Episode 79: How ‘Neutral’ ‘Experts’ Took Over Trump’s Iran Policy

Citations Needed | June 12, 2019 | Transcript

Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies makes the media rounds (credit: MintPress News)

[Music]

Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thank you everyone for listening this week. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work and the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your help through Patreon is so appreciated. We are 100% listener-funded, so really that does go a long way.

Adam: And remember you get access to Patreon-only content, which includes 45 different News Briefs, which are segments we do breaking the news that you can go back and listen to to get that content that you crave.

Nima: “Satellite Images Raise Questions About Iran Threat, Experts Say” worries The Daily Beast. “Iran And Trading Partners Will Find Ways To Skirt Sanctions, Analysts Say,” frets NPR.

Adam: “Iran uses proxies to punch above its weight in the Middle East, experts say,” says NBC News. “Fuel from Iran is financing Yemen rebels’ war, U.N. experts say,” writes the Associated Press.

Nima: “Democrats are raising alarms about Trump ‘inching’ toward war with Iran, but experts are torn over what happens next,” shrugs Business Insider while Reuters reports, “Iran can sink U.S. warships with ‘secret weapons’, military official says.”

Adam: Fox News tells us “Iran building new crossing on Syria border that would let it smuggle weapons, oil, experts say.”

Nima: Experts say. Analysts say. Officials say. We hear these qualifiers constantly in the media and when it comes to reporting on Iran, experts, analysts, scholars and Fellows are consistently tapped to weigh in on the latest nefarious thing quote “the Islamic Republic” is up to now.

Adam: But who are these so-called experts? What’s their track record like and what are their tangential, non-Iranian related regional political goals? And what does a recent partnership between the Trump State Department and organizations like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that targets peace activists on social media tell us about the broader problem of these so-called neutral experts? On today’s episode, we’re going to dig into some of the resumes of the media’s favorite experticians and breakdown how a revolving door of deeply ideological partisans use US media to pawn themselves off as apolitical neutral arbiters.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll speak with journalist and editor Arash Karami.

[Begin Clip]

Arash Karami: What I really think we need is some kind of primer for journalists on how to discuss Iran. I think that would really be helpful for everybody. From a very basic level, there’s questions about deterring Iran as if Iran is close to our borders. Close to the US. Iran is at best a regional power. They’re not a threat to the US, but the way they’re discussed, it’s like they got missiles they’re about to launch any day.

[End Clip]

Nima: The Iran Expertician Industrial, or in many ways, Imperial Complex is something that Adam and I have been covering for quite some time. After all in the media, if an expert says something, it signals that that’s well informed, that they are in fact an expert, that they have studied this topic and they know what they’re talking about. Their comments, their opinions, their analysis must be worthwhile. It must be reasonable. And the Iran expert industry is always booming. Reporters have their favorite “experts” and “analysts” on speed dials. It’s hard to find an article on Iran sanctions, for instance, that doesn’t quote someone from Foundation for Defense of Democracies or the AIPAC-spinoff Washington Institute for Near East Policy or the Institute for Science and International Security. The names Mark Dubowitz, Ray Takeyh and David Albright are ubiquitous in our media, peddling alarmist fantasies about mad mullahs and weapons programs that don’t exist, all under the cover of “expertise.”

Adam: So let’s start off by discussing the primary group we’ll be talking about today, which is the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which we have touched on before. You can’t really talk about quote unquote “Middle East policy,” specifically Iran, without really talking about Foundation for Defense of Democracies. So let’s get a sense of what their origins are by reading an article by a gentleman named John Judis in Slate from 2015. Judis writes quote:

“On April 24, 2001, three major pro-Israel donors incorporated an organization called EMET (Hebrew for ‘truth’). In an application to the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt status, [President of the organization] Clifford May explained that the group ‘was to provide education to enhance Israel’s image in North America and the public’s understanding of issues affecting Israeli-Arab relations.’ But in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, May broadened the group’s mission and changed its name to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. As he explained in a supplement to the IRS, the group’s board of directors decided to focus on ‘develop[ing] educational materials on the eradication of terrorism everywhere in the world.’”

And so from their origins they were obviously a pro-Israel group, they remain a pro-Israel group, specifically of the kind of far-right within Israel itself.

Nima: Yeah, they’re very aligned with the Likud Party.

Adam: But if they look like they’re a pro-Israeli group, this sort of limits their scope of influence. So they named their organization Foundation for Defense of Democracies and for people who are Israeli propagandists, they believe that they’re the only democracy in the Middle East. So what they mean by Foundation for Defense of Democracies is that they’re defending Israel because apparently I guess democracies like Lebanon or even the semi-democracy in Iran or in Iraq they don’t really count, I guess?

Nima: Those certainly do not count.

Adam: They don’t count.

Nima: But Saudi Arabia is okay.

Adam: Yes, Saudi Arabia is fine. So there was something that happened recently in the news that really kind of tied this all together while we were working on this show, incidentally happened, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies was caught by activists on Twitter of partnering with and effectively working a social media propaganda campaign to demonize Iran and to attack pro-peace activists with the Trump State Department. So a little bit of a backgrounder here. We’ll have it in the show notes, a piece I wrote for The Nation back in the spring of 2017, in 2016 Congress codified this thing called the global engagement center, which was supposedly created, it was originally created in 2015 to combat ISIS, but it had, didn’t have much money and it’s unclear what the scope of it, but then later it was expanded radically to a budget of $120 million over two years. That budget was then increased again a few months later, and that was supposed to combat Russian propaganda and Chinese propaganda. I warned at the time that this was going to be abused because in 2013 Congress repealed and Obama helped repeal the Smith-Mundt Act, which was established in 1948 to prevent the government from propagandizing domestically on American citizens. They’re always of course exceptions to this. The CIA had been running domestic propaganda since then as well. But there were very explicit rules against the Defense Department and the State Department doing it. And then once those rules went away, when they created the GEC in 2017, I emailed the State Department and the Government Accountability Office, the organization in charge with regulating this, asking them if this was going to be used to propagandize Americans or to pay American journalists. They did not respond to that question.

