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How the nuclear issue divided the Iranian media
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A picture taken in Tehran on March 4, 2015 shows the front pages of Iranian newspapers displaying headlines in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to the United States Congress regarding Iran's nuclear program. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

A picture taken in Tehran on March 4, 2015 shows the front pages of Iranian newspapers displaying headlines in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the United States Congress regarding Iran’s nuclear program. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—For over a year one story has dominated the Iranian media: settling the dispute over the nuclear project and getting sanctions lifted.

Having won the presidency with the smallest margin in the lowest turnout in the history of elections in the Islamic Republic, Hassan Rouhani was determined to transform the nuclear issue into the principal plank of his administration. Rouhani knew that any attempt at normalization with the West, especially the United States, would be immensely popular in Iran. He also knew that without settling the nuclear issue there could be no normalization. It was inevitable that the media should focus on the issue.

The first hints that something was happening came in a number of papers close to the faction led by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani that had opposed outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The dailies Etemad and Arman reported that the Obama administration had held secret talks with Ahmadinejad envoys in Oman in 2011 and 2012, accepting virtually all of Iran’s demands right away.

Thus, when Rouhani took over he was surprised when, in private briefing, he was informed by outgoing foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi that the Americans were “desperate for a deal, virtually any deal.”

“This is our best chance,” Salehi told Rouhani. “Obama is offering what no other US leader would. Let’s not miss this unique opportunity.”

That over-simplistic reading of Obama’s intentions may have put the entire Rouhani strategy on the wrong track. Rouhani persuaded himself that he could fudge things out and secure the lifting of sanctions without offering meaningful concessions.

The mood of optimism continued for several months with Iranian media relaying a message of hope. When the Lausanne talks concluded with a press statement, Rouhani presented it as an agreement and praised it as “the greatest diplomatic victory in the history of Islam.”

“We are on the threshold of a new golden age,” the government-owned daily Iran asserted in a front page streamer. Within days, however, it became clear that the Lausanne document could not be regarded as an agreement in any sense of the term. Commentators noticed the difference between the English text of the “statement” and its Persian translation.

The daily Kayhan, believed to reflect the views of “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pointed out the differences and lashed against a Fact Sheet published by the US State Department claiming that Iran had made a series of major concessions. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s point-man in the talks, tried to divert attention by claiming that the US Fact Sheet was aimed at disarming the agreement’s critics in Washington. He also telephoned John Kerry, his US counterpart, to demand that the Fact Sheet be taken off the State Department’s website. (This was done 24 hours later.)

The incident shook the confidence of many in the Iranian media.

“Are they telling us all?” demanded the radical web weekly Raja News. The implicit answer was a resounding “no.”

By the time the final round of talks started in Vienna the Iranian media had been divided into two camps.

One camp, a majority as far as the number of outlets is concerned, supported the talks and urged both the P5+1 and Iran to find an accommodation.

Newspapers and news websites close to Rafsanjani, the bazaar, and a number of powerful Mullahs, even came close to arguing that the nuclear project was not worth the sufferings inflicted on Iran by sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

Pro-Rouhani columnist Sadegh Zibakalam even wondered whether Iran needed a nuclear project at all. If the project was aimed at producing electricity, Iran didn’t need it because the country had ample oil and gas, he argued. In any case, the project’s prohibitive cost prevented the government from investing in other areas of development.

Triggered almost by accident, the debate highlighted one surprising fact: the nuclear project had never been discussed and debated in public, not only in the media but also in the Islamic Majlis (parliament).

For a few weeks, Iranians were able to read articles for and against the nuclear project. On the eve of the Vienna talks, however, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance wrote to editors warning them not to criticize Rouhani’s strategy and tactics in the negotiations. One weekly, 7 Dey, which ignored the minister’s order, was unceremoniously shut down and two other outlets critical of Rouhani, including the all-powerful Kayhan, received “stern warnings.”

Rouhani’s government has closed down more newspapers in two years than former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did in eight years.

However, shutting papers in Iran is no easy task. All news outlets belong to someone influential within the establishment. Many publications are directly owned by the government and/or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Nevertheless, the government can force many outlets into line by threatening to cut their subsidies, limit their purchases of newsprint, and cut down their share of public sector advertising. The Mullahs and the generals who own the newspapers are not ready to spend their own money on them. And because not a single newspaper covers its own cost in Iran today, none could survive without government subsidies.

Against that background, it is remarkable that the Iranian media have succeeded in generating a serious debate about the issue. They have been helped by the fact that many powerful figures within the Khomeinist establishment are opposed to any deal on ideological grounds. More importantly, perhaps, Khamenei’s refusal to take sides has been interpreted as a green light for an open debate.

The platform offered for debate enabled both sides to passionately defend their diametrically opposed positions at length and shed light on a complex issue. Former Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili did a formidable job of exposing what he claimed was a document that “violated Iran’s independence and national sovereignty.” At the other end of the spectrum, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) put the case for the Vienna deal by stating that in it Iran promised “not to do things we were not doing anyway, didn’t want to do, or couldn’t do at the time.” In other words, the Iranian side had obtained the lifting of sanctions without changing its nuclear program.

By last month, Rouhani had been obliged to tone down his boastful posture.

He was no longer talking of a “Fath Al-Mobin” (clear victory). “We scored three goals and suffered two,” he said, using football terminology. He was no longer calling for “spontaneous celebrations” in the streets with cars tooting their horns and youths performing folkloric dances.

More importantly, Rouhani stated publicly that he did not regard the Vienna “deal” as either legal or binding, hinting that Iran had no intention of implementing it in the form President Barack Obama has been boasting about in Washington. He did not want the “deal” to be voted upon by the Majlis—so as to avoid making it part of Iran’s domestic law and thus obliging the government to abide by it.

It may come as a surprise to many, but having followed the coverage of the issue in the mainstream media in both Iran and the US I must admit, albeit grudgingly, that the Iranians did a better job. In the US the debate was over Obama, for or against, with the president’s ego dominating the debate. In Iran, maybe because the big ego Khamenei stayed on the sidelines, the thing itself could be discussed. As a result Iranians may now be better informed on this issue than their American counterparts.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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