Iran Could’ve Been Our Ally

As an Iranian-American writer, I just wanted to offer a few brief thoughts on the current simmering conflict, which is threatening to boil over…

Despite claims of a clash of cultures or civilizations, Iran and the United States actually have some common interests in the Middle East. And had history played out differently, the countries might even have become allies, while Iranians and Americans could have been colleagues especially in the arts and sciences. But to forge a new relationship, at least one of mutual respect, it will require coming to terms with America’s oppressive past in the region.

Azadi Tower, Tehran

Britain was once Iran’s biggest nemesis, but the US government took on that mantle in 1953. That was when the CIA played a major role in overthrowing Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s popular elected leader who had the gall to nationalize the oil company later known as BP, which had for decades been extracting Iranian oil to grease the wheels of the British Empire.

US officials re-installed the Shah, a brutally repressive autocrat who was so disliked that Iranians united to overthrow him. Students, activists, trade unionists, poets, and Islamists came together in that revolution, but the latter shunned the others and assumed power when the dust settled. US governments since then have failed to understand Iranians’ anger against them. The US supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, shot down a civilian airplane that killed 290 people, invaded Iran’s two biggest neighbors with more than 100,000 troops, supported Iran’s two biggest rivals with powerful weaponry, installed dozens of military bases that surround the country, insisted Iran’s part of some Axis of Evil, and repeatedly hit Iranians with sanctions, to which they have no recourse. No wonder Iranians feel threatened.

Iran remains a divided country: many Iranians support their government in response to the Trump administration’s crippling economic sanctions and assassination of General Soleimani while others oppose their government’s mishandling of the economy and limitations on their political freedoms. (Some Iranians are in both camps.)

“That’s history” is a dismissive phrase in America, but to Iranians, a proud people whose trials and achievements go back millennia, history matters indeed.

I’ve visited many places throughout Iran to give talks and to see family. Iranians have their own critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning films, but they love American movies, too. They quote their own poets and writers, but they also read American literature. They have plenty of physicists, astronomers and doctors — algebra, optics and pediatrics all arguably began in Persia — and these accomplished scientists would jump at the opportunity to collaborate with their American counterparts.

Relations between the two nations seem to be at their nadir, but both Americans and Iranians don’t want war. If the Trump administration and leading Democrats realize that the days of US empire in the Middle East are over, they can step back from the brink of war, withdraw troops and military bases, and stake out a path toward peace, which would greatly benefit the people of both countries.

We should beware the White House’s counter propaganda arm

An anti-Russian propaganda project operating under the State Department and Broadcasting Board of Governors threatens to do more harm than good, while raising the stakes of battles over truth and facts in the media.

Current Time America news anchor Ihar Tsikhanenko, right, prepares for a broadcast in the offices of Voice of America in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

With fears growing of “fake news” and Russian influence on the November election, former President Obama upgraded the Global Engagement Center two days before Christmas last year, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. Its stated goal is to counter “foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.” But the line between propaganda and counter-propaganda is rather thin, and now President Trump and Secretary Rex Tillerson have the reigns.

Led by veterans of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, the center plans to try to correct false claims from outlets like Russia Today, though it also has China, Iran, and the Islamic State in its sights. It’s targeting its messaging at foreign audiences abroad, but as popular news is global these days, some of its programming will easily reach American media consumers, too.

The Global Engagement Center’s activities include television and radio programs, online news, and a social media presence. It’s one thing though to use such tools and broadcasts to debunk false reports and unverified claims, whether about airstrikes or elections, but the organization is more ambitious than that. Its purpose includes “proactively advancing fact-based narratives that support US allies and interests,” according to a presentation obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

If they’re advocating for American foreign policy interests, that’s going farther than just presenting facts. This isn’t just splitting hairs; for an administration that not only believes in “alternative facts” and “truthful hyperbole” but also at times appears to be at war with the media, the risks of sliding into propaganda are very real. A broadcast that discourages a potentially violent recruit of the Islamic State is one thing, but if it promotes US foreign policy, that’s a different matter, and it could backfire.

Furthermore, Trump may tap Michael Pack, an ally of Steve Bannon, to head the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is already no longer controlled by a bipartisan board. The Global Engagement Center and Voice of America could lose any semblance of independence as they continue to reach more than 100 countries in 61 languages — but potentially with broadcasts more favorable to Trump’s White House.

In the age of “fake news,” this scrutiny of anti-propaganda efforts also exposes the limits of fact-checking. When checking a fact, journalists have to consider what sources to choose and whose authority to trust. A news program that seems impartial or objective to one person may simply assume a status quo long criticized by others. Journalists should be more conscious of such assumptions.

Finally, it remains unclear if American journalists could be targeted by the Global Engagement Center. It’s focused on foreign media and audiences, but well-intentioned or not, it’s not hard to imagine American reporters critical of Trump’s policies being caught in its net. For example, let’s not forget the much-criticized Washington Post news story last November about “Russian propaganda efforts spreading fake news during the election,” according to the headline. It was based on an anonymous website called PropOrNot, whose list included disinformation outlets as well as legitimate US-based news sources.

On the road ahead, let’s hope that the Global Engagement Center strives for transparency and consults independent journalists about controversial programming. In the meantime, I’m hoping that we reporters, as well as readers and watchers of the news, more carefully pay attention to what’s said and what’s not said — and to who’s doing the talking.