Nima: Awww (laughs.)

Adam: We now know why this revelation is the first revelation we’ve had that the GEC is being used to target Americans because many people on Twitter who were targeted were Americans. And this really does kind of show the influence of FDD. They’re effectively running the Trump administration’s Iran policy.

Nima: They are literally running the Iran policy. Mark Dubowitz, who’s the Executive Director of FDD, went from being a very frequently called upon witness that testified on Iran related issues, really just regime change issues, war issues, wanting to overthrow that government, wanting to continue economic warfare on the people of Iran. Uh, he consistently testified in front of Congress but has since, because Trump literally knows nothing about anything, has called upon people that he thinks know what’s going on. These people are, you know, people like Mike Pompeo, people like John Bolton and their go to supporters, the think tank basically, that undergirds their thoughts, their desires, their policy proposals when it comes to Iran is FDD and a number of others. But FDD is pretty much the leading one right now. To note how sinister this is really the Smith-Mundt Act, as Adam mentioned, came about in the wake of anti-Soviet propaganda during the Cold War. So, you know, Voice of America is established and there’s this concern that those outlets, which are literally State Department, US government funded media outlets designed to literally do pro-American, anti-Soviet propaganda broadcasting those to foreign countries that those are not used domestically. And uh, yeah, I mean as, as you said, Adam, like then, uh, those restrictions went away and we are seeing what is happening. So now there are groups that have long advocated against war with Iran, against economic warfare in the form of sanctions, against the constant belligerency that the US government shows towards Iran, arguing against some of that stuff while still, I mean a lot of these groups and a lot of the reporters targeted a lot of the activists targeted in the social media campaign are, you know, real staunch critics of the Iranian government. It’s not even to do like a ‘oh just to be fair,’ but I mean a lot of the people targeted by this write constantly about how much they actually hate the Iranian government. It’s simply because they don’t want Iranians to like starve or be bombed to death on behalf of Israel and the right-wing in the United States that now they are being targeted through this State Department funded effort that is being run by FDD.

Adam: And the only reason we even know about this is because it was very shoddily done. Observers had noted that FDD and the State Department were using the same copy, the same website, the same font. It was clearly run by the same people. So we actually don’t know the scope of GEC’s activities, to say nothing of intelligence agencies’ online social media manipulation. What’s interesting to note is that last spring, again, you were warned, we talked about this, um, that it was, it was trendy for liberal and centrist outlets to basically beg, they were scolding and pressuring Trump to spend the money to fight Russian propaganda. So here’s an NPR headline from March of 2018 “Why The State Department Hasn’t Spent Any Of The $120 Million To Fight Russian Meddling.” New York Times from the same month and the same year “State Dept. Was Granted $120 Million to Fight Russian Meddling. It Has Spent $0.” Daily Beast, “Tillerson Spent $0 of $120 Million to Counter Election Meddling.” And then CBS News, “Hard Numbers: State Department Spent $0 of $120 million Allocated to Fight Russian Meddling. Zero of the 23 analysts working in the department’s Global Engagement Center speak Russian. Zero computer analysts will be hired anytime soon.” So everyone from The Daily Beast, New York Times, NPR was scolding Trump for not spending this money, this domestic propaganda money, which is quite literally what it’s set up to do, to use unattributed anonymous online social media manipulation supposedly to fight Russians. But shocker, not what it was really used for. Maybe it was and we don’t know. It’s used to propagandize Americans to promote war against Iran, which is probably why in the wake of, in the wake of Trump’s win in 2016 and the subsequent fake news panic why we and others warned that may be authorizing, deputizing the government to counter propaganda wasn’t necessarily the best idea because we knew something like this would happen. It did. But again, the only reason we know about it is because they’re so shitty at it. And so this was like a really sort of sloppy job that appears to be run out of FDD’s office. I don’t even, cause if you recall back in November of 2017 when there was a story about when FDD got their hands on declassified bin Laden files it showed a connection between al Qaeda and Iran. Those files were by the State Department were quote unquote “leaked” to FDD who curated the files, I mean, and broke them to the media. So FDD is running the Trump department’s Iran policy.

Nima: So one really good rundown of what we’re seeing with this Iran DisInfo campaign was written up by journalist Eli Clifton, who’s been diligently following the money when it comes to regime change Iran groups. He’s been doing this for years through LobeLog and The Nation and elsewhere. Clifton wrote this regarding the Iran DisInfo news which broke on Friday May 31st quote:

“The State Department suspended its funding for a mysterious website and Twitter account, IranDisInfo.org and @IranDisInfo, after the project attacked human rights workers, journalists and academics, many of whom are based inside the U.S. But the role of the U.S. government in financing IranDisInfo’s criticisms of Human Rights Watch and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a group that has been outspoken in warning about the Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive military posture towards Iran, appears to have been in collaboration with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).

“FDD would be a natural choice of partners for the Trump State Department. In 2017, FDD received $3.63 million from billionaire Bernard Marcus, which constituted over a quarter of FDD’s contributions that year. Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot, is outspoken about his hatred of Iran, which he characterized as ‘the devil’ in a 2015 Fox Business interview. Marcus is Trump’s second biggest campaign supporter, contributing $7 million to pro-Trump super PACs before the 2016 election.

“Marcus, who sits on FDD’s board, is also a supporter of Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton. He contributed $530,000 to Bolton’s super PAC over its lifetime.”

Adam: So now that we’ve gotten a breakdown of how objective and neutral the Foundation for Defense of Democracies is, how deeply concerned they are about Middle Eastern affairs.

