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Media Analyses





Washington Post Blogger Mystified by Iran Deal and Much More


(Updated, Aug. 5 and Oct. 1, 2015 and Jan. 18, 2016.  See below.)

On July 26, 2015 U.S. State Department Press Secretary Marie Harf tweeted her boss Secretary of State John Kerry and to the world a recent piece by Washington Post blogger and sometime print columnist Ishaan Tharoor (“How the Iran deal is good for Israel, according to Israelis who know what they're talking about,” July 22, 2015). The article is littered with omissions and mischaracterizations of Israeli officials comments as CAMERA has noted (“A Washington Official, and The Washington Post, Fabricate Israeli Praise for the Iran Deal,” July 27). An overview of some of Tharoor's other articles just from January of this year to the present indicate “How the Iran deal is good for Israel” is far from alone in skewing toward odd if not anti-Israel interpretations.

Problems with “How the Iran deal is good for Israel, according to Israelis who know what they're talking about” are evident immediately in the very title which implies that such Israelis  have stated that the deal reached between the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom and Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program is “good for Israel.” To reach this conclusion, the author notes comments by some former Israeli intelligence officials.

Yet, as CAMERA has noted, not one of the officials has stated that the deal was good. For example, Tharoor excerpted remarks from Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence that “there is a chance to set Iran back by many years” but failed to point out that Yadlin opposes the July 14th agreement announced in Vienna. Tharoor—in apparent contrast to his paper's stated policy—initially changed the story without noting his correction to say merely that Yadlin “while not a fan of the deal has called for Israeli calm and cooperation with Washington.”

The blogger also fails to note that former Mossad chief Meir Dagan—who he implies supports the deal—previously said that the threat from Iran's nuclear program was dire(“Israel's Former Mossad Chief is Playing Politics with Iran's Nuclear Program,” National Review, March 9). In a similar vein, Tharoor says former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy “hailed Obama's victory,” but the link provided by the blogger to substantiate this claim is an Halevy Op-Ed expressing support for the announced framework that appeared in Ynet News on April 6—over three months before the terms of the deal were revealed.

Tharoor also claimed that Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet, Israel's top domestic security agency “praised the Vienna agreement.” Yet, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post(“Ami Ayalon tells 'Post' he's not upset Kerry quoted him on Iran nuclear deal,” July 26) Ayalon states: “It's not black and white [the P5+1 Iran nuclear deal]. I think the deal is bad. It's not good, but it is the best plan currently on the table [emphasis added].” Such a lukewarm endorsement is far from what the Post blogger implied.

 
This hardly is the first time Tharoor has failed to note important background and report uncritically. In one of several articles sneering at Netanyahu—this one for the prime minister's comparison of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—the blogger uncritically shares tweets and qoutes from Matt Duss, Michael Cohen, and Peter Beinart, commentators whose routine criticisms of the Israeli government frequently omit essential facts, as CAMERA has documented (“Selective Memory Bedevils Washington Post Op-Ed Contributors,” April 6). 
 
Expressing puzzlement over an Israeli government video comparing the terrorist group to the world's leading state-sponsor of terrorism, the blogger claims Netanyahu is “perhaps not the most clear-eyed observer of Middle Eastern affairs” (“Sorry, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Iran is not the Islamic State,” March 3).
 
Nowhere does Tharoor note some of the overlap between the two, namely calls for the destruction of Israel and the genocide of its Jewish inhabitants, threats against the United States, and high numbers of executions by the Iranian regime and members of the Islamic State murders populations that fall under their rule.

An apparent unwillingness to examine his own assertions, or those of others he finds useful, can be found in Tharoor's take on the flawed United Nations Human Rights Council's report on the summer 2014 war in Gaza began by Hamas mortar and rocket attacks on Israel (“The U.N. report on Israel's Gaza war: What you need to know,” June 22).

Conspicuous omissions
 
The article dismissively notes Israel's own investigation into civilian Gazan deaths while claiming “that contention is not supported by the U.N. report.” Astoundingly, nowhere does Tharoor—in a piece with the subhead “What you need to know”—detail Hamas' policy of using Gazans as human shields and encouraging the deaths of its own civilians in no small part for propaganda purposes for suggestible Western journalists.

