How they sold us the Iran deal

The first lesson from how the Iran deal was sold to the public is that it is important to follow the money.

Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaks at Chatham House in London (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaks at Chatham House in London
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Eight hundred eleven op-eds. Three hundred fifty- two letters to the editor. Two hundred twenty-seven editorials. That’s the number of “pro-diplomacy” articles that Ploughshares Fund takes credit for helping support as part of its “proactive” media campaign to support the Iran deal last year. They “were published during critical moments of the Iran campaign,” the website of the fund boasts in its 2015 annual report.
The revelations about the work that this one fund did to support the deal is just part of a larger story now being revealed in the US about how the government worked with NGOs to sell the Iran deal. NGO funding went to organizations such as National Public Radio and the “pro-peace” Israel lobby group J Street.
The Iran deal is done. But understanding just how the wool was pulled over our eyes is necessary so that future “deals” of this sort can be challenged at their source. When one looks back at how US public support was influenced, it should serve as both a lesson about how the government works through its non-profit allies and about how public opinion can be manipulated and consent manufactured.
The first lesson from how the Iran deal was sold to the public is that it is important to follow the money. Bradley Klapper at the Associated Press notes, “Outside groups of all stripes are increasingly giving money to news organizations for special projects or general news coverage... Ploughshares’ backing is more unusual given its prominent role in the rancorous, partisan debate over the Iran deal.”
The fund gave money to the Arms Control Association, Brookings Institution, Atlantic Council, J Street, the National Iranian American Council and Princeton University. In short, if you supported the Iran deal in 2015, it might have been a good deal financially. The funding from this one fund may be only the tip of the iceberg of the overall funding that went in to pushing this deal. Kate Gould of the Friends Committee, the lobbying arm of the Quakers (which supported the deal), is quoted as saying that the “Ploughshares campaign is the most high-impact coalition effort I’ve ever witnessed in Washington.”
Everyone should read through the rest of the 2015 Ploughshares annual report to get a glimpse of the network involved in pushing this Iran agenda. It symbolizes the larger phenomenon of how supposedly “non-governmental” civil society actually works to push government policy. It also illustrates how well-funded networks of powerful, influential players work in synergy in Washington policy circles and throughout the media to push agendas.
Citizens of a democracy are in some ways at the mercy of these powerful networks, and when the government and non-governmental groups and media all work in concert to push something like the Iran deal, the average citizen has very little say in the matter. Citizens of a dictatorship, such as Iran, have even less.
Whereas in a democracy there may be pushback and open debate, in Iran there is none. That means there are no non-governmental groups fighting for minority rights, or encouraging peace, or fighting against the daily intolerance, chauvinist nationalism and religious extremism. Women in Iran are harassed by the government for how they dress on Instagram, minorities such as the Baluchis or Zoroastrians and Baha’i face brutal discrimination.
Yet Americans swallowed an agenda that pushed a sugar-coated view of Iran last year.
In the US those opposing the deal were painted as “warmongers.” Chuck Schumer was depicted in a cartoon, titled “shame on Schumer,” as a woodchuck “rejecting the peace deal.” As the “woodchuck” character he is shown with an Israeli flag behind him, with a commentator saying “traitor says what.” The thinly veiled attempt to paint him as a dual-loyalty “traitor” for opposing the deal was only part of the “Iran deal or war” narrative pushed last year.
Americans were told by the Obama administration that “without a deal there will be war.” Lawrence Wilkerson wrote at US News and World Report that “if the US rejects the Iran deal it would be alone in bombing or invading.”
Why was war presented as the overall alternative? How was the strongest nation in the world convinced that if it didn’t do a deal with Iran, it would be “forced” to go to war? By 2015 the US and Iran were already warming relations in their similar views of the threat of Islamist State to the region. There was no talk of war, until the pro-deal agenda told people that no deal would mean war. The real warmongers were those pushing the deal in a carefully constructed narrative, surely focus-grouped, to scare Americans.
It’s a bit like a Mafia protection racket. The very people scaring the American people about war were the ones trying to sell them a “peace” deal, when in fact Iran posed little danger of war and the US administration had never considered war as an alternative.
J Street’s ad in The New York Times said the deal “makes the US and Israel safer.” The decision by J Street to join the pro-deal agenda in retrospect seems carefully orchestrated by the administration.
Obama was quoted by the BBC as saying that “every country in the world, except Israel” supported the deal. Since Israel and pro-Israel groups were against the deal, what better way to neuter them then to use another “pro-Israel” group against them? And it worked phenomenally: the pro-Israel lobby’s antideal efforts were a miserable defeat.
It’s easy to be pro-diplomacy. But who benefits in this case? Iran potentially got billions of dollars, renewed trade and legitimacy and an ability to continue to fund its proxy wars. Remember how the decision to “inspect” Syria’s chemical weapons was lauded as a “landmark diplomatic victory”? A victory for Syrian President Bashar Assad, even though the US took credit for it? On May 17 it was alleged that Syria had once again used sarin gas “for the first time since 2013.”
But wasn’t the deal supposed to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons? The “victory of diplomacy” narrative always means victory for a regime. When it comes to things like chemical or nuclear weapons or suppression of human rights, diplomacy aids the aggressor. If your neighbor builds a fence on your lawn, the longer you use “diplomacy,” the longer the fence remains.
Iran built a nuclear program, then scared everyone into negotiating with it lest it “go nuclear,” and obtained everything it wanted through this weird “war” blackmail, even as it continued to increase its power. Assad’s only lesson from 2013 is that he can do what he wants and get away with it.
If you still think that the Iran deal was some great diplomatic breakthrough, avoiding war, just read what the Iranians themselves were recorded as saying in secret US diplomatic cables revealed via Wikileaks.
A 2006 cable from the UAE noted that the conservative leaders in Tehran manufactured a nuclear “crisis” to gain political points, and another told US agents that Iran didn’t have the “necessary skill” to build a bomb. Another report to the CIA in 2009 noted, “[Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad has decided for a variety of reasons to reduce tensions with the West and to seek some type of nuclear accommodation.”
So, wait – Iran didn’t want war, it wanted accommodation. And the US worked to accommodate it.
Perhaps in the future the public and media will ask tougher questions, rather than allow themselves to be so easily manipulated and their consent so easily manufactured.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.