Nima: We just wanted to discuss some of these most frequent Iran expertitions, who are constantly in the press, who get quoted all the time. They include David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, Ollie Heinonen who is at the Harvard Belfer Center, Mark Dubowitz who is at FDD, Reuel Marc Gerecht who is also at FDD and writes all the time for like The Weekly Standard and other shitty rags like that and Ray Takeyh who’s a fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations. And these five people are constantly writing articles together. They’re supporting each other’s articles, are quoting each other’s articles in their own articles and they create this network of quote unquote “experts,” which are frequently referred to yet very infrequently described as the very neoconservative commentators that they are.

Adam: Let’s give an example. In January of 2018, there was a wave of protest all throughout Iran and there was a push by groups like FDD to really try to use this as catalyst for some type of regime change or weakening of the quote unquote “regime.” And it was, it was pretty shocking to see that in a three day period, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies really helped shape the narrative. They had Op-Eds written or co-written in five major outlets: Mark Dubowitz and Ray Takeyh in The Wall Street Journal January 1st, 2018; Mark Dubowitz and Daniel Shapiro in Politico January 1st, 2018; Clifford May in The Washington Times on January 2nd, 2018; Reuel Marc Gerecht in The New York Times on January 2nd, 2018 and Richard Goldberg and Jamie Fly in The New York Post January 2nd, 2018. And they were used as sources in several articles as well. They were quoted in The Washington Post on December 30th, The Wall Street Journal on January 1st, they were quoted in Politico on January 2nd, New York Times January 2nd. So they were far and away the most quoted organization and almost none of these, I think they would sometimes say, you know, right leaning think tank, but in almost none of these, they don’t mention that these people don’t give two shits about Iran. They’re not experts in Iran, they’re pro-Israel and they just want regime change because Iran is threatening Israel, which is like whatever. If that’s your thing, that’s fine. But why are we acting as if these people have any objective or neutral expertise on Iran?

Nima: Right. So for instance, Reuel Marc Gerecht, who is mentioned in that litany of, of articles, uh, has been published well before and a lot since, he is a, you know, one of the fellows at FDD that is consistently expressing deep concern for the Iranian people in mainstream outlets as well as, uh, you know, far-right magazines. But he’s also long joked about wanting to bomb the very same Iranians that the media somehow pretends that he wants to save from their own government. So for instance, back in 2010 during a panel discussion in Washington, DC ,Gerecht announced to the crowd quote, “I’ve written about 25,000 words about bombing Iran. Even my mother thinks I’ve gone too far.” And obviously the crowd like laughed at that, but that’s really fucked up. And also true. And that was almost a decade ago and it has continued unabated. Gerecht often writes with Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Ray Takeyh, who pens such brilliant screeds as “John Bolton Is Threatening Iran. Good.” That’s from Politico in February of 2019. And part of what Takeyh writes, I mean everything that he writes, it’s pretty vapid, he’s on the leading edge of really, really wanting to fight against the notion that the CIA and MI-6 had anything to do with the overthrow of Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953. He really wants to push back on that and has basically published the same article five or six times about how that’s a canard and that really was ‘it was the mullahs’ further showing how regime change must come to Iran because you can’t trust ‘the mullahs.’ But he ended the, uh, February 2019 piece about John Bolton, singing John Bolton’s praises this way, quote:

“The American strategist who seems to have internalized the right lessons in dealing with Iran is John Bolton. He appreciates Iran’s history of creating chaos in the Middle East and the fallacy of an arms control agreement that was paving its way toward the bomb. More important, he seems to appreciate that threats work better than soothing words in tempering a theocratic regime destined for the ash heap of history.”

Now this you can see is using a lot of common rhetoric. For instance, uh, months later in May of 2019 Mark Dubowitz, who is very friendly with rayRay Takeyh and the other regime change enthusiasts in Washington, Dubowitz tweeted this out in May: “When the Islamic Republic of Iran ends up on the ash heap of history like other dictatorships, history will record who defended the regime & who opposed it.”

Adam: That’s tough guy talk. And so the gimmick that he did and he does and he did for years, is it was sort of vulgar in liberal circles to oppose the so-called Iran Deal, which was basically about sanctioning Iran for not entering into an extra NPT agreement. But we’ll sort of set that aside. And so what he would do is he would say, and others did this as well, but he was the best at this that ‘I support a better deal. Fix it, don’t nix it.’ Which is bullshit. They absolutely opposed it, which we’ll explain why that is, but this is similar to the people say, ‘oh, I don’t want to cut social security, I just want to reform it.’ Um, which is 99.99% of the time means they want to cut it, but they know that that’s politically disadvantageous. So like social security concerns, Dubowitz, constantly acted like he and still does, like he wants to save the Iran Deal by making it tougher, whatever that means.

Nima: The New York Times in May 2018 wrote up a profile of Mark Dubowitz headlined, “He Was a Tireless Critic of the Iran Deal. Now He Insists He Wanted to Save It.” Basically throughout this article it presents Dubowitz — very disingenuously I might add, but it does this seriously in the course of the article — as someone who really knows what he’s talking about, really cares passionately about this issue and allows him to spout the horse shit that he is pushing about that really this was all about getting a stronger, better deal as opposed to a what clearly FDD and other like-minded organizations were doing, which was absolutely demonizing the Obama administration for even pursuing any kind of diplomacy with Iran, working hand in glove with Israel and other pro-Israel think tanks to destroy any kind of diplomacy and block the deal. He’s now turned around and wants to rebrand himself as like a very reasonable critic, but someone who just wants a better deal, doesn’t want to bomb Iran, which is obviously the whole point of everything that he does. But in this New York Times piece he is presented as someone who is quote “widely seen as understanding the multifarious mechanics of sanctions, a rare feat.” He is known to be able to quote “cite its provisions by heart” end quote and, you know, doing this thing where you describe someone as “trained as a lawyer and having worked in venture capital, Mr. Dubowitz wears tailored French suits and keeps his curly hair just so. In 2016, he received $560,221 in compensation as the foundation’s chief executive.” End quote. This article, I think, kind of tongue in cheek is presenting Dubowitz as a foil for maybe propagandists who are changing their tune now that they have Trump’s ear and they want to sound even more rational rather than just belligerent against, uh, against Obama. There’s this section in the article where it says this quote:

“Mr. Dubowitz’s main concerns about the deal were its lack of any limits on the regime’s ballistic missile program and its ‘sunset provisions’ that would allow Iran to increase its capacity to enrich uranium beginning seven years from now. Mr. Dubowitz said the deal gave Iran tens of billions in economic relief that it had used to fund terrorism and foreign adventurism.”

