been reported on throughout the past week. If our supposed “paper of record” and other more respectable news outlets were this careless, who knows what kind of baseless invective and militaristic rhetoric has been flying about on cable news or passed around the Facebook cesspool.

And that has an enormous impact on U.S. policy toward Iran and the wider Middle East. Misleading and false reporting about Iran’s nuclear program gives Americans ammunition to support hawkish policies and war at worst, or at best, inflate the Iranian threat, which only serves to help block diplomatic efforts and maintain the antagonistic status quo.

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