Nor does the blogger note the findings of leading military officials like U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, former commander of British troops in Afghanistan Col. Richard Kemp, and others that Israel did everything it could to limit civilian casualties while defending itself.

Tharoor also omits key details regarding the authors of the report: The original chair, William Schabas, belatedly admitted to being paid by the Palestinian Authority for previously representing it legally—a revelation that prompted an outcry leading to his stepping down, but the report largely still amounted to a collection of anti-Israel criticism.
 
Omissions also undermined Tharoor's article about an Iranian complaint to the United Nations (“Iran complains to the U.N. that Israel wants to nuke it,” May 21). The blogger notes that Tehran sent a letter to the U.N. Secretary General over comments by Israeli Defense Minister, Moshe Ya'alon, invoking U.S. use of atomic weapons in World War II in the context of discussing the threat posed by a nuclear Iran. Tharoor concedes the Islamic Republic “perhaps willfully misinterpreted Yaalon's couched response…..but it does appear a bit strange for a top official from a government so adamantly opposed to Iran's nuclear program to raise the question of its own nuclear options.”

Does it, considering Iranian leaders' past vows, even without nuclear weapons, to destroy Israel?

Tharoor misses the opportunity to highlight Iranian hypocrisy—calls for Israel's elimination violate the U.N. Charter. Instead he pivots from Iran's purported illegal nuclear weapons program that violates the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to a country whose own supposed nuclear program predates the existence of the NPT. In detailing Israeli nuclear capabilities and recounting the defense minister's remarks, Tharoor relies on The Washington Post's Walter Pincus (whose own inaccuracies CAMERA has noted in “Nuclear Free Middle East, or The Secret Life of Walter Pincus,” June 26) and the fringe Lobe Log—known for repeatedly featuring conspiracy theories and warnings about neo-conservative cabals.
 
Citizens? Where? Wait, wait don't tell me
 
More facts were absent without leave from the blogger's Israeli elections analysis (“What Netanyahu's election victory means for the Palestinians,” March 18). He claims that “4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have no place in Israel's electoral system and are allowed no say in an election whose outcome has direct implications for their future.” He failed to mention that Israeli citizens don't vote in Palestinian elections, if and when they're held, although the outcome affects them. 
 
Also missing from Tharoor's facile comparison: Palestinian Arabs gave Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, a plurality in 2006, and the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, in the tenth year of a four-year term, hasn't called an election since then. 
 
Tharoor then quotes from Israeli journalist Gideon Levy (whose documented inaccuracies are legion and can be found here) and former Abbas adviser Diana Buttu. These citations suggest that Israel is solely responsible for lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. Tharoor fails to mention Palestinian rejections of U.S. and Israeli “two-state” peace offers in 2000, 2001, 2008, and 2014—in the latter two it was Abbas himself who refused to even make a counteroffer or, in effect, agree to talks. Despite these refusals, Tharoor claims the Fatah leader's “raison d'etre is to negotiate a two-state solution with the Israelis” ("Netanyahu's awkward relationship with the two-state solution,” March 19).
 
The Post blogger fails to mention U.S. and Israel-backed attempts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace in another article in which he repeats the falsehood that the “Old City [of Jerusalem] is technically Palestinian territory” (“British bans Israeli tourism ad because it shows Jerusalem's Old City as part of Israel,” March 4).

The blogger's confusion, ambivalence or animus towards Israel, whose democratic electoral process he sometimes heralds (“4 ways Israel's electoral system could improve the U.S.,” March 17) until it disappoints him (“What Netanyahu's election victory means for Palestinians,” March 18), seem to date all the way back to the founding of the Jewish state. He writes of “Jewish attacks” on “Arab villagers” prior to Israeli statehood in 1948, but fails to mention repeated Arab attacks on Jews throughout the 1920's, 30's, or 40's. He avoids any mention of key historical events such as Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini's partnering with Adolf Hitler or Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, the Syrian-born antisemitic Islamic revivalist preacher killed in a shootout with British police in 1935 and for whom the al-Qassem Brigades of Hamas are named.