None of that is disputed in the article. He just gets to present that as his expert opinion regardless of the fact that the main concerns about the Iran Deal is that there was going to be an Iran Deal. It wasn’t the minutia, like he certainly knows what the provisions are, but that’s not the sticking point. Iran having a domestically run nuclear fuel cycle for a civilian nuclear energy program is the problem. It means they are not being controlled by the entities that Dubowitz and others want them to be controlled by and that they have self determination and self sufficiency. And so that’s the ultimate problem. So to present Dubowitz as being an expert with reasonable grievances does all the legwork for him and for organizations like FDD as being genuine in their concerns.

Adam: The trick is to look neutral and sort of bipartisan. You can take someone like Dubowitz who obviously supports more or less every single down the line thing that the Netanyahu government supports and the radical militarists in the United States, takes money from these 875 year old billionaire Republicans like Sheldon Adelson and Barnard Marcus. But he’s presented as someone who is sort of above politics, above the fray. And so he sort of concern trolls. He knows how to use this kind of liberal language so he can insert himself into the liberal conversation. But of course FDD wants to bomb Iran. Of course they’re anti any kind of peace with Iran. This is, this is obvious to anyone who pays attention, but we still have to run through the motions because the second he is seen as a partisan hack, he doesn’t get quoted in all these articles we mentioned, his organization isn’t taken seriously. So they have to constantly play this double game where their funding sources and their ultimate end game is regime change but they speak in this wonk-ese because as long as you sort of qualify statements and speak in passive terms, people will say, ‘oh, oh, he’s objective’ and this is the scam they run. And this is why so much mainstream coverage on Iran is so much dog shit.

Nima: Yeah. So then you have someone like David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, also known as ISIS, but uh-

Adam: Well yeah, poor, poor branding on their part in retrospect.

Mark Dubowitz and David Albright appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 4, 2014.

Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah. So David Albright runs an organization that routinely leaks the IAEA reports on Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA is the International Atomic Energy Agency. It is affiliated with the UN, it is actually its own entity, but it’s the organization that, uh, makes sure that nuclear programs around the world are in compliance with safeguards agreements that are in place under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, uh, which has been around since 1968. So that organization, you know, produces periodic reports on countries all around the world. There’s been obviously a very significant focus on Iran for years. And when it produces these reports for the board of governors of the IAEA, those are classified for a period of time. The reason why news reporters get them immediately when they’re put out on Iran is because David Albright and his organization leaks them immediately. And there’s no repercussions for that. It’s not a big deal because the information in there is actually totally reasonable. And actually explains clearly how Iran’s nuclear program is a civilian in nature and how literally never has any amount of nuclear material been directed towards a weapons program. So it’s actually beneficial in that way, although it’s rarely presented that way in the press. But David Albright has been referred to as a nuclear expert for years and years now and is the go-to person when there’s a new report out, frequently winds up fearmongering about Iran’s nuclear capabilities saying that ‘breakout time is being reduced,’ ‘that they have accumulated X amount of low enriched uranium, which could at some hypothetical later time be turned into bomb ready material.’ At one point back in 2012 his organization put out a report that said this quote, “Iran has already capable of making weapons grade uranium and a crude nuclear explosive device. Nonetheless, Iran is unlikely to break out in 2012 in large part because it will remain deterred from doing so and limited in its options for quickly making enough weapon grade uranium.” So things like that he publishes all the time. These kind of, it’s not like nothing’s going to happen, but you should also really always be scared. One report back in 2013, a lot of these people kind of lost some currency once the Iran Deal was in place because they had fought so hard against it, but back in 2013 Albright and his group collaborated with a bunch of — who else? “experts” — to produce a report that claimed this “Based on the current trajectory of Iran’s nuclear program, we estimate that Iran could reach critical capability in mid-2014.” It is now 2019 and Iran, uh, still does not have a nuclear weapons program.

Adam: So they have this, they have all these buzzwords like “breakout time” or “heavy water,” “highly enriched uranium” that sort of sound like official terms if you throw them around enough. It creates what they’re trying to create, which is sort of this constant ticking time bomb anxiety, this kind of like 24 if we don’t do this in the next five seconds LA is going to get blown up. That gives them credibility ao long as they put it in this kind of sober, quasi academic language.

Nima: To talk more about this, we will now be joined by journalist and editor Arash Karami a contributor for Al-Monitor. Arash is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.

[Music]

Nima: We are joined now by our Arash Karami. Thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Arash Karami: Happy to be here.

Adam: The subject of Iran in the media in general is sort of a textbook definition of loaded, which is to say the question is not how can we respect and live peacefully with Iran, it’s what’s the best way the US can humiliate and control Iran without necessarily dropping bombs? Even Elizabeth Warren assumed this posture recently when she tweeted out a condemnation of Trump’s Yemen policy, but then qualified it by saying quote, “It’s revolting to suggest that we need to help the Saudis kill civilians in order to stand up to Iran.” The assumption of course being we have to “stand up to Iran,” whatever the fuck that means. On a day to day basis, when people talk about Iran in the media, how much unpacking is required to sort of challenge the core assumptions about what the US’ relationship with Iran is as existentially adversarial?

