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A Tale of Two Cities: Ben Rhodes and the Selling of the Iran Nuclear Agreement

Commentary, 10 June 2016
Iran's Nuclear Programme, Sanctions, United States, Iran, International Security Studies, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy
Political ‘spin’ is part of any negotiation process, including in discussions on the Iran Nuclear Agreement. While it can sometimes be useful, it is important to keep expectations in check to ensure that goals are both realistic and achievable.

In a contribution last year to the RUSI Journal, analysing the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear agreement, I referred to the ease with which Iranian narratives surrounding both the negotiations and the conclusion of the nuclear agreement had been accepted by the US elite, not least by US Secretary of State John Kerry himself. The recent revelations by President Barack Obama’s chief media handler suggest that the embedding of narratives was a bilateral and mutually reinforcing process.

The detailed exposition of the backroom diplomacy that preceded the conclusion of the JCPOA provided by Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, in an interview for the New York Times Magazine, has unsurprisingly prompted consternation among supporters and detractors of the Iran nuclear agreement, with opinions tending to divide on partisan lines. There is no doubt there is a question to be asked about how someone whose job is managing the media could find himself so easily manipulated in a press interview. Arguably, Rhodes found himself dangerously exposed by his own vanity; his comments about the ignorance of the media were particularly cutting and somewhat reckless, given that the Obama presidency still has some time to run.

A ‘Light-Headed’ Media?

Criticism of the media’s knowledge of the complex affairs surrounding the negotiation of the JCPOA undoubtedly touched a raw nerve. It is certainly true that budget cuts have resulted in the closure of many foreign news bureaux. However, in defence of the professionalism of the media it may be added that since 2009 Iran has severely restricted access to Western journalists, with only a handful gaining any sort of residency, so the paucity of information about the country is at least partially understandable. Whatever the causes of the lack of judicious information, the consequences were clear: information about Iran was heavily mediated, and what is striking is that Rhodes claims it was often mediated through the White House. From a White House perspective this would have been an enviable position. From the perspective of the ‘fourth estate’ it would have been distinctly unhealthy, as Rhodes’s reference to ‘echo chambers’ suggests.

When Did the Negotiations Actually Begin?

One narrative under particular scrutiny is the timeline of the negotiations between the US and Iran. Few were unaware that President Obama sought to reset relations with Iran from the moment he entered the White House. Among the first things he did was to send letters to Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, although his hopes were dashed by the Iranian election crisis of 2009.

Until now, the accepted narrative was that efforts to establish communication between US and Iran had been attempted after 2009, but that serious negotiations did not take place until after the victory of the ‘moderate’ President Rouhani during the Iranian elections of 2013. This was the catalyst, the ignition if you will, that both initiated and accelerated the negotiation process. But the Rhodes interview casts doubt on this narrative and suggests that, contrary to official statements, the negotiations, and indeed the base parameters of any nuclear deal, had been established some two years earlier in 2011, with the terms of the interim (Geneva) agreement, in effect, agreed by March 2013. This revised timeline has proved problematic not so much for the secrecy it suggests (a fact that has irritated many in the Washington beltway, although it’s not unusual for any sensitive diplomatic outreach), but for the reality that it severely diminishes Rouhani’s role in a process that clearly predates him.

What was Reported?

Interestingly, Rhodes’s revised timeline has not caused much of a ripple in Iran, where a series of interviews with Ali Akbar Salehi (head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation and former foreign minister), hot on the heels of Ayatollah Khamenei’s own protestations on the matter (delivered weeks before the agreement was actually reached), essentially confirmed what Rhodes has now outlined, namely that negotiations with the US have been going on for some time. These were, in fact, picked up and translated by a number of Western outlets, including in Al-Monitor in August 2015, although they do not appear to have been afforded wider attention.

Further details were provided in Al-Monitor in December 2015. Salehi provided, in effect, a narrative that emphasised Khamenei’s role in the negotiations well before Rouhani’s election, going so far as to suggest that ‘Rouhani was in disbelief’, when Salehi briefed him soon after his inauguration about the extent of the covert links with the US. (A translation of the various Iranian revelations can be found on MEMRI.)

As I argued in the RUSI Journal last year, the notion that Rouhani’s election was an essential by-product of these negotiations stretches credulity and simplifies an otherwise complex process, but Rhodes’s comments reinforce a view originally promoted by Salehi, that while Rouhani’s election may have helped, he was by no means essential to the conclusion of the JCPOA.

Nonetheless, the narrative according to which talks had flourished after the victory of ‘moderates’ in Tehran met the valuable purpose of reinforcing a narrative of hope, exquisitely served up by the Obama White House – as only it knows how – to oil the wheels of a negotiation that might yet have floundered on the many frictions of hostile politics. Both sides, of course, indulged in this narrative: Rouhani promised economic salvation, while Obama held out the promise of political redemption. As I discussed in an article in The Guardian last year, both talked of political and economic normalisation in what appeared to all but the most naïve as both indecent and unrealistic haste. Those of us who argued for caution and the careful management of expectations were dismissed at best as pessimists, at worst as warmongers.

Finding Fact among the Spin

There is certainly nothing unusual in ‘spinning’ for political advantage. It is, perhaps sadly, a feature of our political age, and a requirement in managing a mass media with a voracious appetite for information. But the promise of a new ‘progressive’ dawn, when that prospect was neither credible nor the belief sincerely held, is a profoundly illiberal and highly cynical manipulation of otherwise sympathetic sensibilities.

It may be that, as political journalist Faisal Islam noted recently in The Guardian, we now live in a world of ‘post-truth politics’, where ‘strategic political lying’ has been elevated ‘to an art form’. But the practitioners of such arts should reflect on the fact that such political mythologies have a habit of rebounding on their progenitors, creating expectations that cannot be achieved, and fomenting disappointment; a disappointment that can only be to the advantage of those reactionaries both in Iran and elsewhere who disliked the process of nuclear negotiations in the first place.

Author

Ali Ansari
Senior Associate Fellow

Ali Ansari is professor of Iranian History and director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews; Senior... read more

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