Western mainstream journalists often complain when people claim that they are government or corporate hacks, but when the next opportunity arises, they usually prove themselves to be exactly that. Their current coverage of the conflict between Iran and the US-led coalition proves the point once again.
Their admissions that they should have been more critical in the run-up to the Iraq war ring hollow to those who understand that they will play a similar role in the next war, and the next, and the next; that is, those who understand that the problem with Iraq war coverage was not a once-off lack of critical questioning, but a symptom of a media system that is too closely embedded with government and corporate interests and too constrained by its society’s attitudes and prejudices.
If journalists want to avoid an Iraq war scenario in Iran, here are some questions they can ask Barack Obama, David Cameron, and other senior government officials.
Q: Is it true that Iran has been so uncooperative, given 1. their 2003-2005
cooperation with the Additional Protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), 2. their
March-April 2005 offer of running their nuclear sites in cooperation with other countries and scientists and, 3. their March-April 2005 offer to permanently sign up to the Additional Protocol that would have ensured highly intrusive inspections? That is, after all, more cooperative than most other nuclear countries are. (Most 2005 coverage ignored Iran’s proposal, and focused on their rejection of a European deal which tried to commit them to a complete suspension of their uranium enrichment program. Words like “defiant” were thrown around with care-free abandon).
Q: Will you please spell out the conditions under which you will be comfortable with Iran exercising their right to enrich uranium?
Q: Given that, 1. the NPT does not prohibit countries from having a latent nuclear weapons program and, 2. you say that your problem with Iran is a lack of transparency, would you lift the sanctions and allow them to continue their research if they came completely clean and admitted that their research was aimed at having a latent nuclear weapon capability? If not, why not?
Q: Do you not think that you are producing a self-fulfilling prophesy by threatening, sanctioning and attacking Iran into wanting a nuclear weapon program? Surely any country that may not have had nuclear weapon plans may consider them after having scientists assassinated, computers attacked and their country threatened with war?
Q: Given that Iran gave up its nuclear weapons program in 2003 (as attested by both the IAEA inspectors and your own inteligence organisations in 2007), and given that you pride yourself on a carrot-and-stick approach in your dealings with Iran, what carrot did Iran get after dismantling the program?
Q: Given that Iran has no history of large-scale attacks on other countries, why are you so worried about them having a nuclear weapon? Isn’t it simply the case that you want to be able to attack them some time in the future without having them able to defend themselves?
Q: 9/11, in which the US lost 3,000 of its 300 million citizens, had profound effects on the country’s psyche, leading them to declare an infinite war and crack down on civil liberties at home. Iran lost 1 million of its 70 million citizens during the war that Iraq launched on them with your support during the 1980s. What do you suggest Iran does as a deterrent against attacks by their neighbours, given that you will either support the neighbours’ attacks or at best not help Iran if it is attacked?
Q: What exactly is behind the intense hostility between Western Europe, the US and Iran? Clearly it is not nuclear weapons, since the support for the Iraqi attack on Iran pre-dated Iran’s lack of nuclear transparency.
Q: Considering that China and possibly Russia will veto a United Nations Security Council resolution for attacking Iran, why do you keep it open as an option? Do you think that doing it in contravention of international law is acceptable, or do you have any evidence that a country like Iran will respond well to military threats?
Q: Why do you consider the Gulf states as authentic partners on the Iran issue, given that their grievances against Iran are sectarian in nature, as proved by events in Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia? Do you not think that this sectarianism is an enormous threat to stability in the region and beyond?
Q: One of your worries about a nuclear-armed Iran seems to be that it would cause nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, but why are you starting with Iran as the cause and not with Israel, or with yourselves, for that matter?
Once again, media space is allocated either to those who support a war in Iran or to those who support other measures to pressure Iran. The underlying messages in both camps are the same: Iran is dangerous and crazy and might attack us once they have nuclear weapons, Iran has been a great deal less cooperative than other countries with nuclear programs, we have the right to decide which countries are allowed to carry out what type of nuclear research, and so forth. That is the same foundation based on which the journalistic establishment missed the important questions before the Iraq invasion.
In March 2008, Slate Magazine asked some supporters of the Iraq war why they got it wrong beforehand. The answers are instructive. Jacob Weisberg attributed his pre-war thinking to groupthink. Andrew Sullivan complained that he “misjudged Bush’s sense of morality”, Jeffrey Goldberg said that he “didn’t realize how incompetent the Bush administration could be”, and Fred Kaplan admitted that he “trusted Colin Powell and his circumstantial evidence—for a little while.” In other words, trust your government that it is correct, sincere and capable of carrying out what it says it can. The idea that independent thinking and research might come in handy is gloriously absent from all three these. Josef Joffe’s response was that he forgot that security must come first if democracy is to come later. this also assumes our right to establish particular political systems in other countries, and only takes issue with how that can be done. Richard Cohen, similarly, said that he “thought we had a chance to stabilize an unstable region”, and he acknowledged that he “wanted to strike back” (for 9/11 and the consequent anthrax attacks that he blindly believed Iraq had something to do with). All those assumptions are still in place and informing journalists’ thinking about Iran.
So come-on mainstream Western journalists, ask questions about the underlying assumptions and prove to us that you are not establishment hacks. I wonder why I am not holding my breath.