Arash Karami

Arash Karami: There’s a lot to discuss. What I really think we need is some kind of primer for journalists on how to discuss Iran. I think that would really be helpful for everybody. From a very basic level, there’s questions about the tyranny of Iran as if Iran is close to our borders, close to the US. Iran is at best a regional power. They’re not a threat to the US, but the way they’re discussed, it’s like they got missiles and they’re about to launch any day now. So that to me is just one aspect of it. There’s that, that constant fear. But I think so much of it is there’s these assumptions, and I always ask myself, is it intentional or is it a question of ignorance? Or is it, as a journalist, a question of deadlines, and they give you the story so you have to ride it? So how often now, just in the last week here, have we seen references to Iran’s nuclear weapons program? The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, these are like major news outlets. These are well funded news outlets. They’re not some little website. They’re not like, ‘oh, guy has an agenda or something.’ So what happens is that becomes an assumption, you know, that people just automatically assume. And that to me is far worse than what Fox News does. What The New York Times does constantly referring to, not constantly, but there’s a number of journalists that refer to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. That to me is far more detrimental than what Fox News does. Because what it does is everyone now just assumes Iran has a nuclear weapons program. And that really does play out into how the general public views Iran, how they are terrified of Iran, how they’re terrified of the nuclear weapons program, which does not exist. And even if you’re completely, we believe everything the US says, even the CIA, everyone says, okay, 2003 is the time that they really stopped their program according to the CIA. So you’re even more gung-ho then the CIA. And you know more than the CIA on this. So I just think it’s constant and it’s incessant and I really don’t see like a good solution for it.

Adam: So these expert echo chambers, you’re FDDs, CSIS’, Council on Foreign Relations, obviously they have a kind of pseudo academic veneer. They’re funded by western governments, monarchies in the Gulf, and oftentimes pro-Israel groups. And part of their shtick is to present themselves as kind of neutral academics, right? That’s what gives them credibility. Otherwise they wouldn’t be presented. And occasionally you’ll get a qualifier like “lobbies for a tough stance on Iran” or “right leaning.” But this notion of expertise and it seems like, you know, 90 percent of Iran experts come from these western government or pro-Israel, pro-Saudi funded groups, how frustrating is it for someone who sort of comments on and observes the Iran discourse that so much of the conversation is flooded by these conflicted interests?

Arash Karami: The question of being an expert it’s so vague, you know, and I never call myself an Iran expert, I don’t even call myself really an analyst. I just call myself a writer. What gets me is the fact that someone’s been obviously elevated to a certain position and we can talk about, you know, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. I mean, every article on Iran, there’s someone from that organization quoted. Language isn’t the number one criteria, I don’t think, but it helps to know the language of the country you’re speaking about. You know, the leader of that group, he doesn’t speak Persian.

Nima: You don’t think Clifford May is a fluent Persian speaker?

Arash Karami: I bet you he doesn’t even know how to order chelo kabab at Moby Dick. You know what I mean? I think these guys would struggle with the most basic things about Iran. Almost certain they’re not spending their time reading the great books written about Iran. They might read something written by someone in the last couple of years that talks about Iran’s nuclear program or something to that effect, but they’re not out there really pouring over books and being able to reference some of the really great writers in English even, you know, and especially in English. We’ve, in the last 30, 40 years, we’ve had some great literature. We’ve got some great scholars and I get it. A lot of scholars, you know, there’s a lot of them, but they don’t want to do media. But yeah, they should read their books. Being able to reference them. And also someone that could talk about, to me, I think that’s important, someone that can talk about Iran, not talk about the nuclear program, not talk about terrorism, not talk about Shia is on the way. Some people like they make themselves Shia experts. It’s being able to talk about Iran. Do they know? Even on Twitter, can you offer me anything else about Iran? Do you know where doogh is? Really? Like if you can tell me what doogh is, okay, I’ll listen to the staff for a little bit longer.

Nima: I’ll tell you that that is my least favorite beverage of all time.

Arash Karami: Well, you’re Americanized, bro. What can I say?

Nima: (Laughing.)

Arash Karami: You’ve been here too long, you know what I mean? So, to me, those are some of the criteria.

Nima: That means I can never be an Iran expert cause I don’t like doogh.

Arash Karami: That’s a tough, I mean you don’t have to like it, but you really have to know what it is and how it’s made. And so just being able to know the people, know the culture. ‘Cause it’s not just a country that’s building a nuclear program underneath the mountains. It’s a people, they have a history and their history isn’t just 40 years. You know? That’s another thing I try to really tell people that if you want to know about Iran really you got to go back at least a hundred years, if not a 150 years. You know, you have to understand like Iranians have a very strong aversion to foreign influence. Not that anyone loves foreign influence, but they felt a real sense of humiliation, which is what a lot of American journalists now feel about what Russia did in 2016. You can see the anger and the venom that a lot of American journalists have towards Russia. Its because Russia kind of meddled. Now imagine Russia had come in here and picked Trump and took Texas from the US. How pissed off they would be. You know what I mean? So, but Iranians, when you talk to them, they lost territory within the last like 150 years. There’s a sense of humiliation with that. So if people don’t understand that, you know, Iran had a constitutional revolution a hundred years ago, that again, foreign powers really interfered and changed the course of that. So if you don’t understand those things, and if you’re just referencing books in the last 30, 40 years and you think everything was golden 40 years ago, 45 years ago, you’re like, ‘oh, things were great.’

Nima: You mean like because they had discotheques under the Shah which is the same thing as being completely free.

Arash Karami: Exactly. Right. And like, to me, I’m not even anti-Shah dude. I can be like, hey, he did some things that I can see were in the general interest of society, you know, giving the women the right to vote. But if you don’t even know that, if you don’t even understand that and you keep talking about, here’s a red sign to me, if you say “mullah” that’s like I’m done. I can’t even, I attuned you out.

Adam: That’s well that’s how you know you’re hip and sophisticated. You don’t talk about the government. You talk about the mullahs.

Arash Karami: Exactly. Right. And that’s the thing. That’s all they learned. You know what I mean? They’re like, ‘oh no, well my Iranian sources say that everyone says mullah.’ It’s like, oh dude. Fuck off.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: Well what I always ask them is, can you name me one mullah? And they don’t know any.

Arash Karami: They’ll say something like ‘the guy with the beard, you know, the guy with the beard.’

Arash Karami: : Ali, right?

