Janine Jackson interviewed journalist Gareth Porter about the Iran deal for the July 17 CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Last fall, the PBS NewsHour referred to the need for Iran to “persuade the world” it wasn’t going to get weapons, in return for lifting sanctions.
NBC’s David Gregory said the international community, divided on many things, are united on this: “They think Iran is up to no good and wants to build a nuclear weapon.”
US corporate media have a habit when discussing Iran, though not only then, of presenting what are overwhelmingly US points of view as those of the whole world–a less-than-helpful quality as we try to understand the deal with Iran currently making headlines.
Here to help us sort through it is investigative journalist Gareth Porter, author of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare and a regular contributor to Middle East Eye.
Welcome back to CounterSpin, Gareth Porter.
Gareth Porter: Thanks so much for having me, Janine.
JJ: Well, let’s leap right in. Media are calling the deal “historic” and crucial to Obama’s legacy, for good or for ill. But you wrote recently that media are rather missing the import of these negotiations and of how they came about. What are they missing? What’s the more appropriate takeaway, if you will?
GP: Well, of course there is a great deal that the media are missing about the background of this, because of the fact that the media have been basically applying a false narrative to the entire issue of the Iran nuclear program for so long, and that means that they are missing essentially the entire true history of the program.
In my focus on one particular issue, I don’t mean to suggest that this is by any means the only problem with the news media interpretation or take on the Iran nuclear deal. But what I thought was particularly appropriate at this point is to look back and see, how did the US come to the point where it was ready to negotiate a deal on the nuclear program with Iran? And the answer to that is certainly not something that you will learn from reading the news media accounts.
I’ve been following this for some years now, and what struck me about the relevant history here is that, in fact, if you go back to the 1990s, the people within Iran who are part of this very strong, the most powerful political faction in the country, really, the Rafsanjani faction–named after the former President Rafsanjani, who wanted to integrate Iran into the global capitalist economy, and realized that their only hope for doing that was to reach some kind of an agreement with the United States–really began in the late 1980s and early 1990s to engage the United States diplomatically and politically. And what happened was that the United States was simply not interested, either under the George H.W. Bush administration or the Clinton administration, and certainly not the George W. Bush administration.
Why did the United States not take any interest in diplomatic engagement with Iran? Because, at that point, Iran was simply too weak, and the disparity in power with the United States was simply too great. The United States government did not see any compelling strategic reason to have a negotiating process with Iran.
In my book, I point out quite precisely in the very early 1990s, when the Bush administration at that time basically shifted a policy that had been planned to be carried out by the White House to reciprocate a gesture by Rafsanjani in helping to release US hostages in Lebanon, by essentially making some public concession or gesture to Iran, and instead of doing that, in the wake of the victory over Iraq, the administration decided that they didn’t really need Iran at all in their plans for the Middle East, and simply embarked on a new period of hostility toward Iran. So that was the beginning of this 25-year period, essentially, of the US being much less interested in reaching agreement with Iran than Iran was.
That’s been misunderstood, because Iran has not simply said, United States, we’ll do whatever you want to have an agreement with you. They wanted the United States to lift the sanctions. And that was the primary issue for many years, and the United States wasn’t willing to do that. So it was not really until the second Obama administration that the United States really deigned to enter into a fundamental negotiating process with Iran. Up until that time, the posture of the United States was: We will put pressure on Iran to force it to give up its nuclear program. Or, we’re really not interested in doing that; we will just carry out regime change, as was the case with the Bush administration.
What I’m really talking about here is the impact of the vast disparity in power between the United States and Iran, and how that has shaped the history of the whole question of the diplomatic engagement between the two countries.
JJ: Hearing about Obama’s efforts at coercion, and sort of threats of regime change, it’s very interesting in light of coverage, like the New York Times story I just saw, that talked about how this deal is due to Obama’s “faith in diplomacy”–as though that were an abiding characteristic of this White House’s posture towards Iran. But just to spell it out, when you’re talking about the shift in power relations, that, you know, Iran didn’t suddenly start wanting sanctions lifted–that’s been their goal for a long time. What changed did have to do with Iran’s nuclear program. That’s what’s played the role in shifting the power.
GP: It was precisely the fact that the Iranians began in 2006, to not only enrich uranium, but to essentially build up a stockpile of low-enriched uranium. And then in 2010, in order to get the attention of the Obama administration, to get it to agree to negotiations, the Iranians began to enrich the levels of uranium to 20 percent, which was regarded as an alarming sign by the Obama administration. And that was certainly one of the things that prompted Obama to decide that it was the time to begin the process of negotiations.
But it was also the failure of the pressure on Iran through, of course, the economic sanctions beginning in 2012, but also the failure of cyber attacks in 2009 and 2012, and the exploitation by the Obama administration of the–at least implicit–threat of an attack on the Iranian nuclear program by the Israelis. So that combination of pressures–which Obama hoped would bring about a shift in Iranian negotiating posture–failed, and therefore Obama is really compelled, I think, into finally going into a real negotiating situation with Iran.
JJ: Well, as we now read about working things out at the table rather than on the battlefield, I think it’s worth saying that when you hear a bland phrase like “economic measures,” or “sanctions,” there’s real harm there. I mean, it’s not as though sanctions — while of course they are not war — it’s not as though they have a light or a non-noteworthy impact on society. And Iran had been in this unique, strange legal status for a long time.
GP: That’s right, of course. It does have an impact on society, it has political and social implications, broadly speaking, for Iran. And at the same time one has to understand that it’s also a matter of national pride; it’s a symbolic insult to Iran to be in that situation. So there are multiple reasons for why Iran was so strongly motivated–going back really to the mid 1990s, when the United States first imposed unilateral economic sanctions, basically a complete trade embargo, on Iran–to really remove all the sanctions that they could.
JJ: Well, I’m going to refer people to your piece on MiddleEastEye.net for further elaboration of these ideas. Finally, I want to ask you, what do you know about the Iranian public reaction to the deal? They are almost entirely missing from US media’s story. What’s the reaction there?
GP: Well, I think there is overwhelming welcoming of the agreement, and worry that somehow it’s not going to work out the way they hoped. Certainly the Iranian people have been subjected to so many disappointments over the years in general regarding the relationship or non-relationship with the United States. There is certainly a great deal of caution, of not being too overjoyed by this, and just waiting to see how it’s going to work out.
Janine: We’ve been speaking to Gareth Porter; his book is Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, and you can find his recent reporting on the Iran deal on MiddleEastEye.net. Gareth Porter, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
GP: My pleasure; thanks, Janine.
Janine Jackson is the program director of FAIR and the host of CounterSpin.
Hear the interview with Gareth Porter on SoundCloud: