Grand Bargain and the NIE Report

Lost Over Iran

Columbia Journalism Review, April 2008

How the press let the White House craft the narrative about nukes

By Eric Umansky  

When Americans tuned in to the news on the afternoon of December 3, they were in for a surprise. A new assessment made public by the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that while Iran was still enriching uranium, which can be used for both nuclear energy and nuclear bombs, it had frozen its weaponization-only program back in 2003. In other words, Iran did not seem dead set on building nukes. It was quite a shock. After all, the administration had been saying for years that Iran was racing to build the bomb.

President Bush warned just last August that unless Iran is stopped, the Middle East would be put "under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust." Military strikes seemed to be a possibility. "We will confront this danger before it is too late," Bush said. And yet the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the collective judgment of sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies, concluded that Iran wasn't intent on building a bomb.

George Perkovich, a nonproliferation analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was surprised by the news, too, but for a different reason. "I thought, wait a minute," he recalls. "I've written this before."

In May 2005, Perkovich wrote a paper speculating that Iran's leaders weren't actually bent on making the bomb but rather wanted to keep their options open. In that scenario, he wrote, "as Iranian elites began to pay attention to nuclear issues," they realized their best bet was an above-board civilian nuclear program. Such a path would still allow Iran to "gradually acquire" the know-how and technology to "produce nuclear weapons some day should a dire strategic threat arise"-all the while abiding by international law.

Perkovich wasn't the only one to guess that Iran wasn't bent on building the bomb. "I would see intelligence analysts over the last few years and ask, ‘Where's the evidence of what Iran's doing now?'" remembers Paul Kerr, formerly an analyst with the Arms Control Association, now with the Congressional Research Service. "And the answers I would get back were just really thin." Kerr believed the evidence pointed in the other direction. In November 2006, he said so in a piece for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

The very fact that Iran has previously offered several concessions, as well as curtailed some nuclear activities, should signal to the international community that Tehran has not necessarily committed itself to building nuclear weapons-and that there are those within the regime who are reluctant to risk political and economic isolation.

Perkovich, Kerr, and others had been questioning the administration's many assumptions about Iran: about why Tehran might have an interest in a weapons system in the first place, about whether it had a program to build one, and, if it did, about whether it was willing to do a deal to halt it. The analysts didn't have exact answers, of course; they were just raising basic questions. What's striking is how rarely such questions were asked by members of the press.

After its depressing performance on WMD and Iraq-aluminum tubes, Judith Miller, falsehoods successfully peddled by exiles like Ahmed Chalabi-the press was filled with mea culpas and promises to do better. Iran became the next test.

And it did do better; there have been few of the misleading administration-fed "scoops" so prevalent last time. But it also fell into old patterns. Against a backdrop of war drums, the media often left administration assumptions unexplored and unquestioned: Iran was perfidious, recalcitrant, racing toward nukes. Even now, after the NIE changed the landscape, "There is an enormous selective amnesia regarding Iran in U.S. coverage," says Ali Ansari, a historian at Scotland's University of St. Andrews, who specializes in Iran-U.S. relations and has long criticized journalists for relying on "worn-out narratives" regarding Iran. "There's this assumption that the U.S. has always been innocent partner in the relationship. But the two have been equally guilty of mismanaging the relationships and missing opportunities."

And yet despite long-standing evidence supporting that kind of ambiguous picture, the official narrative tends to prevail.

In the series of basic questions about Iran and its intentions, one of the first should be: How willing have its leaders been to negotiate? "The Iranians are just as skittish as we are," says Gary Sick, a member of the National Security Council in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations and a Persian Gulf specialist. "Negotiating with the ‘Great Satan' is a very hard thing for them to do politically. I've compared it to a teeter-totter-when one side is up, they don't want to negotiate, and vice versa. Finding a point of equilibrium is very hard to do."

There does appear to have been an opportunity for equilibrium that, with little notice in the media, was passed up not by Iran but by the Bush administration.

In the fall of 2001, U.S. attention was focused on Osama bin Laden and rooting out Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. At the same time, something else was happening in Afghanistan: Iran was cooperating with the U.S. to a degree that hadn't been seen since the days of the Shah. It was, as Ray Takeyh, author of Hidden Iran, put it, "the underreported story of the first episode of America's war on terrorism."

