Gullible’s (Endless) Travels
Have journalists learnt nothing from recent history? It truly is a wonder when a reporter can assert in public, on the BBC News no less, that “Tony Blair passionately believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and posed a grave threat.” (BBC1, Six O’Clock News, February 24, 2009). When BBC reporter Reeta Chakrabarti was challenged on this remarkable display of naïveté, she compounded her grievous error by responding:
“I said Mr Blair passionately believed Iraq had wmd because he has consistently said so. When challenged he has stuck to his guns.” (Email posted on the Media Lens Message Board, March 2, 2009)
So when a demonstrably mendacious leader claims he “passionately believed” in a lie, the media has to take him at his word. This is the same brand of journalistic gullibility that has had such tragic consequences for the people of Iraq. This is the endless, uncritical obedience to power that boosted the warmongering agenda of London and Washington, allowing them to fit ‘facts’ to a pre-ordained policy of launching a war of aggression. Such an act, sold by the BBC as Blair’s “passionate belief”, is the supreme international crime, as judged by the 1946 Nuremberg Tribunal.
And a similar tragic fate may yet befall the people of Iran, if the corporate media portrayal of Iran as a rogue state lorded over by “ruling mullahs”, desperate to get their hands on nuclear weapons, goes unchallenged.
A Nuclear Programme Under Close Surveillance
At the end of 2007, a thorough assessment by the United States concluded that Iran’s nuclear weapons programme had already halted in 2003. The National Intelligence Estimate was the consensus view of all 16 US spy agencies. (Mark Mazzeti, ‘U.S. Says Iran Ended Atomic Arms Work,’ New York Times, December 3, 2007)
In its latest report on Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) strengthened this assessment when it stated it had “been able to continue to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material [for possible military purposes] in Iran.” (IAEA, ‘Introductory Statement to the Board of Governors by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei,’ March 2, 2009; http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/ Statements/2009/ebsp2009n002.html)
But under pressure from powerful Western countries, in particular the United States, the UN Security Council and the IAEA have been demanding that Iran suspend the enrichment of uranium “until Iran’s peaceful intentions can be fully established.” (BBC online, ‘Q&A: Iran and the nuclear issue,’ 10:39 GMT, February 25, 2009; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4031603.stm)
Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a country has the right to enrich uranium as fuel for civil nuclear power, although it must remain under inspection by the IAEA. The agency says in its latest report that although Iran is continuing to enrich uranium, it is doing so at a reduced rate.
The IAEA also reported that it had found an increase in Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to 1,010 kg. This figure was over one-third greater than the estimate that had been provided by Iran. However, the IAEA emphasised that “Iran is cooperating well with U.N. nuclear inspectors to help ensure it does not again understate the amount of uranium it has enriched.”
News agency Reuters made an important observation:
“The IAEA statement seemed aimed at quashing any impressions… that the accounting shortfall might have been deliberate evasion.”
According to IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming:
“The (IAEA) has no reason at all to believe that the estimates of LEU produced in the (Natanz) facility were an intentional error by Iran. They are inherent in the early commissioning phases of such a facility when it is not known in advance how it will perform in practice.”
“Iran has provided good cooperation on this matter and will be working to improve its future estimates.
“No nuclear material could have been removed from the facility without the agency’s knowledge since the facility is subject to video surveillance and the nuclear material has been kept under seal.” (Mark Heinrich, ‘Iran cooperates after understating atom stocks-IAEA,’ Reuters, February 22, 2009; http://in.reuters.com/article/worldNews/ idINIndia-38148320090222?sp=true)
The IAEA stated that it is seeking improved transparency and further information about Iran’s nuclear programme. But it also noted that:
“[T]he apparent fresh approach by the international community to dialogue with Iran will give new impetus to the efforts to resolve this long-standing issue in a way that provides the required assurances about the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme, while assuring Iran of its right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” (IAEA, op.cit.)
Scaremongers R Us
However, for many years, the corporate media has been amplifying supposed “fear” in the West about Iran becoming a nuclear-armed nation alongside the US, the UK, France, Russia – and Israel.
Compare the sane and sober IAEA analysis above with the Daily Telegraph’s reporting last month of “fears in Israel and the US that Iran is approaching the point of no return in its ability to build atom bomb.” Use of “the point of no return” is a classic scare tactic intended to induce a sense of panic. Time is running out! Soon it will be too late! As though warmongering propaganda over Iraq had taken place in a parallel universe, the paper blithely asserted that “Israeli and Western intelligence agencies believe the 20-year-old programme, which was a secret until 2002, is designed to give the ruling mullahs an atom bomb.” (Philip Sherwell, ‘Israel launches covert war against Iran,’ Daily Telegraph, February 16, 2009; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast /israel/4640052/Israel-launches- covert-war-against-Iran.html)
“Ruling mullahs” is another trigger phrase intended to resonate in the public mind alongside “mad mullahs,” “Islamic fundamentalism” and “militant Islam”.
Remarkably, the BBC told the public, who pay for the broadcaster:
“Germany has warned Iran that it would support tougher sanctions if diplomatic efforts to stop the Iranians acquiring nuclear weapons broke down.” (BBC online, ‘Germany warns Iran over sanctions,’ 15:39 GMT, February 7, 2009; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7876659.stm)
So according to the BBC, Iran is indeed trying to acquire nuclear weapons. The corporation’s famed “impartiality” really is a joke.
Meanwhile, the Times maintained its own tragicomic tradition of balanced coverage (see Media Lens Media Alert, ‘Selling the Fireball’, June 25, 2008).
The paper’s chief foreign commentator, Bronwen Maddox, inaccurately described Iran’s nuclear programme as “accelerating.” In her column, Iran was portrayed as “ambitious” and keen to upset “the balance of power even further in a region already tense about Tehran’s overbearing ways.” (Bronwen Maddox, ‘Ambitious Iran is bent on tilting the balance of power,’ The Times, February 27, 2009). There was no hint that it is the US which is “ambitious” and “overbearing” – with a long and shameful record of aggression towards Iran and many other countries in the region – and a proven eagerness to assert its dominance.
It is par for the course, and closely aligned with Western state priorities, for the corporate media to portray Iran as a threat; its “ruling mullahs” desperate to build nuclear weapons or arm “militants” targeted by the US in its “war on terror.”
The ‘liberal’ Guardian plays its part in the same propaganda system. A recent piece by the Guardian’s Rory McCarthy about a new Amnesty report on arms in the Middle East wrongly implicated Iran in the supply of weapons to Hamas in Gaza. McCarthy wrote:
“For their part, Palestinian militants in Gaza were arming themselves with ‘unsophisticated weapons’ including rockets made in Russia, Iran and China, it said.” (McCarthy, ‘Suspend military aid to Israel, Amnesty urges Obama after detailing US weapons used in Gaza,’ The Guardian, February 23, 2009; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/ feb/23/military-aid-israel-amnesty)
This then, according to McCarthy, is what “it”, Amnesty, said.
But in fact Amnesty was +not+ the source of allegations about the origins of Palestinian rockets. Amnesty had merely cited the publication ‘Janes Defence Weekly’ and was not itself in a position to verify the claims. Worse for the Guardian, as the Amnesty report made clear, the claims actually originate from Israeli and Egyptian security and police sources. Such claims should be treated with extreme caution and, at the very least, be correctly attributed by the Guardian.
Worse still, Amnesty had this to say on the claim that rockets have been supplied from Iran:
“There have been several reports that Iran has provided military equipment and munitions, including rockets, to Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups but Amnesty International has not seen any evidence to verify these allegations.” (Amnesty International, ‘Fuelling conflict: Foreign arms supplies to Israel/Gaza,’ AI Index: MDE 15/012/2009, February 23, 2009; http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/ info/MDE15/012/2009/en; page 31)
We wrote to both Rory McCarthy and Siobhain Butterworth, the readers’ editor, suggesting they publish a prompt correction in the Guardian. As usual, we received only silence in response.
Friendly Nukes – Israel Doesn’t Threaten Anyone, Never Did
No sane person wants nuclear conflict. What single act could be more monstrous than that of instantly incinerating a city full of men, women and children? This is what America did, twice, in its atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (See David Cromwell, ‘Racing Towards The Abyss’, Media Lens Cogitations, January 15, 2008)
Who could argue with the United Nations’ “goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery”? (UN resolution 687, April 3, 1991; http://www.fas.org/news/un/iraq/sres/sres0687.htm)
But the stoked-up fears, and media hype, over Iran generally overlook the fact that there is already a nation in the region armed with nuclear weapons – Israel. But Israel is a western ally and therefore to be regarded as essentially benign.
Estimates for Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile range from 70 to 400 warheads. An assessment published by the Federation of American Scientists in 2007 concluded that the most likely number lay in the range 100-200. (Steven Aftergood and Hans M. Kristensen, ‘Nuclear weapons – Israel,’ Federation of American Scientists, updated January 8, 2007; http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/israel/nuke/)
In 2008, the BBC reported former US President Jimmy Carter’s statement that Israel has “150 or more” nuclear weapons. (BBC online, ‘Israel “has 150 nuclear weapons”,’ 20:26 GMT, May 26, 2008; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7420573.stm)
Unlike Iran, Israel is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Also unlike Iran, Israel does not allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities. In fact, Israel has never formally admitted that it possesses nuclear weapons, instead following a “policy of ambiguity.” However, in an embarrassing slip, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert told a German television interviewer in 2006 that Iran was “aspiring to have a nuclear weapon as America, France, Israel and Russia.”
