16 September 2014

How the Iranian media distort that country's nuclear lens

Ariane Tabatabai

Ariane Tabatabai

Ariane Tabatabai is a visiting assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and a former associate in the Belfer Center's...

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Few topics preoccupy Iranians more than the ongoing nuclear talks between their country and the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany). The nuclear issue is on every single Iranian’s radar. This is not because they really care about the number of centrifuges spinning at Natanz, their country’s controversial enrichment plant. But the nuclear dossier has impacted every aspect of their lives. It has dictated Iran’s approach to foreign policy and governed domestic politics for over a decade. Yet most Iranians know very little about the nature of the nuclear program or its costs, benefits, and challenges.

Very broadly speaking, Iran’s stated goal in the international negotiations is to be allowed to enrich uranium for nuclear energy development, while the foreign powers wish to limit uranium enrichment out of concern that it could be diverted to a weapons program. Iranians receive most of their information on the subject from two sources: Persian-language media based abroad—mainly BBC Persian and Voice of America Persian—and domestic media outlets, including newspapers and television. Most Iranian news websites have a “nuclear” section that covers the negotiations. While the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program has entered its second decade, though, the country’s media outlets still fall short of reporting accurately on the matter. This is true for the legal, political, and technical dimensions of the nuclear program, the ongoing negotiations, and, more generally, nonproliferation.  

Why are inaccuracies and distortions prevalent? First, during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency from 2005 to 2013, many journalists stayed away from the nuclear issue. The topic was so politicized and linked to national security that it was virtually impossible to cover it without getting into trouble. This was partly due to the threat of Israeli or US military action against Iran. Questioning nuclear policy became synonymous with supporting the enemy and strengthening it at the expense of national unity.

Today, the nuclear program remains a sensitive topic. News outlets have to be careful not to challenge it too much. But since President Hassan Rouhani took office, the debate around the nuclear program and ongoing talks with the P5+1 has opened up. In recent months, some reformist newspapers have started to publish American experts’ views, even those unfavorable to Iran’s program and enrichment activities. Some newspapers ask foreign-based experts to write articles for them, while others merely translate existing pieces into Persian. They find these pieces by using anti-filtering systems to go around the filters blocking most foreign news websites, newspapers, magazines, and think tanks—but the views they translate are not always presented fully and accurately. This inaccuracy is sometimes caused by a political decision to change or remove certain points from an article or broadcast, but it also often occurs because a journalist or translator is simply unable to accurately translate technical words or understand the context in which they are used.

For instance, there are separate words in Persian for “safety” and “security,” but most Persian-language outlets mix the two up. This is the case for both foreign-based Persian language media and domestic outlets (links in Persian). This in turn means that the Iranian public receives misleading or partial information on one of the most important issues shaping its life.  

Second, the nuclear issue has become an emotional one in Iran. Most Iranians don’t care about the right to enrich. Nor do they care how many centrifuges spin in their country. Most are not able to say how many centrifuges are currently operating, or what they think a reasonable number would be in a comprehensive deal. But many Iranians do feel that their country is being treated differently and unfairly by the international community, led by the West.

This is not to say that they believe their government has handled the nuclear issue competently. “Ten years of sanctions and misery, for what? [Iranian officials] could have concluded this deal eight years ago and saved us all the trouble,” a middle-aged businessman told me in Tehran in June. A salesman at the Tehran Bazaar echoed the sentiment, saying, “I don’t understand how [the government] wants to have nuclear energy when it can’t even properly manage the Tehran metro. They’ve spent all this money, and for what?”

Iranians don’t agree on whether or not they need a nuclear program to begin with. In 2009, during the presidential campaign, I spoke to a stylish young man from north Tehran—a generally wealthier and more liberal part of the city—who had supported Ahmadinejad, a hardliner who was largely unpopular with more liberal Iranians. When I asked him about this unusual decision, he told me: “I am voting for Ahmadinejad because I think we need nuclear energy.” His sister jumped in: “Nuclear energy to do what? Do you even know what nuclear energy is? We don’t need nuclear energy, we need to sort out other things first.”

Regardless of these disagreements, many Iranians are also quick to denounce the West. “How come Israel and Pakistan are allowed to have nuclear weapons, but when it comes to Iran, we have to go through all this? And we have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” said a typically pro-Western university professor.

The emotional aspect of the nuclear dossier makes it very difficult for most Iranians to think critically about it. After all, a lot of the country’s political agenda has been governed by the issue, and because it has had such a big impact on the economy, many Iranians are loathe to admit that all their sacrifices may have been for very little. Because of this, the media fails to raise fundamental questions about the usefulness and viability of the nuclear program, instead comforting Iranians by suggesting that their decision-makers are taking the best course of action.

Third, despite the nuclear issue holding such an important place in Iranian politics and policy, it is virtually absent from academia. Most students, including those in political science, international law, international relations, and journalism, can accumulate higher education degrees without knowing anything about nonproliferation.

The absence of nonproliferation and arms control from academic curricula has another implication: There are very few experts on the matter in Iran for journalists to consult. In the West, journalists can call academics and think tankers for independent analysis of governmental decisions and events. But in Iran, think tanks are generally linked to a body of government, and academia changed deeply after the 1979 Islamic revolution, with independent professors and researchers replaced by those with ties to the regime. This means that journalists can only get one side of the story: that told by the government. But it also means that the “experts” they consult often lack a nonproliferation and arms control background, and can only speak about some aspects of it, without necessarily managing to provide details or the wider context. 

Two trends have made the nuclear issue into a sensitive one in Iran. First, the Iranian government views the problem as one of national security and has historically not welcomed it being challenged or questioned. This closed debate on the subject. Since Rouhani’s inauguration in August 2013, things have started to change. News outlets have been able to present and cover critical views on the nuclear program. Even so, there is a fine line between acceptable criticism and questioning that can get one into trouble (link in Persian). Second, the nuclear program has become a sensitive topic for the Iranian population in general. Beyond the red lines fixed by the government, the Iranian people find it difficult to think critically. This is because they have been paying the price for the program politically and economically.

Politically, pressure on Iran’s nuclear program has often translated into pressure domestically, including in the form of censorship and arrests. Economically, sanctions have impacted every facet of Iranians’ lives. Many Iranians can’t afford basic goods. Pollution resulting from substandard gasoline is causing blood cancer and other diseases, according to Tehran city officials. Sanctions have also prevented Iran from replacing its aging aircraft and purchasing parts for them, leading to several crashes in the past few months. All these issues make sanctions and, consequently, the nuclear program into a highly emotional topic for Iranians, regardless of political affiliation. Citizens view sanctions on their country negatively, regardless of whether they are hard-line regime supporters or liberals who denounce the very existence of the Islamic Republic.

Thus, for practical reasons like translation problems and censorship and for more personal reasons—in particular the emotional lens through which most Iranians inevitably see the nuclear issue—it’s very difficult for journalists to report objectively on the subject. And when Iranian officials say that there’s a consensus around the nuclear program in their country, they are in effect presenting this lack of an informed and nuanced discussion on the matter as a unified view. The media have provided a vehicle for this deficient discussion, contributing to the lack of depth and accuracy in Iranian accounts of the nuclear program and talks.