Before the U.S. began its air strikes against the Taliban in October 2001, U.S. and Iranian diplomats started to meet and coordinate on Afghanistan. (Iran had long opposed the Taliban, whose Sunni extremism brands Shia, Iran's state religion, as heretical.) Iran invited the U.S. to use its airbases for emergency landings and offered to conduct rescue operations for lost American pilots. Tehran's diplomats apparently also stepped in to save a U.S.-proposed power-sharing deal that the Northern Alliance initially opposed. Indeed, Iran even offered to help train the nascent Afghan Army-under U.S. supervision.

James Dobbins, then the Bush administration's special envoy to Afghanistan, recounted his shock at just how cooperative the Iranians were being in a May 2004 Washington Post op-ed. Diplomats from a number of countries were helpful, wrote Dobbins, but "none were more so than the Iranians." He duly reported the overtures back to Washington where, Dobbins noted, "none was ever taken up."

Mid-level contacts between Tehran and Washington continued in fits and starts. In May 2003, Iranian leaders appear to have made a last-ditch effort at a deal. They may have been motivated by the speed with which the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. After all, Iran had fought an eight-year war with Iraq that ended in a stalemate; the U.S. march to Baghdad took three weeks. Whatever its inspiration, Iran's offer put nearly everything on the table, from support for Hezbollah to Iran's nuclear energy program. It has since been dubbed the "Grand Bargain."

The exact provenance of the offer wasn't initially clear. It came sans letterhead via a fax from the Swiss ambassador to Iran-Washington's designated middleman for communications. But the offer does appear to have been serious. "I have talked to people in Iran who were responsible for editing and sending it," says Gary Sick. "It was cleared at the highest levels as an offer in good faith."

The offer wasn't an easy story for journalists to nail down. The Iranians who had crafted a peace offering to the "Great Satan" had every incentive to stay mum, as did an administration in Washington that had little interest in negotiating. But the Financial Times published a short piece by diplomatic correspondent Guy Dinmore in July 2003 sketching out the overture and the U.S.'s lack of interest. "We are not reaching out at this point," a State Department official told Dinmore.

And there the story sat. The first follow-up didn't come for nearly a year, until Dinmore himself wrote another, more detailed piece in which he clarified that the fax was actually the culmination of a series of feelers. The added details still did not set off a rush for follow-up. The next story on Iran's interest in a deal didn't appear until the fall of 2004, roughly eighteen months after Dinmore's first report, in The Washington Post. That story, the first to refer to a "Grand Bargain," included more intriguing revelations:

  • Through Swiss Ambassador Tim Guldimann, Tehran indicated a desire to discuss its nuclear program.
  • The offer held the outlines of a "Grand Bargain," but Washington balked. "We're not interested in a grand bargain," then U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton said.
  • Over eighteen months, the countries periodically discussed their mutual interests in Afghanistan and Iraq. But a Bush administration policymaker said "instructions were clear" to the U.S. negotiators: "Don't bring up the nukes."

All of which were mentioned roughly sixty paragraphs into the Post piece. The story itself, unprecedented peril forces tough calls, written in the run-up to the 2004 presidential elections, was a lengthy (and stinging) assessment of the administration's nonproliferation strategy. There's very little to criticize in the Post's effort. The story's reporters-Dafna Linzer and Barton Gellman-simply happened across some fine nuggets as part of a larger investigation.

What is surprising was (again) the lack of follow-up. Few other reporters seemed interested in the evidence of Iran's apparent peace overtures and the U.S.'s recalcitrance. The first headline about any of this in a U.S. paper wouldn't come for another year and a half, nearly three years after the Financial Times first revealed those overtures. (That story was published in February 2006 by a freelancer, Greg Beals, in Long Island's Newsday.)

Reporters seemed interested in the story and later-when a source began providing documentary proof-some tried to write it. But "editors slashed it down to something like the last paragraph of a larger story," says Trita Parsi, the Iran expert and former congressional staffer who provided the documents. "It was something that went against people's assumptions." USA Today's Barbara Slavin wrote one such story. "Overall, USA Today was very reasonable about these things," recalls Slavin. "But I got the document in March 2006, and my editors did not think it was significant. And I only got to write about it in May 2006. It was at the end of a story about Iran President Ahmadinejad's letter [to Bush] and said basically, ‘Oh, by the way, this isn't the first time Iran has offered to negotiate.'"

Through the rest of 2006, there appears to have been one piece devoted to the offer, in The Washington Post-it ran on page A16. Even though the offer had never really made news, it was considered old news.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof decided to write about the proposals in early 2007. Kristof says he, too, was "concerned about the possibility of a military encounter. So I started doing some reporting." Kristof eventually added more detail showing that the Iranians had not simply sent the offer through the Swiss, but had also approached the State Department, and had sent an offer to the White House itself. Writing about the various versions of the offer, Kristof concluded "neo-cons killed [an] incipient peace process."

