The Media's 'Iran Is a Wild and Crazy State' Frame

As evidence mounted this week that Iran was behind attacks on Israelis in India and Georgia, the Israeli government had its messaging ready to go. According to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, talking points crafted in the prime minister's office read, "If this is what Iran is doing now, imagine what it will do if its nuclear arms project reaches the goal."

That's one interpretation--that a spree of terrorist attacks signifies a reckless, unpredictable, maybe even crazy Iranian regime. Here's another interpretation: The Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks, far from being unpredictable, were exactly what you would expect from a rational actor.

Put yourself in the Iranian leadership's position. You are a regime that is insecure about the allegiance of your people. A foreign government (Israel) has been systematically assassinating people in your country. Can you afford to just sit there and take it--to be seen by your people as submitting to your enemy? For that matter, is this image of impotent submission one you'd want to send to the outside world at a time when it is tightening economic sanctions and there is talk of bombing your country? (Pre-emptive note to incensed commenters: No I'm not saying the Iranian counter-attacks were 'morally justified' or that Israel deserved them, etc.)

The Israeli government isn't alone in using the "Iran is wildly unpredictable" frame as the basic prism for mediating reality. The American media likes that frame. The lead paragraph of a piece published in Thursday's edition of The New York Times cited the terrorist attacks, along with, "renewed posturing over its nuclear program and fresh threats of economic retaliation" as evidence that "Iranian leaders are responding frantically, and with increasing unpredictability, to the tightening of sanctions by the West."

To its credit, the story did go on to quote an expert noting that all of these Iranian actions could be viewed as a coherent package: "These are all facets of the same message," said Muhammad Sahimi, an analyst and professor at the University of Southern California. "Iran is saying, 'If you hit us, we will hit back, and we are not going to sacrifice our nuclear program.' " Or, to paraphrase Mr. Sahimi: "The lead paragraph of the New York Times story you are reading right now is misleading."

But the New York Times piece wasn't done yet. On the same day that Iran had engaged in "renewed posturing over its nuclear program"--that is, it had unveiled (and hyped) some advances in its nuclear program--an Iranian official said Iran was ready to engage in a new round of talks on the nuclear standoff. Now, you might argue that this was the most important news of the day, and belonged in the lead paragraph. Or, at the very least, you might ask that this news be depicted as counteracting the Iran-is-wildly-unpredictable meme. But no--from the standpoint of The New York Times, this was just more evidence that Iran is a bundle of contradictions. "The intentions of Iran's divided leadership are notoriously difficult to divine, and even as Mr. Ahmadinejad declared defiantly that 'the era of bullying nations has passed,' another Iranian official said Tehran was ready for new talks on the nuclear issue."

Are these statements by two Iranian leaders really at odds, making Iran a nation whose intentions are "difficult to divine"? Here's an alternative view: When Iran announces, under the pressure of intense economic sanctions, that it is willing to return to the negotiating table, that overture is likely to be seen--by both its domestic audience and its foreign audience--as a sign of weakness. Iran doesn't want to be seen as weak by either audience. So it might make sense, from Iran's point of view, to couple this announcement with demonstrations that it won't be intimidated--whether Ahmadinejad's declaration that Iran wouldn't be "bullied" or the announcement (complete with pictures of Ahmadinejad in a lab coat) of advances in Iran's nuclear program.

The New York Times may have found this perplexing, but not everyone did. Wednesday around noon--roughly the time the Times piece was being written--Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project for the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in an email, "Iran is projecting strength by organizing a nuclear show on the same day that it responded to Ashton's letter [i.e. the same day it agreed to return to the bargaining table]. Iran is signaling to the West that they will not come to the negotiating table under unprecedented pressure and give up their rights. If Washington does not understand this, the new round of negotiations is doomed to fail."

By "rights," Vaez meant what Iran sees as its right to enrich uranium--even if under strict international monitoring that ensures that the enrichment is for peaceful purposes. By "doomed to fail" he meant what tends to happen when you negotiate with people whose perspective, and whose predicament, you don't understand.

Here is the Iranian leadership's predicament: If it goes into negotiations under the pressure of sanctions and threats, and agrees to abandon any aspirations to make a nuclear weapon, it needs to have something positive to show its people, some reason to plausibly declare victory. And one good candidate for this role is the international community's acknowledgment of Iran's right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

Let's hope America's officials understand this. In other words: Let's hope they're not relying on the mainstream American media as they try to divine Iranian intentions.

[Postscript: I want to emphasize that the authors of The New York Times stories have done great work in the past. (This morning Steve Coll cites Robert Worth as deserving mention in the same breath as the late, great Anthony Shadid.) I'm not saying this is like the famous Judith Miller problem at the Times during the runup to the Iraq War. And I understand the difficulties of reporting on deadline and hope I don't sound too preachy here. But as the prospect of war with Iran gets more tangible, I think every American journalist who writes about Iran has a duty--you might even say a patriotic duty--to work extra hard to fathom and convey the perspective of and constraints on the Iranian leadership. That reduces the chances that bad things will happen. And, anyway, that's what good reporting is.]