It is worth reflecting on one central question regarding Iran: why does the recent election enjoy so much attention in the U.S.? My research on Iran suggests that Americans’ attention to Iran revolves around two issues. More superficially, much of the Iran focus is motivated by the conflict over the country’s nuclear power program. Without American officialdom’s fixation on the Iran “threat,” it is unlikely that the election would receive sustained attention. But why is there such an obsession over a program that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and U.S. National Intelligence conclude is geared toward domestic energy production, and which ended its weapons development six years ago? To answer this question, we need to move beyond the superficial reason for coverage – Iran’s nuclear program – and address the substantive reason for America’s Iran fixation: U.S. imperial power.
I have spent much of my intellectual career tracing the U.S. official policy record justifying its motivations for using military force in the Middle East. The stated reason provided by the State Department, National Security Council, and U.S. Presidents (in their National Security Strategies) is consistent across all administrations: a concern with maintaining dominance of Middle Eastern oil. I explore this rich policy record in detail in my forthcoming book, When Media Goes to War (forthcoming in February 2010 from Monthly Review Press), so I will not spend time here rehashing that analysis. However, it is worth analyzing how America’s neocolonial motivations are obscured by the mass media and political officials’ emphasis on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons development.
I refer to the fixation with Iran as “faith based,” in that it is not in the least based on rational consultation with the intelligence record. Rather, it is driven by a dogmatic repetition of simplistic and propagandistic assumptions that Iran is a threat. This mindset is reflected in a June 2009 statement from Obama – which merely repeats the conventional view in Washington – that the U.S is “going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood [of the Middle East] and is pursuing nuclear weapons.”
A review of the media’s record on Iran is helpful in documenting this faith-based approach. Media framing of Iran as a threat dates back to at least 2002, when coverage of Iran’s nuclear power program increased dramatically after the Bush administration’s labeled Iran part of the “Axis of Evil.” Bush’s attempt to link Iraq and Iran – one a secular dictatorship and the other a religious theocracy – was a grotesque propaganda and fiction considering the two countries were bitter enemies since the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Nonetheless, media outlets responded kindly to the administration, consistently portraying Iran as a threat. My analysis of NBC Nightly News Programs mentioning Iran’s nuclear program (from March 2003 through July 2007) found that the network’s reporters were four times as likely to claim Iran was or may be developing nuclear weapons than to claim it was not or may not be developing such weapons. Similarly, my analysis of the Washington Post’s reporting on Iran’s program (from June 2003 through June 2007) found that journalists were more than twice as likely to suggest Iran was or may be developing nuclear weapons than to claim it was not or may not be developing them.
Hysterical over-reactions to Iran’s nuclear power program continued beyond the period I analyzed above. A review of print newsstories from 2008 and 2009 demonstrates this beyond a doubt:
An update on Iran printed in the New York Times on November 20, 2008 cited a report from global nuclear inspectors at the IAEA documented “Iran’s progress” in enriching “1,390 pounds of low-enriched uranium.” The uranium, the Times conceded, could not be used to develop nuclear weapons, since highly enriched uranium is required for this task. However, the article went on to uncritically cite “American intelligence agencies [that] have said Iran could make a bomb between 2009 and 2015.” The article failed to cite any specific report or agency, and the “finding” directly contradicted the New York Times’ own admission that the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate concluded in 2007 that Iran ended its nuclear weapons program.
One story from the New York Times on February 20, 2009 reported that U.S. “officials declared for the first time that the amount of uranium that Tehran has now amassed – more than a ton – was sufficient, with added purification, to make an atom bomb.” Similarly, the Los Angeles Times reported on the same day that “Iran has enough fuel for a nuclear bomb if it decides to take the drastic steps of violating its international treaty obligations, kicking out inspectors and further refining its supply” [emphasis added].
Even international inspectors are not beyond being co-opted into this propaganda system. IAEA head Mohammad ElBaradei, for example, received prominent coverage in the New York Times when he shared his “gut feeling” that Iran’s leaders wanted the technology to build nuclear weapons “to send a message to their neighbors, to the rest of the world: don’t mess with us.” The IAEA’s actual conclusions – that there is no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program – seemed at a disadvantage when competing with ElBaradei’s “gut.” The standard operating procedure in such stories is clear: promote worst case scenarios – while conceding a complete lack of documented evidence – that Iran is a dire threat to the United States. While this approach may not have anything to do with empirical reality, it has the single advantage of pleasing American officials who demand sycophantic media coverage.
A final example reported in the New York Times appeared on May 21, 2009, when Iran “test-fired an upgraded surface-to-surface missile with a range of about 1,200 miles,” which “would put it within striking distance of Israel and of American bases in the Persian Gulf.” The familiar canard that Iran will not stop until Israel is wiped off the map only gains wide acceptance because of these kinds of reports.
Editorializing from the elite press is no different in its demonization of Iran, as reflected in various editorials over the last year. Op-ed writer John Hannah, for example, wonders in the Washington Post whether Obama’s diplomatic engagement [can] persuade Iran to cease its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.” Similarly, the editors at the New York Times contend that “the amount of uranium that Tehran now holds is sufficient to make an atom bomb,” while a Boston Globe editorial claimed in February of 2009 that Iran’s launching of a satellite into orbit “ostentatiously foreshadows the capability one day to deliver nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles.”
The falsified “evidence” of Iran’s nuclear threat serves as an effective cover for obscuring America’s imperial interests in Middle Eastern oil. After consuming media propaganda on Iran, Americans become preoccupied with a manufactured threat, rather than with longstanding U.S. goals of dominating petroleum resources through military force. One 2006 study by the Pew Research Center found that perceptions of Iran’s threat increased by double digits from late 2005 to early 2007. Large numbers of Americans feel that, if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons, it will undertake military attacks against Israel, the U.S., and Europe. The Pew study finds a close link between media consumption and beliefs that Iran is a threat. Survey respondents who “heard a lot” about Iran’s nuclear program in the news were more likely to view Iran as a threat than those who “heard a little” or heard “nothing at all.” Similar results are documented in my book, When Media Goes to War, which concludes that consumption of both liberal and conservative mainstream media (such as MSNBC and Fox) are closely associated with perceptions that Iran is a threat.
The recent obsession with Iran’s nuclear “threat” and the 2009 election is advantageous for American leaders. Sustained attention to them allows officials to project their concern with national security and humanitarian issues, rather than discuss their addiction to war and material gain. The public, however, will not be well served by discussion of Iran until we realize the bait and switch that is taking place. Humanitarian concerns may motivate many average Americans, but such concerns serve more as a rhetorical weapon of U.S. leaders against the weak and downtrodden of the world.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO is the author of the newly released: Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Understanding American News in the “War on Terror” (2008). He teaches American Government at North Central College in Illinois, and can be reached at: email@example.com