Signal failure

Is the Bush Administration revving up for an attack on Iran? In all my years as a foreign correspondent, I cannot recall a crisis when the real intentions of the American government have been so obscure. Reading the tea leaves presents a major challenge to the news media.

What is clear is that the future of the Greater Middle East hangs in the balance, with Iran seemingly hell-bent on joining the nuclear club. What is not clear is what Washington is going to do about it. The public hears a steady drumbeat of warnings from the Bush Administration:

• Secretary of State Rice brands Iran as America’s most serious global challenge.
• The Pentagon links it to some of the roadside bombs that are killing coalition troops in Iraq.
• President Bush says he hopes for a diplomatic solution, but draws a line in the sand warning Iran that it will not be allowed to acquire the technology to produce nuclear weapons.
• Iran is being hauled before the UN Security Council for refusing to give up its programme to enrich uranium.
• The latest version of the US national security strategy reaffirms the doctrine of pre-emptive attacks.

On one hand, most experts believe the Pentagon is already doing the planning for an attack on Iran to take out its nuclear facilities. That would not be unusual. Military planners routinely prepare for multiple options. There are also rumours from Washington that some senior officials have already made up their minds to strike Iran. That, too, would not be unusual. On the other hand, the United States shares certain interests with Iran, notably, the formation of a stable government in Iraq that would allow the majority Shiites to live in peace with their fellow countrymen and with neighbouring Iran. Behind the scenes, Washington appears to be playing a complex game with Iraq and Iran, a game in which pawns in Iraq are moved by their patrons in Iran, while Washington tries to tilt the outcome by weighing in on one side or the other in the power struggles in both countries.

At the moment, President Bush has taken sides against Iraqi Prime Minister Ali Jaafari and also publicly accepted the suggestion by another Iraqi politician, Abdul Aziz al- Hakim, that the United States open talks with Iran. In two moves, Mr. Bush has strengthened the hand of a leading Iranian pragmatist, Hashemi Rafsandjani (who is Hakim’s patron), and weakened the position of the dangerously radical Iranian President. Not bad for an American administration not known for its subtle foreign policy.

So far, so good, but Washington has its own problem with contending cliques in the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House. They are often at odds in this American administration, and apparently at odds now over how to deal with Iran. All of these policy battles are being fought out behind the scenes because the Bush Administration fears a political backlash at home if it is seen to be negotiating with Iran over the future of Iraq. Iranians have the same problem with negotiations with America (” the Great Satan”), and Iraqi politicians try to maintain the pretense that they decide their country’s future.

Confused by all this? That’s not surprising because I am not at all sure I understand what is going on myself, and I have years of experience in reporting on Iran and make an effort to follow events there closely. Pity the American television correspondent who has to try to make sense out of all this in a oneminute 45-second spot.

And yet, the job of informing the debate and preparing public opinion in matters of great national importance should be at the top of the agenda of the mainstream media, especially television, where most Americans still get most of their news.

If Americans needed a lesson to drive home the importance of clear and accurate reporting, they learned the hard way with the great WMD road show that the Administration rolled out prior to attacking Iraq. Is it possible that the mainstream media could fail us again? They have given us almost no background or analysis of the Iranian nuclear crisis on network news or local TV in America, and barely a word on how events in Iran and Iraq are inextricably linked.

This lack of mainstream media interest is all the more surprising because, this time, the target would be a country three times bigger than Iraq, with four times the population, and the world’s fourth largest oil production. Iran’s veiled threats to cut exports in retaliation for an attack are already driving oil prices higher. It boasts it has successfully tested the world’s fastest torpedo in the Persian Gulf, home of the American Fifth Fleet and the world’s major oil artery. Add to this Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s wish to wipe Israel off the map, and you have a nightmare scenario.

I suspect that the gatekeepers who decide what the public reads and watches still think Americans are more interested in health fads or the latest Missing White Woman. They are probably right, as long as Americans are told so little about their government and the world beyond their shores.

Of course, there is the usual heat and not much light on conservative talk shows, but if Americans are looking for facts and context on this looming crisis, they have to turn to the few major newspapers that still have foreign staffs, to foreign policy journals and quality magazines such as “The New Yorker” – which still do investigative and in-depth reporting – or search through the foreign media on the web. Which means that most Americans will be left in the dark about their government’s real intentions and the eventual price they may have to pay.

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