Tharoor does express concern over how one country in the Middle East is consistently portrayed: Iran (“How not to write about Iran,” July 2). He decries what he views as the Western portrait of Iran as the “other,” invoking a psychological concept popularly misused to suppress legitimate criticism: “Iran has long been a kind of bogeyman. It's the land of hostage crises and headscarves. It was part of the Axis of Evil (whatever that was). Its leaders grouse about defeating Israel, an American ally. Its mullahs, say Iran's critics, plot terror and continental hegemony.”

'Parachute journalism' and 'dangerous superficiality'
 
The Islamic Republic is of course the land where U.S. prisoners are still being held and abused and which regularly calls for “Death to Israel” and “Death to America”—rhetoric it tries to turn into reality through backing terrorist groups including Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and others who have killed U.S. and Israeli civilians and soldiers.

“The stereotypes,” Tharoor says, “seem to support the contention of some hawks that Iran is not a normal, rational state actor.” However, as American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin—who lived in Iran and completed his PhD at Yale University on Iranian history—notes in his examination of Tharoor's article (“When Political Correctness Blinds Iran Reporting,” July 6, Commentary), “rather than acknowledge differences and history, he engages in projection: assuming that everyone shares our values.” To Rubin, the article “illuminates the dangers of parachute journalism and superficiality even at America's top tier papers.”

Yet Tharoor does not heed his own call for carefulness when writing about the Islamic Republic.

He repeatedly refers—without evidence—to current Iranian president Hassan Rouhani as a “moderate” (“The key moments in the long history of U.S.-Iran tensions,” March 31), never mentioning Rouhani's role as head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council during the bombings of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community headquarters in early 1990's Argentina. Similarly, while he notes Iran's ties to Hezbollah, he refers to the U.S.-listed terrorist movement simply as a “Shiite” or just a “militant” organization—and fails to mention the group's use of Lebanese non-combatants as human shields during its wars against Israel—even when writing on the subject of civilian deaths in Hezbollah-initiated wars (“Hundreds of civilians died the last time Israel and Hezbollah fought a war,” Jan. 29).
 
Tharoor's recounting of U.S.-Iran ties (“The key moments in the long history of U.S.-Iran tensions,” March 31) omits that some Iranians worked with British and American officials during the 1953 coup that removed democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, in part for his ties to the pro-Soviet Tudah Party. Also missing, the mullahs' own opposition to Mossadegh for his secular tendencies.
 
Still not up to speed
 
Tharoor continued to provide questionable analysis in “A parallel debate is underway in Iran, where hard-liners want a better nuclear deal, too.” The Washington Post blogger appears in print as well (August 4 edition) with this offering, casting a false narrative based on a false parallel: Iranian “hard-liners” who oppose the nuclear deal reached with the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France and Germany because it might slow the country's nuclear arms development resemble U.S. lawmakers and members of the American public. Never mind that they do so from concern that the agreement increases the likelihood of a nuclear-armed Iran and will provide $100 billion or more to the leading state-sponsor of terrorism whereas Iranian “hardliners” opposed any limitations on their activities.
 
Tharoor himself hints that such a comparison may be overblown. Towards the end of his article he writes “to be sure, the issue [the Iran deal] isn't as divisive in Iran as it is in Washington. Despite airing reservations, both [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and the leadership of Iran's influential Revolutionary Guard Corps appear to have accepted the deal.” Are not the Supreme Leader, who's headed the Shi'ite dictatorship for more than 25 years, and the IRGC he commands actually “hard-liners?”

Comparisons between so-called “hard-liners” in Iran and U.S. critics of the proposed agreement are not just overblown—they're untenable. Iran's hardliners lead and dominate a theocratic police state that calls for “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” American “hard-liners” engaging in constitutionally protected free speech to oppose an agreement they fear will open the way for Iran's “hard-line” rulers to acquire nuclear weapons. These are opposites, not analogues.

Yet that doesn't stop Tharoor from repeating false analogies, even when he drops kernels of a truth he does not seem to fully grasp. The blogger himself notes that the U.S. “government is viewed with profound distrust and loathing by many in the Iranian establishment, particularly by the hard-liners.”