"In general, what journalists are best at covering is what a president or prime minister said yesterday," says Kristof, not "complicated processes that don't happen in one day, that can't easily be condensed into a bumper-sticker....But it was something we really needed to pursue, especially when it looked like we might bomb Iran because of the view that they were utterly recalcitrant, incapable of a diplomatic solution. These documents were an important bit of counter-evidence."

No story about the "Grand Bargain" ever appeared in the news pages of the Times.

With last December's National Intelligence Estimate, an assumption came crashing down: that Iran was on the march toward nukes. Evidence had long been thin that Iran was dedicated to building a bomb. Yet that murkiness was rarely deemed noteworthy of coverage before the NIE.

Iran has certainly given reasons for other countries to be suspicious. In August 2002, an Iranian opposition group announced that Tehran had secretly constructed facilities that could be used to enrich uranium. That process is not only a key step toward civilian nuclear energy, but also the hardest part in making a bomb. Months later the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed the sites. As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is allowed to enrich uranium and use it for nuclear energy. But it has to be transparent about its efforts, which Iran wasn't. Iran says it kept things secret only because Western countries had been blocking their attempts at an above ground program."

Iran has spent the last six years in a complex dance with the international community, signaling a willingness to negotiate while also insisting that it will never give up its right to enrich. The press has duly detailed each step in the dance. It's a kind of play-by-play commentary, one that-until the NIE-was often permeated with the assumption that Iran was intent on building weapons. "Iran's intransigence is not only real; it also appears to be defeating attempts by the rest of the world to curtail Tehran's nuclear ambitions," a New York Times story explained last November 30, four days before the NIE gave a very different picture. The story-ON NUCLEAR SEESAW, THE BALANCE SEEMS TO SHIFT TO IRAN-by Elaine Sciolino, pointed to Iran's apparent recent lack of interest in a deal to suspend its enrichment. Left unsaid was that Iran's exact "nuclear ambitions" were unclear.

"The volume is always turned up on the reporting," says Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the New America Foundation, who had also written (before the NIE) about the possibility that Iran had suspended its weaponization program. "It's crazy Iranians doing crazy stuff all the time. Every negotiator is some hardliner, some caricature. It's one of the reasons people were shocked by the NIE."

The assumption that Iran wanted a bomb also encouraged hyperbolic reporting about Iran's enrichment program itself. The same basic enrichment process can be used to create fuel for both civilian reactors and, after a time, bomb-grade uranium for weapons. But with Iran's enrichment plant still subject to inspections from the U.N., there is no known evidence it has done the latter. Iran has more than tripled its ability to produce enriched uranium in the last three months, adding some one thousand centrifuges, ABC News announced in an "exclusive report" last April. Citing sources "familiar with the dramatic upgrade," the report warned that "Iran could have enough material for a nuclear bomb within two years." Last December's National Intelligence Estimate concluded that it is "very unlikely" Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium by then. The ABC piece "was fly-by journalism," says Lewis.

Another story by the Times raised even more hackles among nuclear experts, and this one had shades of the Iraq debacle. In November 2005, The New York Times published a front-page piece by David Sanger and William Broad detailing the contents of a purloined laptop apparently provided to the U.S. under unclear circumstances that was presented as proof that Iran was moving ahead with its nukes effort. The laptop had been alluded to in November 2004 by then Secretary of State Colin Powell, who caused a stir by alleging Iran was "actively working on delivery systems" for a nuclear bomb.

The Times story seemed to corroborate Powell's controversial allegations. According to American officials, the paper said, documents from the stolen laptop offer the "strongest evidence yet that, despite Iran's insistence that its nuclear program is peaceful, the country is trying to develop a compact warhead to fit atop its Shahab missile, which can reach Israel and other countries in the Middle East." The story had plenty of caveats-including quotes from European diplomats doubting the evidence-but its thrust was clear.

It also may not have been accurate. The laptop files never in fact referred to a nuclear warhead. Instead they referred to a missile re-entry vehicle, essentially a compartment that a warhead could, theoretically, go in. What's more, experts later noted, the compartment was likely too small to hold any nuke Iran was capable of building. Perhaps most important, the work detailed in the laptop ended in 2003, the same time that, according to the recent NIE, Iran stopped its program. (The Post had already referred briefly to the laptop files previously, and suggested they weren't proof of much.)