Arash Karami: So there’s that.

Nima: So much of what we see, and you mentioned it earlier, which is that in pretty much every article there are go to quote unquote “experts” or “analysts” or “fellows,” whether it’s, you know, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, CSIS, David Albright at Institute of whatever, ISIS, whatever the fuck it is, Institute for Science and International Security, Council on Foreign Relations, Carnegie, Belfer Center at Harvard. They sound very prestigious and their titles are very prestigious and they’re always endowed by rich people and given, you know, so and so chair, the Sheldon Adelson chair of, you know, bombing innovation at ISIS. And so like that sounds sophisticated. That sounds like someone knows what they’re talking about, especially when this position-

Adam: To be clear. Sorry ISIS the think tank not the terrorist organization.

Nima: Oh sorry (laughs) the other ISIS. The other terrorist organization.

Arash Karami: What do they call themselves? The less bad ISIS? The good ISIS?

Nima: Yeah, they changed their Twitter handle to @TheGoodISIS. Um-

Adam: You think you would just change your name at that point. I think you’ve pretty much, I think you’ve pretty much lost the SEO battle. It’s time to hang that one up, throw in the towel.

Nima: (Laughing.) But but it doesn’t matter. The thing is David Albright who’s been pushing bullshit about Iran’s nuclear program for over a decade now is quoted routinely as nuclear expert. Mark Dubowitz from FDD is consistently quoted as a sanctions expert. He’s now closely advising the Trump administration. He’s basically writing policies. These things are really rarely discussed. Even when there are profiles on these people, it always is like, ‘oh well they are influential but, you know, hey whatever.’ I guess that’s why David Sanger at The New York Times has these people on speed dial and that they’re in every single fucking article but never are the conflicts of interest or the histories of these people, the fact of what they have been pushing and how right or wrong and often wrong, they have been over the years never seems to affect how often they are still consistently printed in the press. Do you see that ever changing? I’m going negative here, but like do you see that maybe the aversion to Trump in general is going to do one of those things where then people who are pro those policies are also going to be tainted with that or, you know, by the next time are the same people just going to be saying the same shit?

Arash Karami: No. You know, I think that the only difference this time around is that we have Twitter so we can call out bullshit a lot quicker. I don’t see any kind of difference. I mean, it’s too well funded. There’s too many billionaires and multi-millionaires that are really pushing these people. And I get at the, some journalists, they have a deadline, they Google articles, ‘like, oh, this is an expert I’m just going to recycle him.’ I get that. That’s like a lot of it unfortunately, especially people who don’t consistently write about Iran, that’s how they get their experts. But people who do write more often, someone like David Sanger, I really expect him to dig deeper, to get multiple versions. And I read an article in Politico a little while ago about Pompeo and Bolton kind of getting into a fight about how Iran unfolded and it didn’t reference Iraq once in that article. So you think like Bolton’s signature policy, you know the Iraq War, you can just kind of throw it as even as a clause or something. You don’t have to make it the whole article, but just throw it in there. You know, don’t be shy about it. The way they described him as a bureaucratic infighter. This is like, am I high? I read the article twice and did this really happen? And I tweeted about it and I thought, no, this isn’t going to change because there’s some people who have, I mean it’s really cynical to say, but it’s the right career move. It’s the right career move to play ball. Okay, this is where we’re going. This is where we’re headed. And, you know, we forget too, and I used to live in DC, so journalism is a fickle industry. Who knows how much longer these people are going to have jobs and what do journalists do when they’re done? They can kind of write one book and try to parlay that book into a career as, you know, a think tanker. Someone that gets a job there. So if you’re pissing off the great powers, the way I’m doing, or the way you’re doing, or the way all you guys are doing, there’s not a lot of think tanks, there’s not a lot of like billionaires out there ‘okay I want you guys to sit there and you know, talk about this.’ Because unfortunately we’re doing it for free. You know what I mean?

Nima: (Laughs.)

Adam: Yeah. I think this is, this really plays to Noam Chomsky’s point about concision being inherently conservative. I think Iran, other than perhaps Israel, is the sort of most pristine example of this because if I was to sit here and say, Iran is the world’s greatest state sponsor of terrorism on ABC This Week with George Stephanopoulos, they’d, they’d say, yeah, totally and we’d all move on. But if I said, you know, actually there’s no evidence that Iran has a nuclear program, they would say ‘what?’ And I’d have to spend ten minutes deconstructing conventional wisdom, right?

Nima: And then you’d be like a lunatic.

Adam: Right. And it’s like these well worn axioms and well worn cliches are just drilled into people over time. And I’ve long said that I really think the goal is to just put the words “nuclear” and “Iran” in the same sentence as often as possible for as long as possible. And if you do that, the aggregate effect is well, of course people are going to keep making the same quote unquote “mistake,” right?

Arash Karami: Right.

Adam: People aren’t going to distinguish between civilian and military nuclear energy. I mean that’s just not gonna happen. So you know, you say it enough times and you repeat it enough times and the net effect is just this assumption that you can never really challenge. So I really think that it’s like what you talked about earlier, it’s like it’s almost sort of too big to take on. And I think to the extent we can, I think people who are trying to even preserve the quote unquote “Iran Deal,” which itself is just an extortion racket, but even granting that, they try to pick up yards where they can get them. And I think that creates, that creates an overwhelming rhetorical task that, I don’t know. I I, this is why like you said, you feel like you’re going crazy on Twitter all day.

Arash Karami: Right. And you know, like we discuss, no one pays me, you know, and I get called all sorts of names on Twitter, so you know, you get called regime apologists or people accuse me of taking the mullah’s money and I’m like, dude, do you know how I live bro?

Nima: (Laughing.)

Arash Karami: I have a regular job. I tweet like on the side, you know what I mean? I, I, I don’t even write as my full time job. You know, I got two little kids when I’m around them, I put my phone away, you know what I’m saying? Like I’m not taking money from anybody dude.

