Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Faux journalism from a quasi-journalist

Few would confuse a publication owned by a messianic cult that requires its editors to attend creepy mass weddings with a credible news organization. And fewer still would mistake a hack reporter who uncritically regurgitates allegations from a reported member of a terrorist organization once closely allied with Saddam Hussein as part of an orchestrated smear campaign with an actual journalist. So it’s with some hesitation that I even bother addressing Eli Lake of The Washington Timesrecent piece suggesting the president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), Trita Parsi, is actually a foreign agent working on behalf of the Iranian regime -- a claim Lake, bent on learning only that which he has already concluded, forgets to find any evidence for.

But the article's worth addressing for a couple of reasons, mostly because it provides a case-study in how the militarist right seeks to deflect efforts to engage in actual nuanced, intelligent debate on foreign policy with attacks on their opponents character and motivations -- and demonstrates how, as with the fairy tale about Iraq's fictitious weapons of mass destruction, these right-wing operatives seek to create a narrative by planting dubious stories in the media. That the stories are almost instantly debunked matters not, a headline and a fantastical lede being all that matters when one's seeking to boost a flimsy smear for political ends.

Indeed, the evidence, so to speak, for Lake’s most sensational claim -- that Parsi is a foreign agent lobbying on behalf of Tehran -- is remarkably weak, even by Times standards, amounting to this: Parsi and his organization openly oppose sanctions and military action against Iran -- just like Iran’s government! -- ergo, he is an unregistered foreign agent of Iran. While arguing Parsi is thereby violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Lake doesn’t bother to dig any further than emails handed him by crazed neoconservative Kenneth Timmerman and Hassan Daioleslam, a reported agent of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) terror-cult, a group that allied itself with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and which continues to enjoy pockets of support in Washington despite its presence on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The smoking gun?
E-mail correspondence between Mr. Parsi and Mr. Zarif show Mr. Parsi suggesting that the Iranian diplomat meet with members of Congress.
"Happy to hear that you will meet with [Rep. Wayne] Gilchrest and potentially [Rep. James] Leach. There are many more that are interested in a meeting, including many respectable Democrats," Mr. Parsi wrote in an Oct. 25, 2006, e-mail.
And that’s pretty much it, which shows neither that Parsi was operating at the behest of the Iranian government nor that he received any financing from it. The rest of the story is just obfuscatory filler. The weakness of Lake’s case is further demonstrated by former Bush speechwriter David “axis of evil” Frum’s restatement of it:
Here we have a national of a hostile foreign power [ed. note: Parsi left Iran at age 4]. That national has gained important access to U.S. government and media. He has used that access to advocate an agenda remarkably coincident with the wishes of his home government.
It’s basic curiosity to wonder: Who is this guy? By seeking to answer that question, Eli has committed real journalism.
Of course, real journalism would also seek to differentiate between fact and fiction. A real journalist might also be aware that the MEK and its supporters -- who favor sanctions against Iran and ultimately the installing of MEK leader Maryam Rajavi as Iran's "president" -- are notorious for claiming anyone who doesn't back their warped interpretation of Iranian politics and their specific agenda for bringing down the current regime is an agent of Tehran. When I wrote a piece this summer noting Reps. Bob Filner (D-CA) and Dana Rohrabacher's (R-CA) avowed solidarity with the MEK despite its status as an officially designated terrorist organization, I was immediately accused by one of the group's outspoken agents of being part of a plot by Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad aimed at "using U.S. media to attack its arch-enemy" the MEK. And I'm a nobody!

An articulate, credible advocate for dialog with Iran like Parsi will naturally attract vociferous, overwrought opposition from these MEK operatives, as we now see unfolding with the attack led by Daioleslam, who first accused Parsi and the NAIC of being Iranian agents back in 2007. A trip to Dailoselam's website reveals he has in fact written little else over the past several years other than purported expose's of the "pro-Tehran lobby", a obsessive fixation in keeping with what one would expect of an MEK member with an ax to grind. It also reveals his ties to the Foundation for Democracy in Iran (FDI), founded by Timmerman, Joshua Muravchik and other extreme neoconservatives back in 1995, and which once claimed that "sources" -- within the MEK, no doubt -- had informed the group "that the Iranian regime is planning a nuclear weapons test before the Iranian New Year on March 20, 2006." So much for that. And so much for claiming Dailoselam and his cohorts have anything in the way of credibility.

As for the claim that Parsi's activities could loosely be defined as in the "interests" of Tehran, making him a foreign agent, well . . . I don't think Lake and his neocon allies want to go too far down that road, as whatever broad interpretation of the foreign agents act employed against a little known group like NIAC and its president would apply in spades to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has long been dogged by claims it acts as a foreign agent. Of course, when AIPAC critics have argued just that, its defenders discovered the merits of a limited interpretation of the law.

Examining the question of whether AIPAC could be forced to register as a foreign agent back in 2004, the Jewish daily The Forward reported that legally "it would be difficult" to prove, according to experts.

“Lots of ethnic organizations throughout America are representing Americans who support foreign countries or political parties in foreign countries. None of those have in the past been considered foreign agents or required to register as such,” Tom Susman, chair of the the American League of Lobbyists’ ethics committee (don’t laugh), told the paper. “[AIPAC] doesn’t advocate on behalf of the government of Israel, but the nation of Israel.” Susman also said the law allowed for some coordination with foreign governments: “a substantial independence [of the lobbying group] is all that’s needed. Not total independence.”

If we’re to expand what it means to be a foreign agent, redefining it as merely acting in the “interests” of another country regardless of whether one’s financed or directed to do so or not, then by all means NIAC should register. But so should AIPAC. The likes of Lake and Frum, however, only appear to want to talk about the so-called Iran Lobby and its supposed influence in Washington, an extreme irony I need not elaborate on, almost as if they have an ideological fixation on one country, Iran, to the exclusion of others. I mean, when’s the last time either of them changed their Twitter avatars to express solidarity with human rights activists in say, Gaza, or Colombia?

The focus on Parsi is illuminating, though. Here we have neoconservatives yet again supposing they know what’s best for another country -- and that they of all people are most in touch with the mood on the ground in those other countries the U.S. somehow always ends up needing to bomb -- confronted with an outspoken guy who actually knows something about Iran outside of what you might hearing at an AEI lecture openly opposing sanctions and war based on the well-supported belief they’re likely to harm average Iranians more than their leaders. Knowing they can’t beat him on the merit of their by now discredited arguments, they turn to the only tools left when reasoned discourse is abandoned: venom and bile. One can’t merely have a difference of opinion, one must be a traitor, or a spy!, or another nefarious foreign agent of some sort dedicated to the unmitigated evil of furthering international dialogue. That they haven’t attacked Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner who also believes “sanctions would only aggravate the people’s hardship,” is likely because she isn’t as active in the Washington think tank community as Parsi (though every good neocon knows George Bush was robbed in ’03).

As Kevin Sullivan at the blog Real Clear World writes:
Anyone who could possibly argue that it's somehow pro-regime to support rapprochement and question Western democracy promotion inside Iran isn't really an honest broker in this policy debate. I happen to disagree with Parsi on sanctions, but I'm not about to call him "Iran's man" in Washington. That's irresponsible, and it speaks volumes about how truly disinterested hawkish pundits are in a conversation absent of bombs and regime change. It simply bores them.
In other words, war -- either on another country or on a perceived enemy like Parsi -- is the force that gives neocons like Lake meaning as they battle on the frontlines of Twitter. How very sad.

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