Olmert reacted angrily when asked if Israel’s alleged nuclear programme weakened the Western case against Iran, insisting no such comparisons could be made:
“Israel is a democracy, Israel doesn’t threaten any country with anything, never did.”
He said Iran could not be compared to the US, Russia, France and the UK, as Iran had threatened “to wipe Israel off the map.” (For a refutation of this mistranslation from Farsi, see Jonathan Steele, ‘Lost in translation,’ The Guardian, June 14, 2006; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/ 2006/jun/14/post155)
Olmert explained in all seriousness:
“You are talking about civilized countries that do not threaten the foundations of the world [and] that do not threaten other countries that they will use the nuclear weapons in order to destroy them. That is why there is a big difference.” (Associated Press and Ynet, ‘Olmert: Iran wants nuclear weapons like Israel,’ December 12, 2006; http://www.ynetnews.com/ articles/0,7340,L-3338783,00.html)
In 2006, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told a Senate committee that Israel possessed nuclear weapons and that these might provide Iran with the motivation to acquire its own. He even recognised that Iran faced a potential US threat:
“They [Iran] are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons – Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf.” (Associated Press, ‘Incoming U.S. Defense Secretary tells Senate panel Israel has nuclear weapons,’ Ha’aretz, December 9, 2006; http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/798405.html)
Orwell’s Memory Hole
One searches in vain for any corporate media analysis focusing on Israel’s large stockpile of over 150 nuclear weapons. Where is the in-depth discussion that Israel might have a reason to divert attention from its own nuclear arms by cynically manipulating fears over Iran?
At best, there is an occasional subtle nod in the direction of uncomfortable truth. For instance, the Guardian’s Middle East editor, Ian Black, noted blandly that:
“Israel, which has its own undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal, has been warning for some time that Iran is far closer than believed in the west to being able to build a bomb.” (Ian Black, ‘US fears that Iran has capability to build a nuclear bomb,’ The Guardian, March 2, 2009)
But has Israel been simply “warning”, in the manner of a responsible citizen phoning the police about a mad gunman roaming the streets? Or has it, perhaps, been hyping fears about Iran for its own ends – and those of US power?
It is now almost unmentioned in media coverage that Israel carried out a massive military exercise in the eastern Mediterranean last June. This involved 100 bombers, rescue helicopters and midair refuelling planes over Crete, 1,400 kilometres from Israel – about the same distance separating Israel from Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz.
A few days after the exercise, Israel’s deputy prime minister, Shaul Mofaz, said:
“If Iran continues its programme to develop nuclear weapons, we will attack it. The window of opportunity has closed. The sanctions are not effective. There will be no alternative but to attack Iran in order to stop the Iranian nuclear programme.” (Jonathan Steele, ‘Israel asked US green light to bomb Iran,’ The Guardian, September 26, 2008)
Around the same time, the US announced that it would sell Israel 1,000 bunker-busting “smart” bombs, capable of penetrating 90 cm of steel-reinforced concrete. It was reported in passing that the US and Israel were in advanced talks about upgrading Israel’s Arrow II ballistic missile shield.
In 2007, Israeli forces conducted an air raid against an alleged Syrian nuclear facility. Seemingly unable to obtain US backing for similar strikes against Iran, Israel has launched a “covert war” involving hitmen, sabotage, front companies and double agents to stop “the regime’s illicit weapons project.” (Sherwell, op. cit.)
Although these developments have been given limited coverage, they invariably, and rapidly, disappear down the Orwellian ‘memory hole.’ Inconvenient facts are forgotten or overlooked. Somehow, the dots – the West’s long record of criminal actions, its current threats and longstanding strategic interests – are never joined. Somehow, there is no in-depth reporting or analysis of Israel’s hugely threatening stock of nuclear weapons; or of “our ally’s” threat to regional and global instability. Somehow, the West’s (particularly the US’s) massive financial, diplomatic and ideological support for a nuclear-armed Israel is not part of the story.
All of this is simply not discussed in any meaningful, sustained way by ‘mainstream’ broadcasters and newspapers. And so, like many others in the region, the people of Iran remain in the crosshairs of Western firepower; just as the Iraqis were.
Sadly, this deadly cocktail of media silence and diversion will likely yield yet more corpses, more mutilations, more victims demented by grief, fear and misery.
Whatever steps each of us can take to challenge the agenda of power propagated through the media are well worth the effort.
A follow-up exchange with the Guardian is archived in the forum.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Jeremy Bowen, BBC News Middle East editor
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Write to Ian Black, Guardian Middle East editor
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Write to Rory McCarthy, Guardian reporter
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Write to Siobhain Butterworth, Guardian readers’ editor
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