Former New York Times Reporter Declares Thou Shalt Not Criticize Obama's Iran Deal

by FRED FLEITZ October 31, 2016

In an October 23 Washington Post book review, former New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino is sharply critical of a new book on Iran by Wall Street Journalwriter Jay Solomon, The Iran Wars, because he criticizes the July 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) instead of devoting his book to praising the deal as a magnificent achievement as all good reporters are expected to do. Sciolino accuses Solomon of having a "dark perspective" on the nuclear deal and claims "those who hope to sabotage the nuclear agreement under a new administration will find this book useful."

Sciolino's attack on Solomon's book is strange because The Iran Wars is about much more than the nuclear deal and contains strong (and mostly unfair) criticism of the George W. Bush administration's approach to Iran and the Iraq War. On the Iran deal, while Solomon is tough and factual, he often pulls his punches and leaves out some of the strongest criticisms.

For some reason Sciolino ignored Solomon's dubious claims that the Bush administration invaded Iraq to weaken Iran and that Bush officials missed an historic opportunity for U.S.-Iran cooperation after the 9/11 attacks. She also omits Solomon's credible account of how Iran and Syria exploited the aftermath of the Iraq War. As a card-carrying member of the foreign-policy establishment, one would think that Sciolino would jump to praise Solomon for making these points.

Instead, Sciolino devotes her entire article to attacking Solomon and his book. Her strongest criticism is that Solomon didn't interview enough people, especially Iranians.

Sciolino sniffs that Solomon apparently only made one visit to Iran and that his book has a "paucity of official Iranian voices." This is a ridiculous argument given how dangerous it is for American citizens to travel to Iran and the 2015 arrest of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian who was held in an Iranian prison for 18 months before he was freed in January 2016.

Sciolino argues "other foreign voices might have enriched [Solomon's] narrative" because the nuclear talks were such a long and complex international endeavor. In this vein she faults Solomon for reporting that Secretary Kerry's negotiating team belittled the French for "insubordination during the nuclear talks" instead of explaining what she claims was France's role in building the foundation for the nuclear deal through the 2003 France-Germany-U.K. EU-3 initiative.

It's amusing that Sciolino mentioned France and the EU-3 talks since Hassan Rouhani, Iran's current president and chief Iranian nuclear negotiator in 2003, has admitted that Iran used these failed talks to buy time to expand its nuclear program and to conceal information about this program from the IAEA.

I have no doubt Sciolino complained about Solomon's supposed lack of interviews to maintain the fiction that the JCPOA is legitimately a multilateral agreement when it is in fact, as Solomon details, a U.S.-Iran deal negotiated almost exclusively by American and Iranian negotiators. Other nations signed on as window dressing.

Sciolino also seems to prefer a book composed of quotes by apologists for the JCPOA rather than one that gives the facts about how the agreement was negotiated, what's actually in the deal and its troubling and dangerous aftermath.  Sciolino probably believes that if Solomon had been spun more by U.S. and international diplomats, he would have written a book that hewed to the White House's misleading narrative about the JCPOA instead of reporting on how the Obama administration repeatedly gave in to Iranian demands to get this very weak agreement.

As someone who also has written a recent book on the Iran nuclear deal, Obamabomb: A Dangerous and Growing National Security Fraud (now in its second edition), I had different problems with Solomon's book.

First, I thought Solomon gave administration accounts too much credibility in light of widespread criticism (which he does not mention) of Obama officials repeatedly misleading and lying to Congress and the American people about the nuclear negotiations and the final deal.

Sciolino should have been pleased that Solomon does not mention New York Times reporter David Samuels' May 5, 2016 profile of National Security Council advisor Ben Rhodes in which he reported that Rhodes oversaw a White House "echo chamber" to manipulate the news media by generating false narratives to promote the Iran deal which it distributed to know-nothing reporters.  Instead, Solomon innocuously refers to the echo chamber as the White House "anti-war room" which Solomon says Obama officials used mobilize a campaign to defend the JCPOA.

Solomon also does not cite any of the strong congressional critics of the JCPOA. He depicts congressional opposition as Republican when it was in fact bipartisan and included the top Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It was Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, for example, who made what may be the damning criticism of the nuclear deal when he said "If Iran is to acquire a nuclear bomb, it will not have my name on it."  Unfortunately, this quote does not appear in Iran Wars.

However, I give Solomon credit for reporting that the White House tried to typecast all opponents of the JCPOA as warmongers and that Jewish leaders worried that the White House's campaign defending the JCPOA "was taking on a not-so-subtle anti-Semitic tone with its references to moneyed lobbyists and their ties to Prime Minister Netanyahu."

Sciolino should have been heartened that the words "secret side deals" appear nowhere in Solomon's book. He makes no mention of how Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and Congressman Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.) accidently learned from IAEA officials about secret side deals to the JCPOA allowing Iran to inspect itself for evidence of past nuclear weapons-related work.  He also omits how the secret side deal issue intensified opposition to the JCPOA because the Obama administration refused to turn over secret side deal documents to Congress for a congressional review as required by law.

