At long last, the United States and Iran are engaged in serious talks about Iran’s nuclear program. But instead of celebrating the fact that President Obama is keeping his promise to the people who voted for him to pursue diplomatic engagement with Iran, the New York Times has suggested to its readers that Iran’s Supreme Leader is uniquely and intrinsically untrustworthy when he says that Iran will never pursue a nuclear weapon. Why? Because, according to the Times, Iran’s leaders are Shiites, and Shiites have a religious doctrine called "taqiyya," which allows them to lie.
No scholar or analyst was cited by the New York Times in support of this argument, which should have been a red flag for Times editors for an argument claiming that the leadership of a country against which the United States has threatened war is essentially different from us because they belong to a different religion.
Last Saturday – the same day the United States and Iran were having "constructive and useful" discussions on Iran’s nuclear program in Istanbul, according to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton – the New York Times published a piece titled, "Seeking Nuclear Insight in Fog of the Ayatollah’s Utterances," over the byline of James Risen.
That piece contained the following paragraph:
Complicating matters further, some analysts say that Ayatollah Khamenei’s denial of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite historical concept called taqiyya, or religious dissembling. For centuries an oppressed minority within Islam, Shiites learned to conceal their sectarian identity to survive, and so there is a precedent for lying to protect the Shiite community.
No "analyst" at all was specifically cited in support of this argument anywhere in the article. It should be obvious that when the United States has threatened war against a country, it treads in the precincts of racist war propaganda for a news article about that country to essentially say, "Because of their religion, their leaders aren’t like our leaders – they lie," without substantiating that claim at all or presenting balanced views of experts on the topic.
In his blog Informed Comment, Middle East scholar Juan Cole notes that taqiyya has been "widely misrepresented by Muslim-haters and does not apply in Khamenei’s case." Cole explains that, historically, taqiyya was not a license to lie about anything, but permission to conceal one’s religious identity in the face of life-threatening sectarian prejudice. He also notes that, in the twentieth century, the tide of Shiite legal opinion ran against taqiyya; and that Imam Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, demanded that taqiyya be abandoned. Cole concludes by saying that the taqiyya argument is "just some weird form of Islamophobia."
Writing in The Nation in 1980, Edward Said noted the tendency of U.S. reporting on the Muslim world to present "a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression."
Sadly, thirty years later, the Risen New York Times piece represents the pro-war media world that Said was describing.
Of course, the point of all this is not that the U.S., or anyone, should automatically take the statements of Iranian leaders that they will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons at face value, any more than anyone would automatically take the statements of U.S. leaders, or any other leaders, at face value. The point is that is it quite reasonable to take the repeated statements of Iranian leaders that they will not pursue nuclear weapons as a starting point of negotiations on agreements that would increase U.S. confidence in the truth of those words, and that is exactly what the Obama Administration is doing.
The Risen piece contained another spectacular misrepresentation. Referring to Ayatollah Khamenei’s statements that Iran would never pursue nuclear weapons and his religious edicts against Iran having nuclear weapons, Risen wrote,
But those comments are not only at odds with some of Iran’s behavior but also with what Ayatollah Khamenei has said in the past. For evidence, analysts can point to remarks Ayatollah Khamenei made last year that it was a mistake for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya to give up his nuclear weapons program.
Referring to Colonel Qaddafi, Ayatollah Khamenei said that "this gentleman wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the West and said, ‘Take them!’ "
"Look where we are, and in what position they are now," he added."
But according to what the Times reported Khamenei actually said, Khamenei never said it was a mistake for Qaddafi to "give up his nuclear weapons program." Khamenei talked about "nuclear facilities."
The conflation of "nuclear facilities" with "nuclear weapons" in the Times’ reporting on Iran is a longstanding issue of dispute.
As Juan Cole noted,
What Khamenei said about Qaddafi does not imply that Khamenei wants a nuclear weapon for Iran. Qaddafi did not have a nuclear weapon. But having a nuclear program of some sort could function as a deterrent to foreign invasion… Nuclear latency or a nuclear breakout capability, where a country could quickly construct a nuclear warhead if it felt sufficiently threatened, is probably what Iran is actually trying for. Khamenei’s statement on Libya is perfectly in accord with the principle that nuclear latency can have deterrent effects.
Some have characterized the Risen piece as an example of the general tendency of Fox-like arguments to penetrate liberal discourse. If that’s true, then we ought to be able to do something about it. We can’t stop Fox from spewing out garbage, at least in the short run. But the New York Times has a different reputation, and therefore can be called to account. You can help do so by asking the New York Times to correct its reporting, and to report these issues fairly, accurately, and with balance in the future.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.