“Don’t Iraq Iran”: The Risks of Irresponsible Media Coverage of Iran’s nuclear program

by Shaghayegh Christine Rostampour and Mohsen Solhdoost

U.S. says Hussein intensifies quest for A-Bomb Parts” —  On a Sunday morning in September 2002, this was a headline on the cover of the New York Times. The article written by Michael Gordon and Pulitzer Award winning Judith Miller is an example of the fleet of faulty reports on Iraq’s alleged possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) between 2002 and 2003. In this particular piece, Miller and Gordon quoted “American officials” and “intelligence experts”, all anonymous and unnamed, who said that “Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.”

Almost 18 years later, on the eve of another fall Sunday, nearly 15000 US troops are still stationed in Iraq where no Weapons of Mass Destruction was found. But this time, inaccurate headlines are focused on another Middle Eastern country: Iraq’s bordering neighbor, Iran.

On Friday November 27, 2020 news broke out that Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in Tehran. Soon, news outlets started reporting the “hot topic”; but the coverage is yet again not very accurate, nor very responsible.

The front page of the New York Times, a day after Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, featured an article written by David Sagner, Erie Schmitt, and Farnaz Fassihi. The news outlet also shared the article on their social media.

On the website, the article’s sub-headline read: “Top Iranian Scientist For Nuclear Program Is Killed In An Attack: U.S. believes he had led weapons push”. The article was also promoted on social media with a post that repeated the same claim.  To news readers – with little to no knowledge of the world’s most robust and most technologically advanced inspections regime to which Iran has been subject since 2015 – such articles suggest that the Islamic Republic is still in pursuit of nuclear weapons.

After receiving backlash on Twitter for its content, minor changes were made in the article that further elaborate on the resources that the authors have consulted with to write the piece. For instance, while the authors still argued that Fakhrizadeh “has been considered the driving force behind Iran’s nuclear weapons program for two decades”, they mention almost at the end of the article that their sole source of information has been unverified Israeli claims and allegations denied by Iran. These changes barely affect the initial impact made by the article’s title, the initial way in which it was written, and the way it was published on social media, all of which is likely to misinform readers about the natures of Iran’s civilian nuclear program. Such mischaracterization of Iran’s nuclear activities is seen all across mainstream media with clumsy titles that imply Iran’s nuclear program has a military dimension.

The indiscreet approach dangerously re-employed by news outlets reminds us of American media coverage of Iraq before 2003 when not enough efforts were made to differentiate between nuclear energy for civilian purposes and nuclear weapons programs, or between having nuclear weapons programs and possessing nuclear weapons. Moreover, this has come against the backdrop of the November 2020 IAEA report confirming that the UN nuclear watchdog has been granted full access to specific locations for verification and monitoring purposes in Iran and has found no evidence of a “weapons” program.

The issue, however, is not just ethical journalism and discrepancies in reports in their own right, but it is the impact of spreading spurious information on the general public, and consequently on politics. The assassination of Fakhrizadeh comes at a time when tension is simmering once again between the United States and Iran. Such tensions are especially alarming in light of the United States’ outgoing President Donald Trump administration’s obsessive preoccupation with Iran which resembles the Bush administration’s standpoints with regards to Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.

Mainstream media’s failure today to provide accurate, factual, and reliable reports on Iran highly resembles the irresponsible coverage of news on Iraq in the early 2000s. That time around, the influx of reports about Saddam Hussein’s possession of WMDs, as well as anonymous and unverified reports about Saddam’s regime “training and harboring terrorists, including operatives of al-Qaeda” was sold to the American public through “selective leaking” of intelligence to news outlets such as the New York Times.

Such reports later on received heavy criticism for carrying water for the Bush administration’s campaign to “sell the invasion of Iraq”. The New York Times itself later on also published an article to argue that invalid intelligence played an integral role in initiating a war which resulted in the death of thousands of Iraqi civilians as well as American soldiers. Additionally, the Iraq war is estimated to have wasted trillions of dollars in taxpayers’ money, and last but not least, brought upon the destruction of Iraq and the consequent rise of ISIS. It was only when the war had spiraled into one of the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophes that the New York Times published a public apology about their coverage of Iraq and its role in igniting the war. They wrote: “Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge”.

Yet, looking forward, it appears the New York Times as well as other major media outlets are yet again failing to examine unverified claims which could put them on course for another foreign policy debacle, this time in the final days of Trump’s presidency.