Solomon does make a brief reference to Associated Press reporter George Jahn writing about a leaked IAEA document on Iranian "self-inspections" and how Obama administration supporters tried to discredit this story by accusing Jahn of being an Israeli agent and the document being a forgery.

Solomon also disclosed how the Obama administration punished other journalists who wrote articles critical of the nuclear talks. Solomon says he was kicked off Secretary Kerry's airplane for violating a "zone of silence" rule which barred journalists on Kerry's plane from asking uncomfortable questions about U.S.-France differences in the nuclear talks. He said that New York Times reporter David Sangar was subjected to a coordinated White House-State Department Twitter assault after Sangar reported Iran might not have the technical capabilities to dispose of its nuclear stockpile as required by the JCPOA.

Solomon emailed me that his book had a July 2016 data cutoff which is why other secret JCPOA side deals that were withheld from Congress (several of which Solomon was the first to report on for the Wall Street Journal) are not mentioned in Iran Wars. These include the planeloads of $1.7 billion in cash flown to Iran in January 2016 as an apparent ransom payment to win the release of U.S. prisoners; exemptions granted to Iran on failing to meet several requirements of the nuclear deal so it would receive $150 billion in sanctions relief last January; and the lifting of UN sanctions on two Iranian banks that have financed Iran's ballistic missile program.

While Solomon does not go as far as I would prefer in discussing the JCPOA's enormous flaws and how it has worsened international security, he makes many important points. He notes that it will be difficult to verify this agreement since the Obama administration agreed to drop a longtime demand by the IAEA and the West that Iran answer questions about its past nuclear weapons-related work.  Solomon says the so-called snap-back provision which is supposed to re-impose sanctions in the event of Iranian cheating is unlikely to ever be used.  Solomon correctly portrays the decision to separate Iran's missile program from the nuclear deal as a huge and dangerous U.S. concession.  Solomon also describes the significance of other huge concessions made by the Obama administration and how Arab states were "stunned" by the terms of the agreement.

Concerning the aftermath of the JCPOA, Solomon gets it half right. Sciolino should be pleased that Solomon agrees with her when he said Iran appears to be complying with the agreement and that the administration's claim that it will take Iran a year to construct a nuclear bomb appears to be accurate.

There is strong evidence to the contrary, although not all of it was available before Solomon's July 2016 data cutoff date. I explained much of this evidence in a July 14, 2016 NRO article, including how Iran has placed military facilities off-limits to IAEA inspectors, and is permitted to continue to enrich uranium and develop advanced centrifuges under the deal. I also discussed reports by German intelligence and the Institute for Science and International Security of Iranian cheating on the JCPOA. I therefore believe a strong case can be made that the JCPOA has failed to meet its goal of resolving international concerns about Iran's nuclear weapons program since the agreement leaves too many avenues for Iran to cheat, has very weak verification and there are already multiple, credible reports of Iranian cheating.

On the other hand, I agree with Solomon that Iran's behavior has become much more belligerent and destabilizing since the JCPOA was announced, including arresting American citizens, stepped up missile tests and increased support to Syria's Assad regime and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.  This behavior has worsened since Solomon's book went to print due to an increase in naval incidents in the Persian Gulf between American and Iranian vessels and Houthi rebels firing anti-ship missiles at American and UAE ships.  Solomon was exactly right when he wrote, "There are also real risks that a much bigger and broader war is brewing in the region, and that the United States will inevitably be drawn in."

In response to these criticisms of the nuclear deal's aftermath, Sciolino accuses Solomon of "stressing the negative. Instead, she ignores reality by praising the deal for improving U.S.-Iran relations and making the Middle East and the world more secure by keeping Iran from producing a nuclear bomb over the term of the agreement.

It's interesting that Sciolino won't settle for Solomon concluding the JCPOA is working and his depiction of Obama administration Iran policy as generally positive but bumbling.  In Sciolino's mind, this is a great agreement that no one should question.  This means she wants Solomon to be like other mainstream reporters and limit his writing to promoting this line and not confuse the American people with the facts about how this agreement came about, what was really agreed to and the agreement's actual prospects.

Solomon's book isn't perfect but it is still an important contribution to mostly one-sided accounts of the JCPOA which roundly praising it as a legacy achievement for President Obama that avoided a war with Iran.  Since problems with the nuclear agreement are likely to continue to grow due to increased Iranian cheating and belligerent behavior - especially in the Persian Gulf - expect to see more articles by foreign policy Brahmin like Sciolino to enforce the Obama administration's false narrative about the JCPOA against books like Jay Solomon's that discuss inconvenient facts about the Iran nuclear agreement that the administration and its supporters do not want the American people to know.

Fred Fleitz writes for the Center for Security Policy.  He is senior vice president for policy and programs with the Center for Security Policy. He held U.S. government national security positions for 25 years with the CIA, DIA, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. Fleitz also served as Chief of Staff to John R. Bolton when he was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security in the George W. Bush administration.


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