Parroting the Obama Administration’s Line on Iran and Syria

Last year, we took the Washington Post‘s Joby Warrick to task for stories he published that relied “almost entirely on unnamed U.S. officials and a known terrorist organization” to advance “Iraq-redux” claims that the Islamic Republic is seeking to build nuclear weapons.  Now, Warrick published a front-page story in the Washington Post — a story which relied entirely (no “almost”) on unnamed “U.S. officials and a diplomat from an allied nation” to report that

Iran is dispatching increasing numbers of trainers and advisers — including members of its elite Quds Force — into Syria to help crush anti-government demonstrations that are threatening to topple Iran’s most important ally in the region.  The influx of Iranian manpower is adding to a steady stream of aid from Tehran that includes not only weapons and riot gear but also sophisticated surveillance equipment that is helping Syrian authorities track down opponents through their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

We would directly challenge Warrick’s assertion that “anti-government demonstrations” in Syria “are threatening to topple Iran’s most important ally in the region.”  Another story in the same edition of the Washington Post as Warrick’s offers a far more accurate characterization of the Syrian protests as having “failed to muster the numbers that brought down the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year,” and further notes that “despite [protestors’] efforts, there has been no indication that the army would be willing to break ranks with the regime.”  We would add that the demonstrations in Syria, while persistent, have been concentrated in essentially peripheral areas of the country.

But to explore such issues would constitute serious journalism, and that is not what Warrick is doing here.  What he is doing is helping to disseminate what amounts to the Obama Administration’s chosen propaganda line: popular unrest is making President Assad as “illegitimate” as Qaddafi in Libya, and the Islamic Republic of Iran — unlike the United States, which is valiantly standing by the “people” of Libya in their efforts to overthrow a dictator — is propping up a dictator in Syria.

We would argue that reality is quite different from this propaganda line: the United States, without having done its homework, intervened on behalf of one side in a civil war in Libya, and still has not managed to oust Qaddafi.  Conversely, the unrest in Syria does not come anywhere close to a “civil war” threshold.  In our view, President Assad continues to command the support of at least half of Syria’s population.  But the Administration is worried about Iran’s rising standing and influence across the region — and is turning to every propaganda tool it can think of to “push back” against the Islamic Republic’s popularity in the Middle East — something attested to over several years by multiple public opinion polls.

In his story, apart from the very obvious limitations on his sourcing, Warrick makes no effort to offer an alternative perspective on the line he was fed by the Obama Administration.  Warrick cites one outside commentator — Michael Singh, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  We know, like, and respect Michael Singh.  But, before Warrick’s story was published by the Washington Post, Michael had already published his own Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal subscribing to the Obama Administration’s narrative about Iranian involvement in Syria.  Moreover, the Washington Institute is an AIPAC-created entity with its own agenda regarding both the Islamic Republic and Syria.  By going to Michael Singh as his sole outside commentator, Warrick assured that the Obama Administration’s preferred propaganda line would not be challenged in his “news story.”

Warrick’s story notes that

many previous reports, mostly provided by Western officials, have described Iranian technical help in supplying Syria with riot helmets, batons and other implements of crowd control during 10 weeks of demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad.

Even if this is true, would Warrick or his unnamed sources prefer that the Iranians send tanks and armored personnel carriers to Syria, to support a more militarized response?  We will have more on this point below.  Now, according to Warrick,

in the account provided by the diplomat and the U.S. officials, the Iranian military trainers were being brought to Damascus to instruct Syrians in techniques Iran used against the nation’s Green Movement in 2009.

What “techniques” does Warrick mean?  Effective crowd control and letting the opposition show it had no credible evidence of electoral fraud in the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election, thereby losing most of its social base — which was never close to a majority anyway? 

Perhaps if Warrick had been more assiduous in his reporting he would have identified some of the flaws in the story he was handed by the Obama Administration.  As one of our regular contributors on points out, the Administration’s narrative about Iranian support to Syria’s security apparatus — support allegedly coming from either the NAJA (Iranian national police) or the Revolutionary Guard, depending on the (unsubstantiated) source — is fundamentally at variance with what the Syrians are actually doing.  The Syrian response to popular unrest has become heavily militarized, with extensive deployments of army units — in particular, armored and mechanized units — to deal with demonstrations.  This is something the Islamic Republic never did.

The Iranian response to urban disturbances following the June 2009 presidential election was carried out by NAJA with basij volunteers.  Neither the regular military nor the Revolutionary Guard was deployed for this purpose.  Moreover, it is outside of the training and experience of either the NAJA or the Revolutionary Guard to use armored and mechanized units for “crowd control” purposes.  So, our contributor asks — how, exactly, is it that the NAJA and/or the Revolutionary Guard are supposedly contributing advice in support of the response that the Syrians are actually carrying out?  Warrick does not even begin to explore these discrepancies.  He uncritically parrots a narrative which accuses Iran of supporting Syria in carrying out a response to popular demonstrations which the Syrians are not actually implementing.

This is all strongly reminiscent of the sorts of journalistic malpractice committed by the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other august media organizations in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  As the Iraq precedent demonstrates, sanctioning “rogue regimes” (and the Obama Administration has now sanctioned Iranian officials and agencies for their alleged involvement in human rights abuses in Syria) on the basis of demonizing narratives that are uncritically parroted by the mainstream media can put the United States on a slippery slope to war.  Given America’s experience in Iraq, it would be truly criminal for the United States to go to war again in the Middle East under false pretenses.

Warrick adds — in a completely un-sourced editorial statement — that “the Iranians were brutally effective in crushing those protests.”  By buying into the Washington political establishment’s contrived line about Iranian political life — again, without any effort at critically evaluating that line — Warrick does a disservice to his readers.  The competitive nature of Iranian politics — which assures that groups or factions which lose a political battle today will have other bites at the apple in the future — distinguishes the Islamic Republic from Bahrain or other places in the Middle East where huge chunks of the society (in Bahrain’s case, a clear majority) have no bite at the apple at all.  This might help to explain why protests in Iran after the June 2009 presidential election died out very quickly, leaving only a small contingent of oppositionists who put themselves outside the established political order — a trajectory very different from what happened in Egypt or Tunisia, or from what is happening now in Syria.  That kind of comparative analysis would be potentially enlightening, but Warrick makes no attempt at it.

Likewise, it would be good journalistic practice, in exploring how the Syrian government is responding to popular unrest, whether with foreign support or not, to compare the Syrian response to that of other regional regimes currently facing similar challenges (which Iran is not).  If the Washington Post or any other media outlet were to compare the Syrian response to that of the Bahraini regime, its reporters would not have to resort to exclusive reliance on unnamed official sources in Washington making unsubstantiated statements about foreign involvement.  For there is actual film footage, from Al Jazeera and other professional media organizations, of Saudi soldiers pouring en masse across the causeway from the Kingdom into Bahrain, to suppress a mass movement for political change that clearly did represent a majority of Bahrainis.

Surely, the Washington Post can do better than simply parrot Obama Administration propaganda.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 30 May 2011 under a Creative Commons license. 

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