Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

ABC seems to downplay human rights angle in coverage of Iran deal negotiations

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One of the little reported upon aspects of the current nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran is the reality that the Obama Administration has delinked any nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic from any discussion of Iran's appalling human rights record (see US State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014). While US officials say they will continue pushing human rights efforts separately, there is little evidence that there is any pressure or urgency in this regard, given the focus on trying to preserve the momentum of the nuclear talks.

Looking at the ABC's overall coverage, for instance, it mostly fails to question what the potential impact the deal might have on Iran's oppressive domestic and foreign policies - and indeed at times seems to naively assume that any deal will automatically improve them. The coverage favours voices that see the proposed deal as contributing to world peace and prosperity (see my blog post from March which noted how the ABC's coverage of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress was portrayed as being against any deal, rather than a better deal) and who do not want to focus on any downsides - such as the likelihood that it will, through increased funding, empower the Iranian regime to step up both its destabilising regional efforts and support for terrorism, and preserve itself domestically from any pressure for reform.

Yet Iran's human rights record has become relevant on the ABC in the context of the federal government's proposed intelligence sharing deal with Teheran that would see failed Iranian asylum seekers in this country being sent back (see here).

Two recent typical examples on ABC Radio exemplify this position.

This included ABC Radio National "Between the Lines" (June 25) which featured Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, backing the deal because "we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What is the real alternative to this agreement? If we insist on solving every component of the relationship between Iran and the Western powers...we will never have a deal." The report also included Anthony Bubalo, Research Director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, offering a good analysis of the potential issues with making a deal with Iran, but not offering an opinion on whether the deal was good or not.

(An earlier "Between the Lines" in April pushed the line of Trita Parsi, the head of the pro-Iranian lobby group, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), who claimed that George W. Bush Administration hardliners in 2003 spurned a "grand bargain" purportedly offered by Iran - a claim which has since been debunked . Another episode did feature pro-deal advocate Amin Saikal debating American Enterprise Institute analyst Danielle Pletka who argued against Iran's involvement in combatting IS).

The next day ABC Radio "World Today" (June 26) skirted the substance of the deal and only focused on the lifting of sanctions as the paramount issue, generally strongly implying this would be a wonderful benefit to the welfare and rights of the Iranian people.

So we had Tilman Ruff, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, whitewashing Iran's nuclear program:

In a sense, what Iran is doing is no different to what lots of other countries are doing, and that is claiming the right under the current international rules to enrich uranium to use in peaceful nuclear facilities.

Of course, the problem is that if you can enrich uranium for use in a nuclear reactor, then you have everything you need, the raw materials, the facilities and the expertise to be able to enrich it a little bit further to weapons grade.

There are many aspects of Iran's nuclear program that places it beyond the merely "peaceful". Iran enriches uranium to a level that has no civilian purpose - and with no current civilian reactors it can be used in (the Bushehr reactor is fuelled by Russia by agreement, not via Iran's enrichment efforts, and will be for the foreseeable future). Iran has also repeatedly and illegally hidden its nuclear efforts from International Atomic Energy Agency (lAEA) inspectors and continues to refuse to answer the IAEA's questions over sites flagged as associated with weaponising nuclear technology.

The story also included reporter Sarah Sedghi's naïve statement that "Iran's nuclear facilities will also be regularly inspected" and that "international sanctions...can be reinstated if Iran breaks the deal."

Meanwhile, Dr. Kumuda Simpson, a lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University, lauded the deal as a way to usher in Iran "from the cold" while claiming that the "the biggest sticking points or hurdles in this final comprehensive agreement are probably going to be the lifting of sanctions."

The story also included Jamal Abdi, another spokesman from the pro-Iranian Washington-lobby group NIAC, extolling the deal because the country is suffering from high food prices and lacking in much needed medicines and claiming that "I don't think anybody thinks they can come [out] of these talks without a deal and be stronger for it".

All in all, a story where everyone quoted agreed with each other that the proposed deal is a "win-win".

So it was a pleasant surprise to hear on ABC Radio "World Today" on July 1 a famed writer intruding upon the public broadcaster's preferred narrative and lamenting that human rights are not on the agenda at the nuclear talks.

The writer in question was Azar Nafisi, the best selling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran - a memoir of living under and resisting the Islamist revolution. Nafisi fled her country of birth in 1997 and now resides in the US.

Nafisi questioned the suggestion that a new moderation has taken root in Iran, warning that "since Mr Rohani has become president, human rights in Iran not only has not changed but in some ways it is even worse."

And when host Kim Landers asked whether the nuclear talks contain the potential for a rapprochement between the West and Iran, Nafisi spoke in terms often smeared as a supposedly "neo-con" perspective:

Diplomacy and negotiations are the first step towards any form of relationship, so I am not against the relationship, against the negotiations at all, but I do believe that America and Europe and the West as a whole in negotiating with Iran should not forget their own principles. And part of the negotiations should also be the rights of Iranian people. What I am afraid of is that these negotiations would be about lifting the sanctions, but without any guarantee that the results - both economically and in terms of human rights - would be to the Iranian people's advantage.

Nafisi's spotlighting of a serious issue which goes to the heart of the extent to which the West's concessions to Iran risk leaving Iran's regime unchanged but empowered by the lifting of sanctions echoes important points made in a Washington Post op-ed (June 28) by distinguished analyst Ray Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Like Nafisi, Takeyh noted the human rights situation in Iran has deteriorated not improved over recent years:

Two years into Rouhani's tenure, his government stands as one of the most repressive in the post-revolutionary period. Many civil society activists languish in prison, media censorship has continued unabated and the intelligence services remain abusive and unaccountable.

He too warned that if sanctions are lifted Iranians might only enjoy limited relief because the regime is seeking to capitalise on the economic dividend to solidify its imperial ambitions in the wider Middle East:

Proponents of the view that Iran will not become a more aggressive regional power in the aftermath of a deal ignore how the Middle East has evolved since the Arab awakenings of 2011. The post-colonial Arab state system that featured the dominant nations of Egypt and Iraq is no more. Egypt is too preoccupied with internal squabbles to offer regional leadership while Iraq is a fragmented nation ruled by a Shiite government ostracized from Sunni Arab councils. Iran has embarked on a dramatic new mission and is seeking to project its power into corners of the Middle East in ways that were never possible before. This is not traditional Iranian foreign policy with its sponsorship of terrorism and support for rejectionist groups targeting Israel; imperialism beckons the mullahs, but it is also economically burdensome. Without an arms control agreement and the financial rewards it will bring - from sanctions relief, the release of funds entrapped abroad and new investments - Iran would find it difficult to subsidize this imperial surge.

Summing up, Takeyh predicted that:

the most important legacy of the prospective agreement many not even lie in the nuclear realm. The massive financial gains from the deal would enable the Islamic Republic's imperial surge while allowing a repressive regime that was on the brink of collapse in 2009 to consolidate power. This would be no small achievement for Iran's emboldened rulers.

As a public broadcaster that prides itself on its track record in reporting on human rights issues, one can only hope that the ABC will provide more opportunities to hear voices like Nafisi's which express legitimate concerns that what might hold out the promise for change merely entrenches ongoing tyranny. And just maybe, even an expert of the calibre of Takeyh might crop up.

It's just common sense to raise such issues, yet as the ABC showed in its coverage of the Netanyahu speech to Congress, our national broadcaster sometimes seems constitutionally averse to letting anyone cast doubt on the virtues of reaching a deal, any deal. Yet Nafisi's appearance offers some hope that occassionally a ray of light might be permitted to shine through.

Allon Lee

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