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Iran Special: Forget the News --- Let's Tell Scary Stories

Reuters sets aside its news coverage of Iran to tell a very scary story

Despite the break for New Year, there is no shortage of significant stories coming out of Iran this week. Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani has resumed his challenge to the Ahmadinejad Government, especially over economic issues. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has published a wide-ranging commentary implicitly criticising the Government on foreign affairs, including relations with the US and Saudi Arabia, human rights, and the economy; he has drawn criticism from a range of Iranian politicians and clerics, including a representative of the Supreme Leader. And, if internal affairs are too complex, there is the headline possibility that Tehran is backing out of nuclear talks.

But it takes daily attention and no shortage of reading, including of the Iranian press, to cover and draw out the significance of these developments. And really, can a battle over support payments for subsidy cuts hold the attention of readers and viewers?

Wouldn't it be easier to tell a scary story? Especially if US officials are handing you the script?

Earlier this week we noted The Wall Street Journal's profile of the head of the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards, Qasem Soleimani, "Iran's Spymaster Counters U.S. Moves in the Mideast". (He's not a spymaster. He's a military commander, but that is not quite so exciting.) This was the excuse to trot out a series of US Government allegations --- unsubstantiated, at least in the article:

Senior U.S. and Arab officials say it was Gen. Soleimani's idea to harass and bleed American forces for years in Iraq by arming Shiite militias there. The general's elite Qods Force of soldiers and spies oversees Iran's support for groups fighting Israel, including Hezbollah and Hamas.

Israel publicly blames the Qods Force for a string of assassination attempts on Israeli diplomats; U.S. officials have publicly blamed Iran and privately point a finger at the Qods Force. Last October, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Gen. Soleimani in the Southern District of New York for his purported role in a bomb plot aimed at killing the Saudi Arabian ambassador at a cafe in Washington, D.C. Iran has denied the charges.

U.S. officials believe Mr. Soleimani's approval underlies any Qods Force operations outside Iran. They have tied Iran's Qods Force to recent bombings in Thailand and India, as well as alleged plotting in Azerbaijan.

Yesterday it was the turn of The New York Times, "U.S. Sees Iran in Bids to Stir Unrest in Afghanistan", courtesy of "a dozen Government officials":

Just hours after it was revealed that American soldiers had burned Korans seized at an Afghan detention center in late February, Iran secretly ordered its agents operating inside Afghanistan to exploit the anticipated public outrage by trying to instigate violent protests in the capital, Kabul, and across the western part of the country, according to American officials.

Again, there is nothing of substance in the article beyond "what American officials say", just the assurance that Tehran is devious, malevolent, and lying: "Iran has denied any government-backed effort to foment unrest in Afghanistan, but American officials see a pattern of malign meddling to increase Iran’s influence across the Middle East and South Asia."

Impressive efforts at scariness, but pride of first place has to go to the video at the top of this entry, "Strike on Iran could prompt Hezbollah attack within U.S. -- Reuters Investigates"

Despite the very scary headline, there is no investigation here, only journalist Mark Hosenball serving as a spokesman for Government PR efforts: "The New York Police Department, in particular, and some of the Federal agencies have been tracking Hezbollah intensely for a number of years. The feeling is, if really sets it mind to it, Hezbollah can be the most deadly terrorist group in the world."

Cue lots of images of Hezbollah's suicide bombing that killed 241 US Marines in Lebanon in 1983, followed by Hosenball's pronouncement that, while Hezbollah decided after that not to hit the US directly, "the general belief of these...experts is that the only way that Hezbollah will become an imminent or immediate threat to US interests, either at home or abroad, is if the US or Israel attack Iran because Iran is a big supporter of Hezbollah. Both the federal authorities and the local authorities in New York believe that there is certainly a potential for Hezbollah launching attacks in the United States, that they already have operatives or sleeper cells here."

Hosenball's evidence for this claim? The New York Police told him that "Iranian officials" took a Circle Line cruise under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges...and took pictures of them.

Perhaps there are devious, deadly Iranian schemes under way --- after all, as US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once summarised "intelligence" and international affairs, "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Yet you would think that a veteran reporter such as Hosenball might hold his hand up and say, "I really don't have anything here, but this is what US officials want you to believe."

And, equally important, Reuters and Hosenball --- or The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times --- might consider the context, and thus the significance, for why they are being fed the story at this moment. 

The US is on the verge of its first discussions with Iran over the nuclear issue since the breakdown of talks in November 2009. That is a sign of diplomacy --- missed in all the reports considered here --- not of confrontation. However, Washington wants to go into the talks from a position of strength, and the Obama Administration wants to shows critics of any rapprochement that it is not going "soft" on the Islamic Republic. It also cannot be ruled out that some of those unnamed "officials" in these reports are trying to undermine, rather than support, the discussions.

Equally important is the US preparation for a collapse of the negotiations --- a likely prospect, given that Tehran is signalling that it might not even come to the table. To back up American sanctions and other pressure, the Iranian regime has to take the blame for the betrayal of diplomacy. So the picture is drawn now of Tehran's perfidy.

There are also far-from-minor matters such as Syria, where the US and Iran are on opposite sides of the crisis. Washington may not have its heart behind intervention to remove the Assad regime, but it certainly does not want Tehran to bolster its positon with support, from rhetoric to advice to logistics, of Damascus. So while avoiding the intricacies of the Syrian issue, suitable American reporters are fed lines about the regional spectre of "Hezbollah".

However, if Reuters and the other US outlets did this, they would be undermining their own stories. And their reporters, including a veteran such as Hosenball, might be cutting off their access to "information". After all, why should US officials bother to offer the quotes, if the right spin is not going to put on them.

Enough serious critique, though --- it's so complicated and it gets in the way of The Fear. Let's give an honourable mention to The Cutting Edge, which reprints an "investigation" by Stephen Pomerantz --- "former assistant director and chief of counter-terrorism at the FBI [and] director for counter-terrorism programs at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs":

Iran is still the world's most significant state sponsor of terrorism and they still have the capability to utilize existing resources in this country to mount a terrorist attack should they choose to do so for any reason. And within our borders we still harbor individuals and organizations dedicated to the twin ideologies of radical Islam and Jihad who would be prepared to strike if directed to do so by the Iranian government....It is beyond conjecture as to whether or not Iran would utilize its overseas resources to carry out terrorist attacks on its behalf.

Ah, the War on Terror lives, even if the actual phrase has been banned by the Obama Administration. For this is the illustration for Pomerantz's story:

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