Adam: So this is, this is the thing that I think is interesting, which is liberal reformers, either in Iran or Iranian Americans who, who sort of don’t particularly care for or like the government are in this weird spot where obviously you don’t, I don’t, I think there’s basically no organic constituency for actual regime change. I think that that’s very limited to mostly MEK weirdos and monarchists. And we can talk about, we can do a whole episode on the monarchists, totally fascinated by them. But at the same time it’s like any kind of gesture towards rationality you’re immediately called a kind of an apologist or a pro-regime or whatever kind of slur.

Nima: Yeah not wanting maybe your family to have bombs dropped on their head?

Adam: I don’t want Russia to nuke Washington, DC. That makes me a Trump apologist.

Arash Karami: Yeah, exactly. Right.

Nima: Recently we actually saw a real crossover of this trolling social media accounts when it comes to Iran and State Department funded social media accounts that actually have to do with, and are, I believe, run by, for instance, uh, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. So can you tell us a little bit about what we’ve been finding out about the @IranDisInfo account?

Arash Karami: So this was really one of the stranger things that happened, that again you can’t predict what you;re really getting into. It’s me and a number of other journalists maybe within the span of a few days. And like me, we notice like oh these guys were getting all this kind of just random tweets and so one thing I noticed is that someone had tweeted a picture of twenty people and they’re saying, ‘oh these guys are regime apologists or they’re trying to associate us with different groups.’ And I mean I looked at the pictures, I’m trying to, you know, cause I’m curious, I’m looking there and then I’m like, oh wow, everyone’s there and I saw my picture. Cause once in awhile you do feel like, wow, all my friends are there, I wonder why I’m not invited on that.

Nima: Actually that’s literally what I was thinking. I was like what the fuck? I’m not good enough to be on there?

Arash Karami: Like what do I have to do to get on this hit list? You know what I mean? So I saw my picture on it. I’m like, huh, this is kind of weird. And then I remembered another tweet by Mark Dubowitz and uh, I don’t remember the exact wording of the tweet, but he did tweet that essentially the people who defended this regime will be remembered. And I’m like, huh, that’s kind of strange.

Adam: Vaguely menacing.

Arash Karami: Yeah. How the fuck does he know? And then now all the other groups are saying, remember these people, remember these names. So I’m like, oh, this is odd. And then I took the screenshot side by side and I tweeted about that. And then it just kickstarted this huge thing of abuse. I spent my entire day just blocking people. So, you know, I’m getting death threats saying ‘you’re not going to be safe anywhere, not in the US.’ So one thing is some people try to do the loophole things like, ‘no, no, no, we’re gonna try you in Iran and hang you in Iran once we take over.’ You’re like, oh okay, well at least they’re going to give you the courtesy of a court deal. But these guys were threatening me in the US.

Adam: Did they weaponize like MEK weirdos or you think it was just some troll farm?

Arash Karami: Thing is, it’s hard to tell. A lot of the accounts have monarchists kind of pictures, but who knows? And anyone could decide. MEK could co-op that and use monarchists to get us. So who knows. Really.

Adam: Yeah, I feel like they do do that. Yeah.

Arash Karami: So, there’s definitely like, I don’t, I can’t take that at face value, but I know it was coordinated and I was talking to other people and I’m like, dude, all these other journalists who worked for the BBC and other places. Yeah. One thing that all these journalists have in common is I’m anti-war and I’m anti these crippling sanctions. You know, anyone asked me flat out, if that makes me unobjective journalist, whatever the fuck that means, because there’s no such thing. If that makes me unobjective, fine, put that label on me, I’ll, you know, wear it proudly because to me that’s kind of really, really suspicious because you know, you get abuse but you don’t get it so much. So what happened is a couple of other people started tweeting about it and they noticed that @IranDisInfo was retweeting certain people, certain Iranian Americans who are a little bit more on the, not a little bit more, they’re neocons and they started targeting these people. The BBC journalists like Bahman Kalbasi and Siavash Ardalan, mind you, these are people, BBC journalists who get routinely harassed by the Iranian government. They’re taking it from both ends. You know what I mean? So then a couple of people, I don’t know, Politico reporter, I think it was [Nahal] Toosi from Politico and a couple of other people started contacting the State Department. They’re like, ‘Hey, this Twitter handle is retweeting these people, that are harassing American citizens, are US residents. Is this what this whole thing is?’ And it was, uh, the organization was the, is it the Global Initiative or Global Engagement Initiative?

Adam: It’s the Global Engagement Center.

Arash Karami: Center. So they took funding and really what they were supposed to do is counter that this information campaign from Islamic Republic, the “IranDisInfo.” So what they ended up doing though, as they’re taking out and they’re targeting really, they’re spending all their time harassing journalists who are anti-war and anti, I don’t even know if they’re anti-sanctions all of them, you know, but this idea of crippling sanctions, I’m strongly against, eventually State Department have to back out of it. It’s like, ‘okay, we’re going to cut their funding’ because that’s what they were doing. And I asked myself, why did they do this? Like why did they take this money from the State Department and spend their time attacking prominent voices with a certain large number of followers on Twitter? Why were they attacking them? And some of it was like straight bullshit attacking them for the most minute things. And to me I’m like, oh, it’s clear why they’re attacking them. They’re attacking in the hopes of exhausting them, drowning them out. So they become the sole voice of the Iranian diaspora. And then once they become that, they’re going to say, ‘look, we all want war, we all want sanctions.’ And then what happens when people’s perceptions in people’s minds, if that’s all they hear, they’re like, ‘Well, naturally the Iranians want war, naturally Iran wants sanctions.’

Adam: Yeah. Right. The Iranian diaspora based out of Washington, DC and Tel Aviv.

Nima: (Laughs.) Right.

