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Can Spam Solve the Iran-Israel-U.S. Faceoff?

March 26, 2012 ·

The mainstream media allows politicians and pundits to lie about Iran without calling them out.

"ON THE DECAY OF THE ART OF LYING," tweets the Russian spam aggregator horse_ebooks, which publishes snippets of junk mail advertising such Pythonesque (but apparently real) offers for topics as varied as addressing the problem of "catfish gunk" and vampire murders to how to make your own greeting cards or a set of drums. This is the new poetry, people.

The aforementioned tweet of theirs -- presumably from an email promising to enlarge your lying skills in ten easy installments for all your passwords down -- could just as easily have been the title for Foreign Policy's "top ten media failures in the Iran war debate" list. Stephen Walt, a trenchant critic of the media circus filled with "expert" commentators and politicians' uncontested soundbytes that helped lead us into Iraq had some particularly harsh words for the media, certain Republican presidential candidates and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren:

Journalists have to let officials and experts express their views, but they shouldn't let them spout falsehoods without pushing back. Unfortunately, there have been some egregious cases where prominent journalists allowed politicians or government officials to utter howlers without being called on it. When Rick Santorum announced on Meet the Press that "there were no inspectors" in Iran, for example, host David Gregory didn't challenge this obvious error. (In fact, Iran may be the most heavily inspected country in the history of the IAEA).

Even worse, when Israeli ambassador Michael Oren appeared on MSNBC last week, he offered the following set of dubious claims, without challenge.

[Iran] has built an underground nuclear facility trying to hide its activities from the world. It has been enriching uranium to a high rate [sic.] that has no explanation other than a military nuclear program -- that has been confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency now several times. It is advancing very quickly on an intercontinental ballistic missile system that's capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Unfortunately, MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell apparently didn't know that Oren's claims were either false or misleading. 1) Iran's underground facility was built to make it hard to destroy, not to "hide its activities," and IAEA inspectors have already been inside it. 2) Iran is not enriching at a "high rate" (i.e., to weapons-grade); it is currently enriching to only 20% (which is not high enough to build a bomb). 3) Lastly, Western intelligence experts do not think Iran is anywhere near to having an ICBM capability.

In another interview on NPR, Oren falsely accused Iran of "killing hundreds, if not thousands of American troops," a claim that NPR host Robert Siegel did not challenge. Then we got the following exchange:

Oren: Imagine Iran which today has a bunch of speedboats trying to close the Strait of Hormuz. Imagine if Iran has a nuclear weapon. Imagine if they could hold the entire world oil market blackmailed. Imagine if Iran is conducting terrorist organizations through its terrorist proxies -- Hamas, Hezbollah. Now we know there's a connection with al-Qaida. You can't respond to them because they have an atomic weapon.

Siegel: Yes. You're saying the consequences of Iran going nuclear are potentially global, and the consequences of a U.S. strike on Iran might also be further such attacks against the United States..."

Never mind the fact that we have been living in the nuclear age for some 60 years now, and no nuclear state has even been able to conduct the sort of aggressive blackmail that Oren suggests Iran would be able to do. Nuclear weapons are good for deterrence, and not much else, but the news media keep repeating alarmist fantasies without asking if they make sense or not.

Politicians and government officials are bound to use media moments to sell whatever story they are trying to spin; that's their job. But It is up to journalists to make this hard, and both Mitchell and Siegel didn't. (For another example of sloppy fact-checking, go here).

Walt's list is worth reading in its entirety, and should be read alongside this interview by Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson about Iran's guessed-at nuclear capabilities and intentions. While serving as Secretary of State Colin Powell's aide he learned firsthand at the UN how easy it is to peddle assumptions presented as "intelligence." Wilkerson, while not trusting Iran's professed disinterest in nuclear weapons (I am skeptical of it myself), accepts the consensus that it is not currently developing nuclear weapons. Wilkerson, and former CIA planner and Iraq War critic Paul R. Pillar (as well as a number of other retired national security establishment people in both the U.S. and Israel) do not consider to be an "existential threat."

But Netanyahu has stated his determination to keep Iran from getting to any "capabilities," and by ruling out containment in his recent interview with The Atlantic and his 2012 AIPAC speech, Obama has actually inched closer to the Prime Minister's (and Congress's) stance because now the U.S. is explicitly committed to taking action when it determines Iran has reached a decision to build a nuclear weapon and it's not clear if there would be a distinction between Iran actually communicating this in public or the White House receiving a secret briefing that says the Iranians are taking that step.

We've been hearing for some time that "Netanyahu's Real Goal is Not Bombing Iran; It's Defeating Obama" (by Steve Jonas -- echoing claims other commentators have advanced in the past year). And Uri Avnery, an Israeli refusenik and activist, on why the "peace camp" does not think Israel will go to war with Iran because polls in Israel suggest opposition to this course and that he is not so foolhardy as to put the incomplete Iron Dome system up to the challenge of Iranian missiles, or risk tumbling the world economy into an oil shock abyss. Plus, as many commentators have noted, Netanyahu did not get the public declaration he seems to have been hoping for (though he did manage to keep anyone from bringing up the settlements -- which may or may not be his real aspiration, according to some skeptics).

To misquote the Duke of Wellington's character in the 1971 film Waterloo, "the only thing sadder than an election lost, is an election won." While I agree with Jonas's assessment that Bibi sees Iran in 2012 as a way to humiliate Obama, keep the White House looking the other way in the West Bank (not that much effort is required to achieve that) and help preferred Republicans do better, I am still unconvinced that Bibi will want to have his cake (a tough-talking super-Christian Republican ousting Obama) and chose to NOT eat it too (attack Iran). He could cut his settlement-expanding bomb-Iran layer cake with a Republican president absolutely willing to commit the USAF and USN to joint or unilateral strikes, yet he still could cut that cake with Obama too, notes Haaretz (not least because for all the ink and interviews shed on Iran, domestic issues are likely to be the main issue in the 2012 elections). 

Netanyahu's apparent failure at AIPAC in early March to get the U.S. government on message with him, and the resumption of talks with Iran are encouraging signs for a diplomatic resolution, but it does not mean Iran, the U.S. and Israel are out the woods yet. The "decapitating" 1981 Israeli strike against Iraq is a poor comparison because that attack enhanced, not hindered, Iraqi determination to pursue nuclear weapons -- a determination only put to an end by a humiliating military defeat in Kuwait, a decade of sanctions and, in theory at least, the eventual occupation of the country by the U.S. military. That is almost certainly what it would take in Iran, but few want to accept this and instead focus on the postwar picture (without talking about the war itself).

If winter 2012 comes and goes and both Israel and the U.S. have held their elections, we might not have attacked, but we will have moved closer to eventually attacking if once again diplomacy fails to satisfy any of the three countries' demands. Iraq wasn't invaded in a day, and we've been engaged in sanctions and shadow wars with Iran for around thirty years now. That's a long time for abnormal relations, and a long time to go without a consensus finally taking the initiative to make a move either towards normalizing relations (as a handful of Cold Warriors urge) or launching a major military effort (as far more urge). And if the can is just kicked down the road again for another presidential term, then we're no further from confrontation than we are today. We just end up talking around it and then bam, we're looking at a "mission accomplished" banner on the carrier deck while everything goes to pot on land.