Reporters seemed interested in the story and later—when a source began providing documentary proof—some tried to write it. But “editors slashed it down to something like the last paragraph of a larger story,” says Trita Parsi, the Iran expert and former congressional staffer who provided the documents. “It was something that went against people’s assumptions.” USA Today’s Barbara Slavin wrote one such story. “Overall, USA Today was very reasonable about these things,” recalls Slavin. “But I got the document in March 2006, and my editors did not think it was significant. And I only got to write about it in May 2006. It was at the end of a story about Iran President Ahmadinejad’s letter [to Bush] and said basically, ‘Oh, by the way, this isn’t the first time Iran has offered to negotiate.’”
Through the rest of 2006, there appears to have been one piece devoted to the offer, in The Washington Post—it ran on page A16. Even though the offer had never really made news, it was considered old news.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof decided to write about the proposals in early 2007. Kristof says he, too, was “concerned about the possibility of a military encounter. So I started doing some reporting.” Kristof eventually added more detail showing that the Iranians had not simply sent the offer through the Swiss, but had also approached the State Department, and had sent an offer to the White House itself. Writing about the various versions of the offer, Kristof concluded “neo-cons killed [an] incipient peace process.”
“In general, what journalists are best at covering is what a president or prime minister said yesterday,” says Kristof, not “complicated processes that don’t happen in one day, that can’t easily be condensed into a bumper-sticker .But it was something we really needed to pursue, especially when it looked like we might bomb Iran because of the view that they were utterly recalcitrant, incapable of a diplomatic solution. These documents were an important bit of counter-evidence.”
No story about the “Grand Bargain” ever appeared in the news pages of the Times.
With last December’s National Intelligence Estimate, an assumption came crashing down: that Iran was on the march toward nukes. Evidence had long been thin that Iran was dedicated to building a bomb. Yet that murkiness was rarely deemed noteworthy of coverage before the NIE.
Iran has certainly given reasons for other countries to be suspicious. In August 2002, an Iranian opposition group announced that Tehran had secretly constructed facilities that could be used to enrich uranium. That process is not only a key step toward civilian nuclear energy, but also the hardest part in making a bomb. Months later the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed the sites. As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is allowed to enrich uranium and use it for nuclear energy. But it has to be transparent about its efforts, which Iran wasn’t. Iran says it kept things secret only because Western countries had been blocking their attempts at an above ground program.”
Iran has spent the last six years in a complex dance with the international community, signaling a willingness to negotiate while also insisting that it will never give up its right to enrich. The press has duly detailed each step in the dance. It’s a kind of play-by-play commentary, one that—until the NIE—was often permeated with the assumption that Iran was intent on building weapons. “Iran’s intransigence is not only real; it also appears to be defeating attempts by the rest of the world to curtail Tehran’s nuclear ambitions,” a New York Times story explained last November 30, four days before the NIE gave a very different picture. The story—ON NUCLEAR SEESAW, THE BALANCE SEEMS TO SHIFT TO IRAN—by Elaine Sciolino, pointed to Iran’s apparent recent lack of interest in a deal to suspend its enrichment. Left unsaid was that Iran’s exact “nuclear ambitions” were unclear.
“The volume is always turned up on the reporting,” says Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the New America Foundation, who had also written (before the NIE) about the possibility that Iran had suspended its weaponization program. “It’s crazy Iranians doing crazy stuff all the time. Every negotiator is some hardliner, some caricature. It’s one of the reasons people were shocked by the NIE.”