What the press gets wrong on the US-Iran relationship

May 17, 2019
National Security Adviser John Bolton. Photo: Andrew Harnik, via AP.

The stage has been set for yet another war in the Persian Gulf. This week, the Trump administration battened down the hatches—evacuating non-essential personnel at US embassies and consulates in Iraq, sending B-52 bombers and Patriot missiles to US bases in the region—to prepare for what was supposedly  a looming Iranian storm. US officials floated military options against Iran involving 120,000 soldiers, and cyberattacks to shut down the country’s power grid. Iran hawks hit the airwaves. Why the US is suddenly on a war footing with Iran—when even the president doesn’t want a conflict, as he reportedly told the Pentagon—is difficult to understand, however, because of the hysterical way America’s relationship with Iran is covered in the US press.

I covered Iran about a decade ago, when I was Time magazine’s Middle East correspondent. It’s a difficult country to report on. Jailing reporters pretty much guarantees bad press, but when catastrophes happen—like the recent floods that killed dozens—or when the humanitarian toll of sanctions begins to mount—like when commercial airplanes crash because they can’t get spare parts—there’s almost no one in Iran from the Western media to put human faces to the tragic headlines.

In the absence of empathetic coverage, a dynamic has developed in Iran reporting, a kind of paranoid feeding frenzy, that helps anti-Iran Trump administration hardliners like John Bolton, the National Security Advisor, build momentum for confrontation. So if there ends up being a war with Iran, the broken US media echo-chamber will bear some of the blame, as it has before.

Here’s what the latest anti-Iran news cycle looked like to me: Last week, mostly unnamed sources in the national security apparatus, including Bolton, started telling Washington reporters that there is a specific but unspecified Iranian threat to US interests in the Middle East. On that basis, the story already sounded shady. Trump media sycophants on Fox News (“Pentagon Beefs Up Military Presence in Persian Gulf as Iran Ramps Up Threats Against US Interests”) and elsewhere ran it without skepticism. Washington correspondents from reputable outlets who carried memories of the flawed case for the Iraq War were less credulous. But editors still made Iran’s “threat” a top story—after all, it’s national security!—caveating it with attribution, as in this headline from The New York Times: “Citing Iranian Threat, US Sends Carrier Group and Bombers to Persian Gulf.” But within a few days of the news cycle, sourcing got dropped. CNN published: “Patriot Missiles Deployed to Middle East Amid Iran Threats.”


Were these threats real and serious? Maybe. There are always dangers, but the US has a long history—dating back to the Spanish-American war, through the Gulf of Tonkin, to Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction—of going to war over some exaggerated or fabricated menace. In this case, the threat warnings were coming from Israeli intelligence and being shopped around by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The US hardliners who pick them up are aiming to justify increased pressure on Iran—something that both Israel and the US have long advocated for.

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But the headlines and blurbs at the beginning of the news cycle weren’t framed in a way that made the fingerprints of the hardliners obvious. Major newspapers didn’t run headlines like “Trump Administration Ratchets Up Anti-Iran Rhetoric” or “Bolton Puts US on Iran War Footing.” Nor did they course correct after last Monday, when the US Naval Institute News discovered that the the aircraft carrier group supposedly being sent to respond to Iran had already been en route, on routine orders planned long ago, and that Bolton’s pronouncements linking that movement with alleged threats was theatrical. The closest approximation of responsible coverage was this, from the Times: “US Reviews Iran Plans”—which hardly qualifies, since it suggests that our government is calmly responding to a situation rather than manufacturing one.

The broad psychological takeaway of reading the news is inevitably that Iran is a threat. Even balanced appraisals of Iran—that note, for example, that the Iranian Revolution occurred in 1979 in part as a reaction to the American antidemocratic coup there, in 1953— get lost amid the noise of buzzwords like “terror,” “mullah,” “nuclear,” “proxies,” and “militias.” Even though the Trump administration pulled out of the nuclear deal that Iran had negotiated with the Obama administration—a deal that stopped Iran’s nuclear enrichment program—most headlines and talking points on air tell us that Iran is “threatening” to resume the production of nuclear material.