“Particularly” but not exclusively. That is, it's not just the hard-liners who view with “profound distrust and loathing” the U.S. government, but also the country as a whole, which they refer to as the “Great Satan” whose death they repeatedly call for at public rallies attended by thousands. It must be that so-called moderates in the Iranian government do as well, as Tharoor implies but never specifically identifies.

The closest he comes to defining a “moderate” is by pointing to what he perceives to be their traits. For example, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “has a number of degrees from U.S. universities.” But if Western-educated is what makes a “moderate” then by extension much of the Imperial Japanese military and government during World War II would have been “moderate” as well. By that line of reasoning, virtually all of the U.S. Congress members Tharoor implies to be “hard-liners” would also count as moderates since most were educated at U.S. universities.

Tharoor proceeds along his well-laid track of omissions. He cites a quote from Tehran University Prof. Foad Izadi who states “American official(s) should realize they got a really good deal and don't push it…Iran has given away a lot of things. The nuclear program has become a symbol of national pride and people don't like that the agreement came at a great price.”

Great price? More like great reward. Tharoor fails to note that $100 billion or more in frozen Iranian oil revenue will be returned to Iran. Such a sum, Illan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council notes, “is difficult to put in context. It amounts to roughly a quarter of Iran's annual gross domestic product, which totaled $415 billion in 2014. A similar windfall for the United States would be in the trillions. In historical terms,” Berman adds, “It also matches or exceeds America's entire post-World War II plan for the reconstruction of Europe.” (Mound of cash to Iran dwarfs Marshall plan,” July 29, USA Today).
 
The Post blogger adds mischaracterizations to his omissions claiming “young hard-liners belonging to the Basij, a paramilitary organization” are “tethered to the regime [emphasis added].” Tethered? Loosely tied yet distinct? Hardly.

As noted Iran analyst Ali Alfoneh has written (“The Basij Resistance Force: A weak link in the Iranian regime?” February 2010, Washington Institute for Near East Policy), the Basij force was created by the regime itself following direct orders from regime founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a teacher to both current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. The Basij amounts to a supplemental regime police force, brutally suppressing even hints of dissent.

Tharoor would do well to take American Enterprise Institute (AEI) scholar Michael Rubin's advice (noted above): Imagining a multicultural norm can be dangerous. Assuming that everyone—including leaders of hostile regimes in different cultures—thinks as you do amounts to an ethnocentric delusion.
 
Announcing Tharoor's hiring in March 2014, Post editors—noting his years at TIME Magazine—stated they looked forward to his bringing “formidable skills and knowledge of foreign affairs” and noted his prodigious output. So far, prodigious one-sided or out-of-context quotations, repeated omissions of relevant facts, and mischaracterizations of officials' remarks characterize the blogger's writing on Israel. Formidable skills and knowledge of foreign affairs, up to now not so much. Perhaps this analytical ship still can be righted, but filling the digital maw is ceaseless work, apparently heedless of the printed Post's old, stated journalistic standards.
 
(Update, October 1)
 
Still out of focus
 
The Washington Post's online (and occasionally in-print) analyst Ishaan Tharoor has again displayed a bit of “fly over journalism,” this time on both Iran and Israel (“Putin v. Obama and other main storylines at the U.N. General Assembly,” Sept. 28, 2015).
 
As shown below, CAMERA has criticized Tharoor's analyses previously. This time The Post blogger writes “on the ground, a separate, viable Palestinian state is nowhere in sight. And its potential existence is rejected by senior members of the current right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
 
True, but why? Tharoor again omitted that Palestinian leadership didn't comply with the Oslo accords of 1993 that were meant to lead to “final status” talks by 1998 and that it rejected negotiations and talks for two-state solutions and peace in 2000, 2001, 2008 and most recently U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's “framework” in 2014. In each of these years U.S. and/or Israeli attempts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace—on the basis of a West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem Palestinian state and end of the conflict with Israel as a Jewish state—were rejected by Palestinian leadership. It's little wonder that some members of the Israeli government, and many Israeli voters are thus skeptical of the aims and objectives of Palestinian leadership.
 