Jeffrey Lewis, writing on ArmsControlWonk, his authoritative blog, declared the Times story a "collection of half-truths, pablum, and recycled news." David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, also excoriated it. Albright wrote a letter to the Times detailing the story's shortcomings and complaining that it was ultimately "another example where the media has published WMD statements from this administration that are not balanced sufficiently." (Albright had written the Times back in 2002 complaining about Judith Miller and Michael Gordon's now discredited "aluminum tubes" story, which helped set off the war in Iraq.) The Times declined to run a correction.

In fairness, the Times has run some superior pieces on Iran. A particularly good one-also by Sanger and Broad- came in February 2007 after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that Iran had made significant process on enrichment. The story suggested that Ahmadinejad was, in short, full of it.

One news organization that has been particularly inquisitive on the Iran crisis: McClatchy, née Knight-Ridder, the same outfit celebrated for its skeptical reporting in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Last fall (shortly before the NIE), McClatchy's Washington bureau did a series of pieces probing the administration's contentions. "There had been a lot of focus on tactical questions like, Will we bomb?-as opposed to larger questions like, What really is the threat from Iran?" says Warren Strobel, senior correspondent for foreign affairs at McClatchy. "So we sat down last August and had a series of meetings. We very deliberately decided we'd look from the ground up, to look at the most basic questions."

That approach led to stories that challenged some of the administration's basic assumptions. The stories didn't claim that Iran had no nuclear-weapons program or that its intentions were peaceful. Instead, McClatchy's reporters focused on the lack of evidence and the ambiguities. As one of their headlines put it, NO FIRM EVIDENCE OF IRANIAN NUCLEAR WEAPONS. Another story flagged recent feelers from Iran, suggesting it might be willing to make a deal to suspend uranium enrichment. Yet another piece surveyed Iran experts and found a broad swath of agreement that, despite the rhetoric that a nuclear weapon would represent an "existential threat" to Israel, Tehran appeared to want a nuclear capability for "the same reason other countries do: to protect itself."

All of which would have been unremarkable, were it not for the overwhelming chatter in the other direction. "There's no doubt that [Iran is] moving forward with the acquisition of a nuclear weapon," McCain said last fall, a few minutes after he jokingly sang, "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" to a Beach Boys melody. Such talk wasn't limited to conservatives. Hillary Clinton tried to outflank the administration, asserting in January 2006, "Iran is seeking nuclear weapons" and arguing that the White House actually "chose to downplay the threats." In April 2006, Joe Klein, Time's centrist columnist, argued on ABC's This Week, "We should not take any option, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, off the table." (McClatchy's reporters have rarely been invited to join the discussion. "No one comes to us," says national-security reporter Jonathan Landay. "I did CSPAN once.")

The main fear of course has been that a nuclear-armed Iran might attack Israel. (As President Bush presented it last October, a nuclear-armed Iran could result in "World War III.") The underlying assumption is what might be called the crazy-mullah model: Iran's leaders are so twisted by religious fervor that even the likelihood of their own destruction, from Israel's nuclear arsenal, wouldn't dissuade them from an attack. As Bernard Lewis, the hawkish Princeton academic, put it last year, "Mutual Assured Destruction is not a deterrent; it is an inducement."

Ahmadinejad has certainly encouraged this kind of thinking, as has, indirectly, the coverage of him. Ahmadinejad has a penchant for demagogic rants. He infamously questioned whether the Holocaust happened and, to international outrage, said in 2005, "The regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time." He makes for good copy-when he spoke at Columbia University last fall, CNN ran forty-five minutes of live coverage. Still, decision-making power on national security and foreign policy lies not with Ahmadinejad, but with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the clerics around him.

For all the rhetoric emanating from both Tehran and the U.S., Iran's history since the 1979 revolution contains little evidence suggesting the country's leaders would launch what would amount to a suicidal attack. One rare voice to question the doomsday scenario has been Newsweek's international editor, Fareed Zakaria. His conclusion, as he wrote last October: "The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality."

"The question about Iran's rationality rests on this: They've been in power for thirty years. What have they done?" Zakaria noted on PBS's NewsHour. "The idea that they are not going to be deterred by Israel's two hundred nuclear weapons, including a second-strike capacity on submarines, is just fantasy. It's based on plucking a few quotes here and there from a president who is not constitutionally or operationally in charge of the nuclear program."

That jibes with the second half of the big news from December's NIE-not that Iran had stopped its march for nukes but why: Iran's leaders are "guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon." In other words, perhaps Iran's leaders aren't so crazy after all. Maybe that shouldn't have been such a surprise. 

Submitted by goudarz on Fri, 04/11/2008 - 10:02pm.