Sarin in print

Why do reputable Western publications keep giving Iran’s foreign minister free rein to spew toxic falsehoods?

Whatever else might be said about the career of Mohammad Javad Zarif, there can be no questioning his enviable success as a freelance writer. In the past three years, the Iranian foreign minister has managed to get two opinion articles published in the Washington Post, one in the Guardian, and no fewer than four in the New York Times, which at this rate may as well offer him a regular column. (It’s hard to imagine it would outrage subscribers more than the Bret Stephens appointment.) Those of us in the journalism world who’ve sought to get ahead on the foreign affairs beat spending our years reporting from far-flung corners of the world, eking out a threadbare living, often at not-insignificant risk to our personal safety, have evidently been going about the game all wrong. Want a big league byline? Just join the bureaucracy of a blood-drenched dictatorship, and distinguish yourself as its most marketable propagandist.

The latest Western publication to offer its platform, and reputation, to our man in Tehran is The Atlantic, which last Monday published what it called an “essay” of his, marking his progression from op-ed pugilist to illustrious public intellectual. As an Atlantic writer, Zarif joins a literary coterie with alumni ranging from Martin Luther King to Albert Einstein. To the high table of American letters, he has arrived. Needless to say, the actual content of his 2,900-word text is an utter abomination; not just unreadable but unspeakable. The following passage on Syria is representative of its overall relationship with things like veracity, morality, and basic humanity:

In Syria, [Iran] came to assist the people when, in the guise of mass protest following the Arab Spring, terrorist groups—including some aligned to al-Qaeda and Daesh—took up arms to seize power and establish a monstrous terrorist state characterized by mass and bloody beheadings. Some of the terror groups have at some point been directly or indirectly funded and armed by some of our neighbors, and in some cases by the United States itself. The millions of Syrian refugees fleeing their homes are not fleeing a man, a sect, or a government; they are fleeing war and terror. But no country has done more than Iran in the fight against Daesh and in preventing the formation of an anti-Islamic caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad.

To call this chloroform in print (to quote another distinguished Atlantic contributor) would do it injustice. This is Sarin in print. To grant it the respect of even addressing its assertions on their own terms would be an intolerable degradation. It would also miss the much more important point, which is to ask why it is anywhere near the pages of a magazine like The Atlantic in the first place. Why are otherwise reputable publications—the flagship publications, indeed, of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy—granting the envoys of mass-murdering dictatorships free rein to spew obscene and toxic falsehoods?

It’s true the Atlantic did also publish at least two rebuttals to Zarif; one by a Saudi think tanker, another by an Israeli MK. In this unusual step one may detect the lineaments of uneasy conscience. Nonetheless, if the intention was expiation for publishing Zarif to begin with, it will not nearly cut it.

For a start, readers cannot be expected to have the time or inclination to actively seek out ‘alternative facts’ elsewhere in the publication. Whenever one reads any given article in any credible outlet, one does so on the assumption that editorial staff have, at the very minimum, ensured the truthfulness of all verifiable claims therein. This is the bond of trust that underpins the entire enterprise, and distinguishes—in today’s parlance—news from fake news. When Zarif is allowed, then, to get away with saying Syrian refugees haven’t fled the Assad regime (when 70% of refugees surveyed in Germany in 2015 affirmed they had), or that it was “objections by Saudi Arabia” that caused two years of paralysis in Lebanon (when it was Iran’s Hezbollah proxy and its Christian partner that boycotted parliament for those two years, refusing to attend unless and until the election of their presidential candidate was guaranteed in advance), we’re left to wonder whether the people at the Atlantic—like their colleagues at the Post, Guardian, and Times before them—just don’t know these are demonstrable falsehoods, or they do know, and are happy to print them regardless. It’s hard to decide which of the two would be worse, though it’s ultimately a distinction with little difference for their readers, who end up equally misinformed either way.

This pitfall is among the reasons the interview has traditionally been preferred to the op-ed (let alone the “essay”) as a means of soliciting the views of those who can’t be relied on to tell the truth of their own volition. Yet here, too, Zarif has had much too easy a time of it all. Interviewed by Politico two weeks ago, he was eventually asked—after thirty-five minutes of open season on the current US administration—about his regime’s hand-in-glove alliance with Bashar al-Assad, the leading mass murderer of the twenty-first century, who has exterminated civilians with the very same chemical weapons used against Iranians themselves by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. In his rambling response, Zarif spoke repeatedly about a need for an “international investigation” (he used the phrase over half a dozen times) into chemical weapons use in Syria, claiming Iran favored such an investigation but the “United States and its allies” had “prevented” one. “No international investigation has taken place,” he continued. “Had there been an international investigation, determining responsibility for the use of chemical weapons, Iran would have taken an even stronger measure.”

At that, the reporter simply moved on to the next question. Listeners to the interview podcast might live the rest of their days never knowing that just one month previously, a United Nations investigation had categorically determined the Assad regime responsible for the Sarin attack that killed over 80 civilians in Khan Shaykhun this April, as well as for twenty-six other chemical attacks across the country. Zarif must go through life in a state of perpetual incredulity at how readily Western eyes take to his wool.

Something, in other words, has gone badly wrong. Fortunately, the solution is simple: stop giving Zarif the airtime. We do not need—and we certainly should not desire—more public space for murderous despotisms to wage dezinformatsiya campaigns. Iran already has plenty of official and semi-official state media outlets and other mouthpieces, including lobby groups in the US, through which to spout its propaganda, should we ever care to know what that comprises. At the risk of sanctimony, the job of journalism in democratic societies is not to reprint such propaganda, but to tear it apart; to cut through it with the scalpels of skepticism and criticism; sifting the truth (if any) from the untruth; in order that readers, listeners, and viewers end up better informed, rather than the reverse. Not only have the above outlets failed in that fundamental duty, but by attaching their names to Zarif’s poison, they’ve gifted him and his regime a badge of respectability that—how to put it?—is ordinarily withheld from theocracies that mandate the chanting of “Death to America” at the weekly state prayer gathering. They owe it not only to others but to themselves to bring a very swift end to this very sorry practice.