Regarding policy towards Iran, the American national interest would be best served by avoiding any involvement, if only because comments from the White House will be seen as outside interference, strengthening the hands of the conservatives. But there are many in the United States who do not see it quite that way, hoping to tighten the screws on the rulers in Tehran. They have been exploiting the so-called deadline of the year’s end for Iran and the US to enter into meaningful negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program. To be sure, many of those who are pushing hardest for sanctions are really only interested in war and regime change with sanctions as a first step establishing an irreversible course of action based on conflict rather than diplomacy.
Parallel with developments in the political arena, attempts to demonize Iran in the media appear to constitute a growth industry. False articles about Iran poison the foreign policy discourse because they create a dangerous narrative, that Tehran’s rulers are irredeemably evil and completely unwilling to compromise. In intelligence circles this is called disinformation. Nowhere is this barrage of disinformation more evident than in the media empire controlled by Rupert Murdoch, which includes the Wall Street Journal, the Times newspapers in Britain, and Fox television. Murdoch’s media marched in lockstep as a virtual propaganda mill in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Murdoch himself is much esteemed by Israel and by Jewish organizations and he has been outspoken in his approval of Israeli policies, including the devastation of Gaza one year ago. He has received numerous awards in Israel and the US for his support of Israel, most recently in November when he was given the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Humanitarian Laureate Award. In March 2009 he received the National Human Relations award from the American Jewish Committee. Murdoch is generally believed to be extremely close to Tel Aviv’s intelligence service Mossad and some of the stories featured in the media he controls would appear to be disinformation supporting Israeli government positions.
Over the past month there has been a spate of stories demonizing Iran, often based on evidence that most would regard as dubious. A December 14th article in the Times of London called "Secret document exposes Iran’s nuclear trigger" detailed how "confidential intelligence documents obtained by The Times show that Iran is working on testing a key final component of a nuclear bomb." The article was attacked by Gareth Porter and myself based on informed sources suggesting that the document the article relied on was a forgery. The document in question, alleged to be "from Iran’s most sensitive military nuclear project," was of unknown provenance and US intelligence agencies do not believe it to be genuine. Times leader writer and columnist Oliver Kamm in turn unloaded on Porter and me as "Lindberghians," sleazily insinuating in my case that I was an anti-Semite, while failing to address our legitimate suspicions about the document. In passing he also trashed Antiwar.com, inaccurately calling it isolationist, and described Ron Paul somewhat bizarrely as "Republican presidential nominee of insanitary political lineage and, ahem, highly imaginative schemes for monetary policy." Kamm is a former merchant banker whose understanding of foreign policy apparently derives from his ability to make money in the bizarre financial services world that prevailed prior to the 2008 meltdown. His neoconish credentials and somewhat bizarre worldview have been examined by Justin Raimondo.
Other stories relating to the alleged threat posed by Iran have appeared recently in the Times. On December 21st appeared "North Korea weapons aircraft ‘was heading to Iran.’" The Times conceded that the destination of the flight was a mystery but relied on its sister paper the Wall Street Journal as the source for the story. The Times then adds its own analysis, "From Iran the weapons could have been passed on to militants in Lebanon or Gaza." So the story about a plane that turned out to be registered in Georgia and carrying North Korean weapons becomes a story about Iran with no real hard evidence of Tehran’s involvement. Since the account of the arms shipment first surfaced it has vanished without a trace, suggesting that many other media outlets did not find it credible. But some readers were convinced by it. The story attracted a comment by one Daniel Evans who wrote "North Korea and Iran are targeting Israeli civilians to be killed by Hamas and Hezbollah. All in order to facilitate Iran’s nuclear annihilation of Israel and USA. Full scale war is the appropriate response."
On December 31st, the Times featured an article "Peter Moore freed after US hands over Iraqi insurgent." The story was about a British contractor who had been held by an Iraqi group for 31 months. So what does it have to do with Iran? According to the Times the extremist Shia group that allegedly held Moore is "allied to Iran," adding "there were unconfirmed reports that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was involved in the kidnapping operation and that the hostages were smuggled into Iran…held in two prisons run by al-Quds, which specializes in foreign operations." But both the British Foreign office and no less than General David Petraeus have both said that the alleged Iranian involvement is only speculation. Unfortunately, true or false the story resonates, convincing some that Iran is outside the pale. In a comment on the article posted on Times Online, one Daniel Case wrote "I think it is time to go into Iran and change the regime. I would love to see the religious nutters at The Hague charged with crimes against humanity. Let them all rot in jail."
