Popular Journalism and Iran: A Flashback

By Neil Earle

As Iranian tensions return and its future as a possible nuclear state is debated it is possible to construct a working file on how the issue plays out in American popular journalism. The consistency is fairly surprising.

Doyle McManus summarized the basic options in his Los Angeles Times column of February 22, 2009 titled “A Plan B for Iran.” In the end, MacManus gave three possibilities for the USA going forward: stricter sanctions, Cold War-style containment with Israeli help, or war. This was before the now-famous deal was made under the Obama adminsitration.

Along the way, McManus offered the relevant thought that “most (and maybe all) of Obama’s advisors see the costs of attacking Iran as outweighing the benefits.” This opinion in turn leads back to an important Bush administration-era cover story by Atlantic magazine (Fall, 2004). In “Will Iran Be Next?” the magazine war-gamed a session using war college experts and arms inspectors playing different roles from the U.S. president to Iranian officials.

A Weak Analogy?

The model in the back of everyone’s mind was Israel’s bombing of Saddam Hussein’s Osirik Reactor in 1981 (“Operation Babylon”). According to Atlantic’s team of experts, the Iraqi analogy broke down in a realistic consideration of basic facts. Iran has three times the land area and five times the population of 1980s Iraq. The Iranian program is scattered and hidden which would necessitate some 300 “aim points.” It is unlikely Israel alone could sustain this kind of effort especially since their jets (or even American jets) would most likely need to fly over other Arab states.

The war games presaged a brief report in Time magazine’s December 17, 2007 issue from the American Joint Chiefs. They concluded the US could accomplish “severe damage” rather than a successful repeat of Operation Babylon. Nevertheless, former State Department Director of Policy Planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter, told CNN on June 6, 2013 that she was 60% certain the US would bomb Iran in 2013. Time’s Joe Klein made the same missed prediction.

This makes Zbigniew Brzezinski’s piece in the April 23, 2006 LA Times important for the blunt synopsis “Been There, Done That: Talk of a U.S. strike on Iran is eerily reminiscent of the run-up to the Iraq War.” Brzezinski was President Jimmy Carter’s hard-line national security adviser from 1977 to 1981. He did not waste time ticking off the possible consequences of a U.S. or even Israeli air strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

Zbigniew Brzezinski

Zbig’s Cautions

First, the attack could be seen as a unilateral declaration of war, a possible impeachable offense for an American President. This takes on more relevance as President Donald Trump has assembled a fairly hawkish team to deal with national security issues. Mr. Trump’s scuttling of the Iran deal is well known BUT it was never a formal treaty with the U.S. government’s full consent.

Second, the consequences could undermine other U.S. involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan (Today we would throw in Syria as well.) “Iran is a country of about 70 million people, and a conflict with it would make the misadventure in Iraq seem trivial,” opined Brzezinski.

Third, oil prices could climb steeply once again, especially if Iran cut oil production. (This “may” have changed with U.S. moves towards energy self-sufficiency – however supply routes are notoriously diffcult to change. Brzezinski did not mention the Iraian ability to block the Straits of Hormuz, one of the main arteries for oil exports from the Middle East.)

Finally, the United States homeland could become even more a target of vengeful terror bombing and face suspicion from the rest of the world. “In short,” says Brzezinski, “an attack on Iran would be an act of political folly, setting in motion a progressive upheaval in world affairs.”

That would seem to almost nail the case against military strikes. An Iranian perspective was given on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria show “GPS” on November 16, 2014 by Maziar Bahari. Bahari is the Iranian-Canadian journalist who was imprisoned by the Iranian regime in 2009 and the subject of the Jon Stewart-produced movie “Rosewater.” Any U.S. attack, warmed Bahari, would set back the moderate cause in Iran and lead to excuses for repression to be intensified inside the country.

In short, popular journalism has been remarkably consistent in showing there seems to be no easy U.S. military options against Iran. As McManus concluded, that leaves continued Cold War style containment as the only viable option which the Trump policy is pursuing.

The late Anthony Bourdain received a warm welcome when he visited Iran.

Tragic Dilemma

This harmonizes with the late Anthony Bourdain's remarkably positive experience in his popular “Points Unknown” CNN culinary documentary featuring his Iranian visit. He was intrigued by the friendly greeting he received and how popular American ways are in Iran. He echoed the National Geographic report of August, 2008 featuring “Ancient Iran: Inside a Nation’s Persian Soul” and showing how the West and Iran have been tragically talking past each other for decades.

Trite Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, saw the problem the same way in the LA Times. “Iranian bluster” and a long-reaching national sense of pride is set against U.S. ignorance of the country and the “collapse of statecraft” between the two countries. Parsi quoted former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael G. Mullen who summarized: “We are not talking to each other (officially) so we don’t understand each other. If something happens it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right.”

This is a serious conclusion. The consistent warnings in America’s popular journalism agianst military moves that, in the words of former Secretary of State Robert Gates, would be “catastrophic.” On this desperate measure many well-read journalists agree.The chance of rogue action precipitating a military engagement cannot be denied, however. Watch this space for future backgrounders on Iran from a biblical, historical perpsective.