A Thoroughly Misleading Article on Iran and the Nuclear Deal

It is terrible coverage of an important issue, and it serves to distort the Iran policy debate even more than it already is.

A new article on Biden and Iran in The New York Times this week typifies the serious flaws in a lot of American reporting about Iran and related issues. David Sanger frames Biden’s approach to Iran as a “balancing act” between sometimes bombing Iranian-backed Iraqi militias and negotiating over the U.S. return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The two issues are “deeply intertwined,” Sanger informs us, but he doesn’t talk about the thing that actually links them, which is the ongoing economic war against Iran that Biden has continued. The only reference to sanctions in the entire article is a passing mention of sanctions imposed on the incoming Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi.

There are several points where the article presents the reader with false or misleading information, and there are several places where important context is left out. Sanger refers to Iran’s “march toward the capacity to build a nuclear weapon,” but there is no such march. To the extent that Iran has increased enrichment, it has done so to protest the sanctions imposed on them by Trump and kept in place by Biden. If the U.S. would rescind these sanctions, Iran would resume complying with the agreement as they had done for the first three and a half years since implementation started. He describes this “march” as being “in part an effort to demonstrate that Tehran is a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East and beyond,” but the Iranian government had accepted extensive restrictions on its nuclear program and intrusive inspections to verify compliance just a few years ago. Whatever effort Iran might be making to show that it is a “force to be reckoned with,” it decided that building up its nuclear program was no longer a necessary part of that. The problem is that the U.S. under Trump refused to take yes for an answer and insisted on a raft of new demands that Iran was never going to accept.

Later in the article, Sanger comments on a meeting between Biden and outgoing Israeli president Reuel Rivlin: “It was intended as a signal that Israel and the United States share the same goal, even if they have very different concepts of how to disarm the Iranians. [bold mine-DL]” Iran has no nuclear weapons, it has no nuclear weapons program, and it does not enrich uranium to weapons-grade level, so there is nothing to “disarm.” The effect of Sanger’s language is to create confusion about the current state of Iran’s nuclear program and its current position on whether to build nuclear weapons. To say that Biden is seeking to disarm them implies that they are currently armed when they are not.

Sanger further misleads the reader when he writes, “Iran’s capabilities, and its progress on other weapons systems, have advanced considerably since the original agreement went into effect.” Once again, the only reason Iran’s nuclear program has advanced from where it had been when the agreement went into effect was that the U.S. reneged on its part of the agreement and then sought to punish anyone else for doing business with Iran. Sanger’s phrasing creates the impression that the original agreement wasn’t working as intended, but consistent Iranian compliance from 2016 to mid-2019 shows that it was.

The article also provides no context for understanding why Iran is ending an interim agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency:

Without explanation, Iran has refused to extend an agreement with international nuclear inspectors that expired Thursday and has kept security cameras and other sensors fixed on the country’s stockpile of nuclear fuel even though inspectors have not been allowed inside Iran’s facilities during the negotiations. 

That agreement was a stopgap measure that allowed the IAEA to continue the monitoring that it had been doing in connection with Iran’s voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol. Following the Israeli government’s murder of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh late last year, the Majlis passed a law requiring, among other things, that the government cease implementing the Additional Protocol. The Rouhani government and the IAEA reached a temporary compromise to delay that development, but it was not going to continue indefinitely. Once again, Sanger could inform his readers about the reason for Iran’s actions, but he opts to make Iranian behavior appear inexplicable and mysterious.

At no point does Sanger acknowledge that U.S. sanctions are the major sticking point in the talks, nor does he acknowledge that all Trump-era sanctions remain in place. There is no attempt to explain the Iranian government’s actions except when it can be spun in a way that makes Iran appear as the aggressor. Israel is mentioned several times, but Israel’s use of sabotage and assassination against Iranian facilities and scientists is never mentioned even in passing. Sanger provides none of the necessary context, and if you didn’t already know about the “maximum pressure” sanctions that are still in place you would not learn about them in this reporting. The entire article reads more like a piece of advocacy for a “longer, stronger” agreement than a news report or analysis. It is terrible coverage of an important issue, and it serves to distort the Iran policy debate even more than it already is.