Also on New Year’s Eve, another Murdoch paper, the New York Post, featured an editorial by Ralph Peters, "O’s day of reckoning," calling on President Obama to take action against Iran over the expiry of the end-of-year negotiating deadline. He cites, inter alia, the Iranian "…attempt to import more than 1,300 tons of make-a-nuke uranium ore from Kazakhstan" and refers to the government in Tehran as "turbaned tyrants" and "authentic fanatics." The uranium ore story had surfaced the day before based on an intelligence report that was prepared by a country that "could not be identified because of the confidential nature of the information." Both Iran and Kazakhstan have denied that any sale was being discussed and the media outrage is again derived from one anonymous report of unknown reliability. Is it a coincidence that the story should surface at a time when there are increasing demands for Obama to do something about Iran?
Bogus stories about Iran have a long history in the Murdoch media empire, most particularly in the Times. In April 2009, the newspaper reported that Israel was planning a massive attack on Iran’s nuclear sites "within days of being given the go-ahead by its new government." The article, light on content and heavy on innuendo, undoubtedly was intended to alarm new president Obama to force him to panic and take action against Iran to forestall an Israeli strike. A month earlier, the Times reported that Iran was supplying the Taliban in Afghanistan with surface to air missiles that could destroy helicopters. The story was denied by the US and British defense departments and turned out to be untrue, but it left behind the impression that Iran was assisting attacks on allied forces in Afghanistan. Such a highly emotional story line, which might be reduced to "they are killing our soldiers," was used subsequently by Senator Joseph Lieberman and others in the US Congress to justify harsh sanctions against Iran.
In July 2008, the Times claimed that Iran might be developing germ warfare agents because of the reported purchase of 215 wild monkeys from a Tanzanian dealer for drug testing at the Razi Vaccine and Serum Institute in Tehran. It is unfortunately true that many countries continue to test drugs on primates but testing drugs does not necessarily equate to germ warfare. The story was never corroborated.
A September 2007 story on the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor included a somewhat implausible account of how Israeli commandoes had seized nuclear material from the site before it was bombed. The story was unique to the Times and appears to be untrue, almost certainly coming from an Israeli government source. If Israel had actually seized any compromising material, it would have show it to the world’s media to bolster its case against Damascus. The story also provided the opportunity to throw punches at Iran, claiming that Iran, Syria, and North Korea constitute a new "axis of evil" and quoting a source at the neocon Washington Institute of Near East Policy who described Syria as a "client" of Iran.
In April 2007, the Times featured a shocking article claiming that Iran was assisting al-Qaeda in Iraq to enable it to stage a "Nagasaki or Hiroshima size attack" against a western target, possibly using a dirty bomb. Most intelligence sources considered the story to be highly implausible, bordering on ridiculous. A month earlier the Times described the defection of Iranian former Revolutionary Guard General Ali Reza Asgari. Per the Times, Asgari was the "father of Hezbollah" and was carrying documents proving Iran’s links to terrorists. In reality, Asgari was a 43-year-old businessman snatched off an Istanbul street in a joint CIA Turkish operation. He had been out of the Iranian government for several years, had no documents, and had not been in Lebanon since 1989.
Two Times articles in August and September 2006 described how Iran was seeking to buy uranium from the Congo and also attempting to obtain ballistic missiles from criminal members of the security services in the Ukraine that would be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Neither article was ever independently corroborated. The original source of the uranium story appears to have been a memo leaked from the Pentagon’s Office of the Undersecretary for Defense Policy headed by Eric Edelman, who succeeded Doug Feith.
I am not suggesting for a moment that the Times and other Rupert Murdoch-owned newspapers don’t do some good reporting, and I would note in particular their exemplary coverage of the Sibel Edmonds story. But I would warn that the conjunction of Middle East issues, most particularly the "Iranian threat," and the newspaper’s editorial slant in favor of Israel and interventionism invite caution. If a breaking story relates to Iran and appears first in the Times it is probably not completely true and might be completely false, a shaky foundation for building a case for war.