Eyes Wide Shut on Iran

Familiar sources sing a tired song

Listening to the CBS Evening News on Friday, I was roused from the slumber that program so often induces by a comment from Juan Zarate, a national security analyst for the network. He was discussing the Obama administration’s revelation about a previously unreported nuclear enrichment plant in Iran.

“Does this increase the chances of some kind of military strike in your view?” Katie Couric asked.

“I think so,” Zarate replied. “President Sarkozy talked about all options being on the table. I think this puts it back in play and with respect to Israel, it adds further urgency to the argument that the international community has to act or they may take matters into their own hands.”

A military strike? I was surprised that Couric would so casually raise that issue, and I was troubled that Zarate would so blithely entertain the possibility without mentioning the potentially severe consequences. Looking up Zarate’s background, I found that he served as a deputy assistant for combating terrorism under George W. Bush, and, to judge from the statements he made while in that position, he’s a dutiful foot soldier in the war on terror.

On Saturday, The New York Times offered on its front page a long, behind-the-scenes reconstruction of what it called “three dramatic days of highly sensitive diplomacy and political maneuvering” that the Obama administration had conducted after it learned of the letter that Iran had sent to the International Atomic Energy Agency describing the new nuclear plant. The story, we were informed, was “based on interviews with administration officials and American allies, all of whom want the story known to help support their case against Iraq.” No allies were cited, however. Instead, the article relied entirely on anonymous US officials. Here’s my attribution tally:

a senior administration official
a second senior administration official
administration officials
senior intelligence officials
the officials
the official
White House officials
American officials
a senior administration official
the officials
a senior official
American officials
the officials
a senior administration official
the administration official
a senior administration official
administration officials
one administration official
senior administration official

I wondered how many officials this actually added up to. Were the senior administration officials, the White House officials, and the American officials different individuals or different ways of referring to the same people? However many officials were cited, they were all spokesmen for the Obama administration, which came off as looking coolly brilliant, releasing information that it had been sitting on for months in response to Iran’s decision to inform the IAEA of this new facility. There was not a single alternative perspective offered from Europe, the IAEA, or Mideast specialists. (To its credit, the Times in subsequent days did offer more nuanced analyses based on a wider range of sources.)

On Sunday, Thomas Friedman, on ABC’s This Week, discussing Iran with George Stephanopoulus, assured us that

the only thing the Arabs are afraid of more than an Israeli strike is the absence of an Israeli strike. I guarantee you one thing, George, if the Israelis do decide to strike against Iran, there’s going to be a lot of Arab radar off that day. “Oh Ahmed, you forgot to turn the radar on? Shame on you!” That’s really what they’re rooting for.

Don’t you just love it when Thomas Friedman speaks for the Arab world?

In a far sharper analysis, Marc Lynch, a Middle East specialist at George Washington University, noted on his blog Abu Aardvark that the Obama administration has probably

been aware of this site for quite some time, and it has not yet gone operational. So this is not a story of the sudden discovery of an urgent new threat requiring whatever red-blooded solution the hawks will be peddling today. The interesting question is why Obama chose to go public with this information now, and how it fits into the administration’s diplomatic strategy.

Lynch surmised that the administration went public “as part of a calculated effort to ratchet up the credibility of the threat of tough sanctions ahead of the October 1 meeting between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva.” This enhanced threat of sanctions, he observed, would likely “lead the Iranians to make more concessions to avoid them.” So, Lynch concluded,

despite what I expect to see swarming the media in the next few days—wanna bet that John Bolton or John Bolton-equivalent oped is already in production over at the Washington TimesWashington Post (sorry, it’s hard to tell the difference on foreign policy issues sometimes)—I actually think that this public revelation makes war less rather than more likely.

Amid all the saber-rattling in mainstream outlets, this seemed an insightful and refreshing perspective. Lynch’s is the type of alternative (yet hard-headed) voice that seems so absent from the coverage of our top news organizations, with their Washington-centric mindset and sources. Why do Katie Couric and George Stephanopoulos so rarely seek out the views of regional experts like Lynch? It’s probably naive even to ask.

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Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.