Arash Karami: Right. You know, and to one of these people that was really behind IranDisInfo and pushing a lot of it, I mean there’s a video and she’s out there, she’s saying ‘the sanctions were put back on there’s the Iranians saying thank god’ or ‘they were really grateful for the sanctions.’ I mean she’s on video saying that-

Nima: It’s the whole being greeted as liberators shit. It’s literally just that stuff. It’s that playbook. Yeah journalist Eli Clifton actually pointed out on Twitter how Foundation for Defense of Democracies has an Iran Disinformation Project page and all their content on that page, you know, is basically the same stuff that FDD does all the time. Talking about Iran and uh, you know, very pro-Israeli, very anti-Iran. Obvious shit, but literally the State Department funded IranDisInfo Twitter account, all their content is coming straight from the neocon think tank site. So it’s like there’s a one-to-one parallel. So clearly there’s stuff going on here. So the people who have been advocating against the Iran Deal, advocating for bombing, advocating for the harshest sanctions for years, finally have such a foothold in the American administration through Pompeo, through Bolton, through whomever else, that literally they’re able to finally merge all this messaging. Like it doesn’t even, they almost don’t even need to launder it through the media anymore because it’s just going straight out through the State Department.

Arash Karami: Exactly. And you know, a lot of these people, what happened is once Trump got elected, you know, they smelled blood in the water, they were like, ‘okay, this is our time.’ And you know, this might be their last chance to get what they want, which is regime change in Iran by any means. And that to me is really scary. That to me is really terrifying because again, I don’t think these people are intentionally bad, especially the Iranian Americans. I don’t think they intentionally want to destroy a country. But it is really unfortunate that ever since 2016, they’ve become emboldened and they think that that’s fine you have a certain narrative. I’ll just say this too, there’s a lot of polls done on Iranian Americans. I mean I don’t think that what Iranian American’s want should be the sole reason why the US makes a foreign policy decision, but it should be, you know, taken into consideration when we’re saying we’re going to go liberate them, if we do say that. But a great deal of percentage of Iranian Americans, they favor engagement. They do support human rights, kind of pressure. They do support prioritizing human rights. I don’t know if its sanctions on human rights abuses or not, but they do support engagement with Iran. Most of them are not for a war but really it’s like five people, five Iranian Americans. Literally, but they’re well funded. They’re backed by billionaires you know what I mean?

Nima: Well and they’re also being tokenized because then all these groups that are basically just Israel lobby think tanks are like, ‘No, no, no, we have like real Iranians on our team.’

Arash Karami: Exactly.

Nima: You know, and so it’s, yeah, it’s total terrible tokenism.

Arash Karami: If FDD starts tweeting sholezard and chelo kabab, trying to like get this whole authentic Iranian thing, you know, when they, when they quote ‘all my Iranian friends tell me this,’ it’s like, dude, just say who they are. Name them, put them out there. You know, and I bet you don’t have more than like two, you know what I mean? And they work for you. They’re not even your friends, you know what I mean?

A Persian haft-sin, traditional Nowruz (New Year) table setting

Nima: I’m sure like FDD has a beautiful haft-sin.

Arash Karami: Exactly, right?

Nima: Just to show how much they love Iran.

Arash Karami: If they listen to this, they’re going to do it, watch. I’m going to suggest it next time.

Adam: That’s a perfect place to end.

Arash Karami: Alright.

Nima: Thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed. Arash Karami, writer, editor, contributor to Al-Monitor. Arash, it’s been great to talk to you today, man.

Arash Karami: Hey, it was great to talk to you guys. It was a good time.

[Music]

Adam: It was useful to talk to someone who was an actual target of the propaganda campaign we started off with, we’ve talked a lot in the show about the paranoia surrounding Russia and increasingly Iran and Venezuela laughably enough. Um, online propaganda, much like, you know, there’s no such thing as a defensive weapon system, there’s no such thing as counter propaganda. All counter propaganda is just propaganda. So invariably all this money that went into these programs was, of course it was going to be turned on critics in the United States. And again, who knows the extent to which that’s still going on with other campaigns. We can only speculate, but there’s definitely a precedent. And this is a dangerous one and I, and I think it’s very fitting that it began with the subject of Iran because the subject of warmongering with Iran is oftentimes what we get when people talk about pressuring Russia or taking on Russia, Russian propaganda and invariably it ends up just going after the lowest hanging fruit, which in this case is people who, who are trying to push back against Trump’s ratcheting up to war or further sanction or further possible bombing of Iran.

Nima: Yeah. And the thing about relying on so-called “experts” is that what the media is able to do is sort of shift the focus from something that is clearly ideological and clearly propagandistic and clearly has roots in once the Shah was toppled and there was the hostage crisis, the United States has never forgiven Iran for that. And the fact that the revolutionary government is still in control there is a huge problem for U.S. myth-making and being a power that no one will dare contend with. And so what you do is you remove that powerful narrative in favor of something that seems like it’s just statistical because the experts are saying, ‘Look, no, it’s not. It’s not about the regime. It’s not about uh, the quote unquote “greatest state sponsor of terror.” It’s really when you just crunch the numbers, you can see that they’re quickly getting toward having nuclear weapons capability.’ That is actually fundamentally untrue. But when you have the expert patina on that, it winds up being like, ‘well, you know, look, this is just a matter of math instead of a matter of politics.’ That kind of bait and switch, having the experts tell the story to then have people really be worried about something that there’s nothing to be worried about for specific purposes. You see this all the time and so be diligent about digging into who the so-called “experts” are. Look at where they work and who funds them and what they’ve said in the past. David Albright has been fear mongering about Iran for well over a decade. Gerecht and Heinonen and Dubowitz, certainly Ray Takeyh, they’ve all been at this for a very, very long time and you know, arguing that regime change is just around the corner for Iran as many of them do is all part and parcel to having that be the common narrative that people think is based on expertise.

Adam: Yeah, basically it circles back to the theme we have on the show all the time, which is to question that which seems benign or neutral and ask yourself if it’s really either of those things.

Nima: That will do it for this week’s episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. As always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research and newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. And the music is by Grandaddy. Thanks everyone for listening again. We’ll catch you next time.

[Music]


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, June 12, 2019.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.