In addition to skipping these essential facts, The Post blogger said that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in his September 28 U.N. General Assembly speech, “launched his own barb [emphasis added] at Israel, singling out the ‘Zionist regime' as the Middle East's only nuclear power while calling for regional non-proliferation.” However, The Washington Post itself noted—in coverage appearing the same day as Tharoor's analysis—that what Rouhani actually said was far more than just a “barb,” nor was it directed solely at Israel. Rather, the Iranian president claimed:
 
“If not for the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and its unwarranted support for the inhumane actions of the Zionist regime against the oppressed nation of Palestine, today the terrorists [such as the Islamic State] would not have an excuse for the justification of their crimes” (“Iranian leader blames U.S. policies for terrorism”).
 
Of course, the problem of Middle East terror long predates the U.S.-led coalition military actions that ousted the oppressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq. The Taliban provided sanctuary to the al-Qaeda terror group and its leader, Osama bin Laden. Hussein, besides terrorizing his own people, provided support to al-Qaeda affiliates Ansar al-Islam and other terrorist groups, some of whom now comprise elements of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Before that, the Iraqi strongman subsidized various Palestinian terrorist groups who struck not only at Israeli but also other international targets.
 
And it's Iran, not Israel who signed and then broke promises contained in the 1969 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), while regularly threatening both the United States and Israel. By casting Iranian anti-American, anti-Israel rhetoric as little worse than an aside aimed only against the Jewish state, Tharoor obscures both the falseness and deep anti-American rhetoric of Iran's rulers.
 
Tharoor classifies opponents of the Iran nuclear deal as “neo-conservatives.” This is odd terminology; although the blogger in the past has exhibited a tendency to rely on fringe sources that use that term (often employed by conspiracy theorists to imply war-mongering Jews), it has not turned up readily in mainstream news media coverage of Iran deal opponents.
 
Context Held Hostage
 
Tharoor has continued to provide more faulty analysis with recent blogs on U.S. sailors held hostage by naval forces of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
 
On Jan. 12, 2016 IRGC forces captured two U.S. naval vessels and detained their ten person crew. The crew had reportedly accidentally drifted into Iranian territorial waters near Farsi Island due to mechanical problems. They were released the next day, but not before Tehran took pictures of the sailors on their knees with their hands behind their head.
 
Iran has since disseminated the images and what may have been forced apologies by the sailors. Some, such as Bill Luti, a former U.S. navy commander, have remarked that Iran's actions violate established practices by nations on how to deal with distressed seacraft as well as international law, including articles 13 and 17 of the Geneva Convention.
 
Tharoor notes none of this. Instead he dismisses some reactions to the incident as overblown in “The freakout over the U.S.-Iran boat drama looks a bit silly now” (January 13). The Post blogger details what he considers to be partisan criticisms by Republican politicians over the incident. In contrast, the portrayal by non-Western media of the detained sailors receives zero scrutiny.  
 
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a non-profit organization that monitors Arab and Iranian media, has noted that Al-Akhbar, a Lebanese daily with ties to Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah, showed pictures of the American sailors kneeling on its frontpage under the headline, “Tehran to Washington: I Control the Gulf.”
 
In a subsequent article, (“That time U.S. serviceman were detained overseas by a hostile power, and America said sorry twice,” January 15) Tharoor again attempts to minimize the incident with U.S. sailors by comparing it to an April 2001 incident in which a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. surveillance plane. The Chinese fighter pilot was killed and 24 U.S. servicemen were held by Chinese authorities until an informal apology was issued by the U.S. government.
 
Yet, the comparison by The Post blogger is faulty: China did not violate established practices of how to deal with distressed seacraft nor did it violate the Geneva Convention by using U.S. serviceman and women for propaganda purposes. Additionally, China, unlike Iran, was not on the verge of receiving 150 billion U.S. dollars in sanctions relief for an illegal nuclear weapons program. In similar contrast, China was not a couple years removed from killing, via its proxy militias, U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
 
Asking the right questions, a wider range of relevant sources and more critical analyses may yet save Tharoor's work from a sort of superficial stenography. But not if the examples noted above harden into a pattern.
 

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