Steven E. Zipperstein

The New York Times, Ben Rhodes and the Iran nuclear deal

The newspaper of record consistently bought into the fallacy that Iran had shifted towards moderation
Hasan Rouhani, center, poses before a large portrait of the late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, the day after being elected to Iran's presidency, on June 15, 2013 (Photo credit: AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Hasan Rouhani, center, poses before a large portrait of the late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, the day after being elected to Iran's presidency, on June 15, 2013 (Photo credit: AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

On May 26, 2004, the New York Times published a remarkable editorial, apologizing for allowing itself to be duped into believing the Bush Administration’s “weapons of mass destruction” justification for invading Iraq. “In some cases,” the editors admitted, “information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged – or failed to emerge.”

The mea culpa concluded with the editors’ promise not to make the same mistake again: “We consider the story of Iraq’s weapons, and of the pattern of misinformation, to be unfinished business. And we fully intend to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.”

Twelve years later, on May 5, 2016, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a lengthy article about President Obama’s “boy wonder,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Intended as a puff piece about how the young genius successfully managed the public relations campaign in support of the Iran nuclear deal, the article also provoked controversy by revealing Rhodes peddled a false narrative to an easily manipulated press corps predisposed to root for the Obama White House. As it turns out, according to author David Samuels, the administration’s justification for the Iran nuclear deal – that the election of a “moderate” Iranian government in 2013 created “a new political reality” – was “largely manufactured for the purpose of selling the deal,” giving rise to implications that were “often misleading or false.”

Given that the Times itself published the Rhodes expose, and with the Obama Administration’s justification for the Iran deal now in tatters, why hasn’t the Times editorialized against the same sort of government misinformation campaign it condemned 12 years earlier? Just as the Editors blamed themselves for too readily believing Bush’s justification for the Iraq invasion, why not also admit they blundered by allowing Obama’s justification for the Iran deal “to stand unchallenged,” and make the same promise to be “aggressive in re-examining the claims…and setting the record straight”?

The answer may lie in the Times’ role since January 2009 as cheerleader of record for the Obama Administration, rather than newspaper of record for the nation. Shedding any pretense of journalistic objectivity, the paper has run hundreds of news and opinion articles lauding the Iran deal and slamming its opponents. For example, a July 26, 2013 profile of newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared his election victory as “one of the most startling turnarounds in the history of the Islamic republic,” and highlighted “the moderate course he has laid out — stressing greater individual rights, a relaxation of tensions with the West and the repair of Iran’s flagging economy.” Similar stories about the “moderate” new government appeared on August 26, September 26, December 1, and December 21, 2013.

As negotiations ramped up in late 2014 and 2015, the Times went on the offensive against critics of the deal, accusing them of engaging in “deception” (Netanyahu, March 3, 2015), “idiocy” (Republicans, March 11, 2015) and “sabotage” (Republicans, March 7, 2015; Netanyahu and Republicans, January 25, 2015).

During the period leading to the signing of the April 2, 2015 Framework Agreement, the Times continued stressing the “moderation” narrative. A March 23, 2015 headline proclaimed “Iran’s Hard-Liners Show Restraint on Nuclear Talks with U.S.” An April 2, 2015 news story claimed “a deal would enhance the power of Mr. Rouhani and the Iranian pragmatists, and it would probably lead to permanent diplomatic engagement with the United States.” An accompanying editorial on April 2, 2015 argued “an agreement could make the Middle East safer and offer a path for Iran, the leading Shiite country, to rejoin the international community.”

The Times has continued emphasizing the Rhodes-inspired “moderation” narrative since the final nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was announced last July. A January 13, 2016 headline proclaimed “Iran’s Swift Release of U.S. Sailors Hailed as a Sign of Warmer Relations.” A January 17, 2016 editorial declared “[t]he deal is a testament to patient diplomacy and President Obama’s visionary determination to pursue a negotiated solution to the nuclear threat, despite relentless attempts by his political opponents to sabotage the initiative.” Roger Cohen described the deal in a January 18, 2016 op-ed as “Obama’s greatest foreign policy achievement, one that may have a transformative effect on the region.”