In reality, Iran’s reaction to the US is a natural retort rather than an escalation. Its government has been jilted; despite shutting down its nuclear program, Iran never received much in the way of benefits from the lifting of sanctions. And, by the way, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (that it has never been found to have violated), Iran is legally allowed to restart its program. Even when, on Wednesday, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, spoke out to downplay tensions, National Public Radio immediately followed with the “threatening” to resume nuclear activities chestnut, accompanied by this headline: “Aggressive Rhetoric Ramps Up Between US And Iran.”

The US, it must not be forgotten, has done its fair share to threaten Iran: encouraging Iraq to invade Iran in the 1980s and kill hundreds of thousands of Iranians, invading Iraq in 2003 and soon after eyeing Iran, selling billions of dollars worth of weapons to anti-Iranian Middle Eastern autocrats, embracing a known anti-Iranian terror cult—the MEK—in the hope of fomenting a regime change.

It’s important to have that history in mind while reading paragraphs like this, in the Times, on the Pentagon’s Iran war plans: “…officials said they believed the most likely cause of a conflict will follow a provocative act, or outright attack, by the Revolutionary Guards’ navy. The Guards’ fleet of small boats has a history of approaching American Navy ships at high speed. Revolutionary Guards commanders have precarious control over their ill-disciplined naval forces.” No mention of the US Navy shooting down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988, which killed 290 civilians. For the Times, it’s Iran that’s unpredictable and out of control in the Persian Gulf.

The Iranian government has much to answer for, especially for its role assisting the Bashar al-Assad regime in the murderous suppression of the Syrian democracy movement, which was once peaceful. But to counter Iran’s regional military power with the application of more American military power is neither moral nor practical.


I’m pretty sure that most of the reporters and editors at CNN, the Times, and NPR know this. And I’m sure that most of them know exactly what game the Trump administration is playing. But there is some deep-seated loyalty to something like “balance” or “objectivity” that is misplaced, and ends up looking like regulatory capture. When we take the Pentagon’s fear-mongering seriously, we get articles from Washington analyzing military options with Iran in case it restarts its nuclear program. Only on Wednesday, when British intelligence and other “serious” foreign security outfits start to call horse-hay did you start seeing headlines like “Skeptical US Allies Resist Trump’s New Claims on Threats from Iran”—as if you need to source a spade before you call it one.

The best option, of course, is just to rejoin the nuclear deal. But for many reporters covering foreign policy from Washington—including those who take issue with Republican hawkishness—expectations of what peace and stability in the Middle East should look like resembles a wish list. They point out that, though Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran, the deal didn’t lead to Iran changing its behavior in in areas beyond the scope of the deal, like its testing of ballistic missiles, or its support of anti-Israeli militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it is both ahistorical and unbalanced. The US did next to nothing to assure international businesses that they would not be penalized for investing in Iran, and the Iranian economy saw little economic stimulus from the deal beyond the renewal of oil sales to foreign countries. And yet Iran is expected to stick to the nuclear deal, even when the US won’t, and expected to stop aiding its allies in the Middle East, even when no one thought the nuclear deal would mean that the US would stop supplying weapons to its allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Why the amnesia and partisanship from the media? Perhaps because it’s hard to tell Americans that a country full of angry-looking men with black turbans and beards who have captured our diplomats and designed bombs that kill our soldiers have real, legitimate reasons to be angry and afraid of us. And perhaps because it’s hard even for those American reporters who know the Middle East to keep that unconscious bias from slipping into our copy, especially in headlines and photo choices. Raised on American exceptionalism, it’s hard to swallow that our misdeeds in the Middle East may not be exceptions, but an extension of American rule.

Andrew Lee Butters is a former Time magazine Beirut bureau chief and Middle East correspondent. He now teaches journalism at Yale College. He graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2003.