Media Amnesia on Iran

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If you’re feeling like it’s deja vu all over again, then welcome to Bushland.

Reporters are falling all over themselves to report an alleged about-face in the administration’s position vis-à-vis Middle East negotiations as a result of its newfound vision and wisdom. Yes, Iran ends with an “r” and really does have a nuclear program, and that other country ended with a “q” and barely had sticks and stones. But we will one day read the equivalent of the Downing Street memo that will likely prove, as one former official told the New York Times: “It came down to convincing Cheney and others that if we are going to confront Iran, we first have to check off the box” of offering negotiations.

Then comes the war….

But let’s not allow even the most recent history to interfere with a convenient storyline. When the Bush administration announced last week that it would join our European allies in talking to Iran about its nuclear program, the move was hailed by print and television commentators as part of the “new” face of the Bush administration, one that is “open to criticism.”

As MediaMatters pointed out earlier this week, the Sunday talk shows hailed the new Bush administration policy across the board:

“During interviews with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the June 4 editions of CBS’ Face the Nation, Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday, and CNN’s Late Edition, the shows’ respective hosts — Bob Schieffer, Chris Wallace and Wolf Blitzer — noted that the Bush administration’s recent offer to hold direct talks with Iranian officials on its nuclear program is a significant shift for the White House, describing the move as ‘a change in U.S. policy,’ ‘a major new diplomatic initiative,’ and ‘a dramatic development,’ respectively.”

This is not only bad history vis-à-vis Iraq; take a look at what everyone appears to want to ignore about Iran as well. While hailing the move as the good news it undoubtedly is, each of the talking heads, in turn, failed either to ask Secretary of State Condi Rice or to note themselves that back in 2003 the Bush administration reportedly refused Iran’s request for negotiations over this very issue. Another salient fact lost on the chat-fests was that Iran was providing assistance to the United States during the invasion of Afghanistan, before being alienated by the president’s “axis of evil” State of the Union speech in January 2002. The administration’s previous unresponsiveness to Iranian overtures is not exactly top secret information. A May 3 Financial Times article that built on a prior FT piece in March 2004 reported: “Iran was ready to enter comprehensive talks in May 2003, shortly after the fall of Baghdad. On the table then was a proposal to discuss issues, including weapons of mass destruction, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the future of Lebanon’s Hizbollah organization and co-operation with the UN nuclear safeguards agency.”

But instead of practicing diplomacy, the hawks in the administration rejected the overture. As the FT notes, “Instead, Washington protested to the Swiss Foreign Ministry, upbraiding Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, who had been involved in communicating the offer and gave his opinion that it was an authentic proposal by Iran’s leadership.” For argument’s sake, one could conclude that maybe the TV talking heads (or their research staffs) don’t read the FT, yet the same information could be found in the New York Times in January of this year. In an op-ed, Flynt Leverett, a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council in the Bush administration, wrote that, “In the spring of 2003, shortly before I left government, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences. The document acknowledged that Iran would have to address concerns about its weapons programs and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. It was presented as having support from all major players in Iran’s power structure, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”

What’s more, Leverett said that in October 2003, several European governments convinced Iran to agree to suspend enrichment “in order to pursue talks that might lead to an economic, nuclear and strategic deal. But the Bush administration refused to join the European initiative, ensuring that the talks failed.” If the TV guys got it wrong — as they so often do — one would hope that the print folks might be able to use Nexus, or at least have read the papers. For the most part, though, the ink-stained crowd also failed to pick up on the Bush administration’s incompetence. Still, they came closer to hinting that this wasn’t Iran’s first go-round in negotiations. On Saturday, the Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler was one of the few members of the mainstream media to report, in a story buried on page A8, that “Iranian officials secretly approached White House officials in 2003, seeking a dialogue, but the offer was swiftly dismissed. Three years later, Iran finds itself in a much stronger position — oil prices are at record highs, its nuclear program has made technological strides and the United States suddenly wants a seat at the negotiating table.” The Post‘s original piece on the issue, a June 1 page A1 story, wasn’t so forthcoming. It failed to mention the fact that that United States had previously rebuffed Iraq’s efforts. On the same day, however, buried back on page A13, Kessler hinted at his later candor, writing that Secretary of State Condi Rice “insisted that the decision to support the Europeans did not mean the Americans would join the talks. (Lower-level U.S. officials on occasion have talked to Iranian counterparts about Afghanistan and Iraq.)” Try finding that information in any hard news story in the New York Times, however, and you’ll come up empty. Apparently, stuff like that is only fodder for the op-ed pages. The most damming evidence of many mainstream media reporters failing to give the public the full story on the history of rejected negotiations with Iran comes from the noted historian Gareth Porter in the current issue of The American Prospect magazine, where he proffers the most thorough rundown of Iran’s overtures to date. According to Porter, back in 2001, “Iran offered search-and-rescue help, humanitarian assistance, and even advice on which targets to bomb in Afghanistan, according to one former administration official.” In the spring of 2003, Porter said that Iran “offered concrete concessions that went very far toward meeting U.S. concerns.” Perhaps some of these initiatives might not have amounted to as much as they first appear. We’ll never know. But you would think that reporters celebrating the newfound openness to negations on the part of the Bush team might at least find so direct a precedent at least relevant.

Alas, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it; this time, perhaps, with real nukes.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.

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Eric Alterman

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