As Talks Fail Media Mounts a Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Facilities

Cross-posted from There Will Be War.

The recently wrapped up Moscow talks between the P5+1 (the five U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, the second round after those held Baghdad in late May, have failed to bear fruit. To play the blame game and castigate just one side would be an exercise in schoolyard oversimplification.

In the end, it seems Iranian negotiators could not entertain a strict demand to “stop, shut and ship”—stop enriching, shut down the Fordow site and ship out their load of 19.75 percent uranium. Not a shock that they balked: this is basically telling a proud nation it has no right to an independent nuclear program, that it should dismantle years of hard, complicated work and toss hundreds of millions of rials into the Gulf. Meanwhile Iranian promises of a fatwa against nuclear weapons, of full cooperation with the IAEA, and of low-grade enrichment limits—should sanctions be relaxed—did little to assuage the U.S. and its cohorts. Rightly so: Why would the Western nations trust an antagonistic, power-hungry regime who will say or do anything to improve its chances at regional hegemony? Indeed, much has been written about how both sides have overplayed their hands, feeling they have the leverage to walk away from the negotiating table.

This breakdown means we must prepare for the return of an endless onslaught of articles baldly assuming an imminent military strike on Iran’s enrichment facilities, similar to those we saw on cover stories through January and February. We will see not only straight-up calls for a pre-emptive attack but articles like those in The New York Times that correctly caught flak for their subtle allusions to Iran’s nuclear arsenal, which doesn’t exist. Back then, the eager calls by war hawks in the U.S. and Israel to bomb Iran backfired, even as scare tactic, by prompting numerous Israeli military and Mossad vets to denounce the plan as nothing short of stupid.

Fast forward to June: Even before the negotiations officially ended, the calls for strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities were coming in loud as well as insidious.

Jumping the gun and surprising no one was The Weekly Standard’s Jamie Fly and Will Kristol. Though the bulk of their advice amounted to “Isn’t it time for the president to ask Congress for Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iran’s nuclear program,” the buildup to this gem was meant to manipulate the uninformed. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion but using a 1936 Winston Churchill speech to make the implicit/explicit connection of Iran to Nazi Germany is tired, cliched and wrong. Points awarded for not referencing the classic warmonger Chamberlain-Munich-1938 catch-all (which was probably considered) though I predict this will be regurgitated ad nauseam soon.

The merits of this Authorization to threaten Iran with ordnance are debatable but Kristol et al come at it from the specious, hackneyed litany of complaints of Iran’s “record of murder and mayhem,” including all its foiled assassinations and of course the plot to “kill the Saudi ambassador (and American bystanders)” in Washington. According to the U.N.’s take on the matter, “the resolution, which was introduced by Saudi Arabia, doesn’t directly accuse Iran of involvement but calls on the country ‘to comply with all of its obligations under international law’ and to cooperate in ‘seeking to bring to justice’ the people who allegedly plotted to kill the envoy.” Not to mention the two-way street comparison in this scenario: The cyber-attacks, sabotage and murders by U.S. and Israeli intelligence aimed at stalling Tehran’s nuclear progress actually worked. I won’t get into the slew of arguments (e.g. Iran has never attacked another country) against Fly and Kristol’s junior high analysis of super villain Iran.

An example of the less straightforward “imminent war” insinuation came Thursday from Reuters in Jerusalem: “Israel Says Clock Ticking After Iran Talks Fail.” Can you feel the doomsday chill yet? How about:

Israel has responded to the failure of the latest nuclear talks between world powers and Iran with a familiar refrain: sanctions must be ramped up while the clock ticks down toward possible military action.

This provocative lede, upon further reading, is misleading, as the third paragraph relays: “Defense Minister Ehud Barak stuck closely to his stated line, without offering any new sense of urgency, when asked by the Washington Post how much more time Israel can allow for diplomacy to work.” (Emphasis added)

Note the journos’ habit of asking questions designed to get juiced-up headlines about when we can expect the war to start. No one has brought up military action except the reporter/writer/editor of the story. Read till the end and the piece balances out somewhat but, unfortunately, Reuters is picked up by tons of blurb driven news sites like Yahoo! where the audience isn’t expected to read on. Headlines and ledes are all we have time for these days.

The Washington Post stoked its own fears with the headline “Faltering Iran talks stoke fears of new conflict.” Even with a day of talks left, the questionable lede was concocted to spook us:

The near-collapse of nuclear talks with Iran has ushered in what experts on Wednesday described as a dangerous new phase in the decade-long standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.

What experts end up describing are potential actions resulting from the sanctions due to hit Iran on July 1, taking us down the slippery hypothetical path of what Iran could do if these sanctions have a particularly nasty effect: “Worsening economic hardship could drive Iran’s leaders to adopt more aggressive and confrontational policies.” Not quite as scary as the dangerous new phase we’ve already entered into.

The third sentence in the piece also particularly troublesome: “At the same time, prominent Israeli and U.S. politicians are renewing calls for preparations for a military strike to halt Iran’s nuclear progress.”

While a specific example is provided of a U.S. Republican senator calling for the Pentagon to prepare bunker-busting bombs, not one Israeli politician is mentioned, even off the record and anonymous. And of course, reserved for the very last line in the piece, apparently offered as a token to balance the story, is a Democratic Congressman calling on his right-of-the-aisle brothers to take a deep breath and calm down.

Nitpicky you say? Try this lede from the June 21 Wall Street Journal:

Tel Aviv – Israel is unlikely to launch a strike on Iran as long as sanctions on Tehran intensify and diplomatic efforts continue, despite the failure of international talk… Israeli officials and security experts say.

Given all the pre-emptive strike hullabaloo we’ve heard for the last two years, isn’t this the real story? That Israel is not shouting about how their window to attack is closing. Instead of America and Israel gearing up for a jet-fighter strike, the Journal piece talks about the breakdown in talks as the impetus that has “fueled talk of military options.” Illustrating how a story can be written to show the realistic thinking of those in power, it goes on to quote officials on the record and describe high-level discussions on how the U.S. could better use the threat of attack as a bargaining chip. Note: In no way could this be taken to mean an attack is imminent or unavoidable.

Alas, the Wall Street headline still reads: “Strike on Iran Stays on Hold, FOR NOW.” (Emphasis added)

And this is only the beginning.

Michael Quiñones’ latest project, a fizzy look at foreign policy predictions, launches in July 2012 at There Will Be War.