Rhodes may have been able to create what he proudly described as an “echo chamber” of support for the “moderation” narrative by lulling the press corps, but the facts reveal a far different truth. For example, we now know the Obama Administration approached Iran’s former radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about a nuclear deal more than a year before Rouhani came to power (despite the State Department’s clumsy attempt to erase the evidence from the videotape of a 2013 press briefing), obliterating the bogus “newly elected moderates” story line.

We also now know the supposed “moderate” Rouhani regime barely differs from the radical Ahmadinejad regime. For example, on March 29, 2014 Rouhani appointed Hamid Aboutalebi, a radical who helped take American diplomats hostage in 1979, as Iran’s new Ambassador to the United Nations. The Rouhani regime has threatened U.S. naval movements in the region, including capturing and briefly detaining U.S. sailors in January 2016. The “moderate” regime continues providing money and arms to Hezbollah and Hamas. It continues clamoring for Israel’s destruction. And it continues sending weapons and Revolutionary Guard troops to prop up Assad in Syria, and weapons to anti-Saudi Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Most tellingly, the “moderate” Rouhani regime has doubled down on Ahmadinejad’s pursuit of a ballistic missile arsenal capable of hitting Israel:

December 2013: Iran launched a monkey into space for the second time, using a liquid-fueled rocket that travelled 120 kilometers into space and returned to earth after 15 minutes.

February 2014: Iran announced the test of a ballistic missile known as the “Barani,” featuring a new submunition warhead better able to evade missile defense systems and attack multiple targets simultaneously.

October 10, 2015: Iran tested a medium-range Emad missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon. The missile had a new precision guidance system and a range of at least 1,000 kilometers and up to 1,300 kilometers with a payload of at least 1,000 kilograms and up to 1,400 kilograms, easily capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.

November 21, 2015: Iran tested the Ghadr 110 missile, with a range between 1500 and 2000 kilometers.

March 8, 2016: Iran launched several Qiam-1 ballistic missiles from silos across the country.

March 9, 2016: Iran test-fired two ballistic missiles with a range of approximately 2,000 kilometers, easily capable of reaching Israel. The missiles were marked in Hebrew with the words “Israel must be wiped off the Earth.”

April 2016: Iran successfully launched a precision-guided, medium-range ballistic missile with a range of 2,000 kilometers.

The latest and most striking blow to the “moderation” myth was the appointment last month of Ahmad Jannati as Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the body vested with authority to select Iran’s next Supreme Leader. Jannati has a long track record as one of Iran’s most radical clerics, repeatedly calling for executions of political dissidents, subjugation of women, and of course “death” to America and Israel – except he really means it. His appointment proves Iran has no real interest in moderation. Instead, it provides further proof that Iran intends to invest its windfall from the nuclear deal to beef up its military might and wage new proxy/terror wars against the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and its other enemies. Jannati’s appointment should have stunned the Times and other nuclear deal backers, but it provoked hardly more than a disinterested yawn.

Finally, we now know the Obama Administration’s promises to enforce the nuclear deal were laughable. Repeated Iranian violations and provocations have met with no consequences – no “snap-back” sanctions, no withholding of cash, nothing. Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry has been urging – some would say begging – European companies to do business with Iran, promising the United States will not stand in the way.

Against all this evidence, the Times stubbornly clings to the false “moderation” narrative, still claiming the “landmark agreement” will encourage moderate elements in Iran to guide their country back to the international community as a responsible, reasonable, non-nuclear force for stability. Political preferences aside, one would think America’s newspaper of record would wake up to reality and at least consider an Iraq-style mea culpa based on its own Magazine’s revelations that Rhodes and the Administration sold a false bill of goods to justify the deal. But so far that has not happened.

Admitting mistakes is hard. The New York Times did the right thing in 2004 by admitting it was wrong about Iraq. Only time will tell whether the paper has the journalistic guts to admit it was also wrong about Iran.

Steven E. Zipperstein is the former Chief Assistant United States Attorney in Los Angeles.

About the Author
Steven E. Zipperstein is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the UCLA Center for Middle East Development. He teaches at UCLA. He is the author of Zionism, Palestinian Nationalism and the Law: 1939-1948 (Routledge, 2021) and Law and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Trials of Palestine (Routledge, 2020).
Related Topics
Related Posts