The Corner

Paul Kerr, Farideh Farhi, and Iranian Sincerity

On  April 13, I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal exploring Iranian diplomatic strategy and negotiating sincerity. The piece was well-received and, perhaps for that reason, a few people have taken potshots at it. A few journalists have asked me to respond, which I do here: 

First, a Congressional Research Service analyst named Paul Kerr who maintains a blog where he “vents about nonproliferation issues” wrote an entry in which he accused me of making “too many errors to bother with” but then failing to name a single one. Mr. Kerr seems upset with the argument that Tehran might not have engaged Europe insincerely. It is not uncommon for non-proliferation experts to ignore cultural and political attitudes of their adversaries and focus on the technical absent context. I’m currently reading Gallucci’s Going Critical about the North Korean nuclear crisis, and it reminds me of asides Galluci and his co-authors make deriding those who argued that North Koreans approached the matter differently.  Hindsight shows their concerns should not have so easily been dismissed.

At any rate, Kerr throws out “fun facts” which are neither here nor there nor relevant to my piece. I’m a bit incredulous that a proliferation specialist would argue that Iran was helpful or forthcoming when, during the period in question, it sought to keep enrichment work at Natanz secret. Only when the covert program’s cover was blown — and under tremendous pressure — did Iranian authorities enable inspections. On September 24, 2005, the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency found Iran to be in “non-compliance” with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And here is the EU-3 statement issued after Iran ended its suspension of enrichment.

Kerr also cites a random charge from Farideh Farhi, a sometimes-academic and activist with the National Iranian American Council, a group which says it is non-partisan and works for Iranian-American civil rights but is, in reality, hyperpartisan and spends about 90 percent of its energy advocating the justness of the Islamic Republic’s foreign-policy positions. Farideh Farhi suggests that I had taken quotations used in the Wall Street Journal piece out of context. Elsewhere online, I provide the links and translations — in this case, mostly conducted by my colleague Ali Alfoneh. These are available on the IranTracker (just use the search feature) and distributed to anyone who asks for them; indeed, the recipient list includes a number of officials inside Iran. When they or anyone else spots an error, corrections are posted on the next day’s email. But, in this case, there were no errors.

Farhi is dishonest in her assertions. She cherry picks and removes quotations from immediate context and the context of an Iranian policy debate in which both reformists and Principalists (the ‘hardliners’) seek credit for the advanced state of the nuclear program. She condemns me for quoting Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, Khatami’s former spokesman, from Fars News Agency, a hardline outlet. While Fars is usually sympathetic to the Principalist camp, there is no indication that Ramezanzadeh was misquoted.  Indeed, the normal practice at Fars News Agency is to get quotes write, but to work in snide editorial comments. I was twice quoted by them several years back; they got my quotes right, but prefaced everything with, “This Jew said” or “This neocon said” or “This Zionist said” or some combination of all of these. At any rate, when reformist officials feel they are misquoted, they issue corrections through more sympathetic media. When covering the Iranian debate, it is important to read both reformist and hardline press rather than simply the political angle with which one agrees, a cherrypicking in which Farhi indulges. Indeed, it is important to view the Islamic Republic as its power structure is, rather than how any academic or diplomat would like it to be.

Farhi also says I took former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani’s quotes out of context. This is false.  (Technically, before she throws out random charges, she should be sure she is reading from the same source; she utilized a different outlet, curious since we provided a link to the original). More substantively, she and Kerr ignore the Iranian political debate: Rowhani, like Ramezanzadeh, was arguing that the strategy he employed during his tenure was successful. While he is now criticized by Principalists for agreeing to enrichment suspension, Rowhani defends himself by saying suspension was necessary both because of the pressure (brought in part through the coercion of the George W. Bush administration, read: the Iraq invasion) and a stronger international consensus to hold the Islamic Republic to its commitments. I did not have space to bring up this aspect of Rowhani’s interview in the Wall Street Journal, but it is worth considering elsewhere, as it certainly suggests the pattern elaborated earlier by Charles Krauthammer was correct. Regardless, Rowhani argues, he didn’t betray the Iranian position because the Iranians simply used the enrichment-suspension period to install more equipment so that they could accelerate enrichment. I suggest that this is an admission of Iranian insincerity and stand by that.

Farhi is dishonest, but this should not surprise: There is a tendency among academics to feel they have to advocate for their country of study rather than simply let analysis go where the facts take it. This is a major reason for the decline of Middle East studies as a field.

Back to Paul Kerr, this should set the record straight. I am surprised that Congressional Research Service analysts not only blog, but also engage in hackery which appears motivated by either partisanship or a desire to advocate policy rather than analyze. From now on, I certainly would take with a grain of salt CRS reports on non-proliferation if they are authored by Kerr and would question why CRS hires bloggers. Granted, the blog is not on a CRS website (although Kerr’s interjections into other blogs suggests he spends much CRS time involved with blogs) but the many partisan links provide a window into the confluence of Kerr’s analysis and politics and should concern any staff member who expects the Congressional Research Service to uphold its reputation for straightforward analysis. CRS should not stand to legitimize analysis formed more by blogger groupthink than by careful reading and fact.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

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