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Iranian lawmakers discuss nuclear program. (AP)

A guide to reporting on relations between the U.S. and Iran

ASK THIS | January 26, 2005

News organizations were stung by their pre-Iraq invasion coverage; here are some questions they should be asking about Iran

By Shaul Bakhash


Q. President Bush has endorsed the negotiations of the E.U. with Iran that aim at persuading Iran to give up fuel cycle technology that could help build nuclear weapons. Yet, despite E.U. urging, the Bush Administration has refused to take part in these negotiations. Why?


Q. The Europeans assume Iran will give up parts of its nuclear program only in return for incentives, and they are apparently prepared to offer Iran such incentives — a trade deal, technology transfers, access to nuclear technology for peaceful uses, etc. There are steps Iran is certain to require of the U.S. as well — an end to sanctions, for example. Is the U.S. prepared to offer Iran any incentives at all to induce it to give up its alleged weapons program?


Q. Iran has been subject to some form of U.S. sanctions for over 20 years, and fairly severe U.S. sanctions for the last decade. The sanctions were designed in part to prevent Iran from expanding its military capacity and growing its economy. Yet according to U.S. officials, Iran is well advanced in a program to acquire nuclear weapons and has acquired medium and long-range missile capacity. It has active trade relations with major regional powers like Russia, China, Japan, and India, and tolerable relations with the EU. Is the sanctions policy working? Might a policy of engagement bear more fruit?


Q. Despite abuse of human rights and the absence of meaningful elections or press freedom in China, the Bush administration argues that political change in China will be hastened through engagement, trade, and the expansion of the middle class that economic expansion will bring. In the case of Iran, the administration appears to believe political change will be accelerated by isolation, sanctions and the absence of engagement. What explains the different approaches?


Q.  According to reports, the U.S. is considering air strikes to take out Iran's nuclear facilities. Are these reports accurate? Might the threat of attack not increase Iran's incentive to acquire a nuclear deterrent? And what would the U.S. do if Iran responds to attacks by using surrogates to target American military personnel in Iraq or uses its assets in Iraq to further destabilize that country?


The U.S. has reluctantly acquiesced to the E.U.'s negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear program. But it refuses to clearly endorse the negotiations or engage with Iran directly. Administration officials — Vice President Cheney for example — continue to issue veiled threats of military action. While this may appear to be a perfectly sensible policy of backing negotiations with the threat of force, many observers believe it also has the effect of undercutting the E.U. effort. European incentives, and assurances against punitive action against Iran, would only be plausible if America is fully on board as well.


U.S. sanctions have of course hurt and continue to hurt Iran. At various times, the U.S. has blocked or curtailed the sale to Iran of dual-use technology (broadly defined), German assistance in the completion of Iran's nuclear power plant at Bushehr, potential World Bank loans, and more extensive foreign investment in Iran's energy sector. But clearly sanctions and American efforts to isolate Iran have not caused Iran to abandon its opposition to Israel, its support for Hezbollah and violent groups in Palestinian territories, or its weapons programs; nor have they prevented Iran from expanding trade with key countries. Historically, in the last century and a half, political change in Iran has been accelerated by engagement with the West; political upheaval has coincided with periods of extensive engagement with the outside world. It can be plausibly argued that Iran's wider engagement with the international community, foreign investment, an expansion of employment and a growing middle class would feed the forces of change, rather than strengthen the regime.


The advocates of military strikes against Iran's nuclear targets need to consider Iran's likely  response carefully. Iran is hardly likely to engage the U.S. militarily. Its modus operandi is well known. It is likely to use its assets in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere to cause difficulties for U.S. forces and to undermine U.S. interests. Whatever the long-term damage done to Iranian interests, the American/Israeli experience in Lebanon shows the Islamic Republic is adept at this kind of shadow war.

Washington Post op ed
Let's not make the same mistakes as in Iraq, writes David Kay, the first leader of the Iraq survey group

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