Foreign policy circles are abuzz over a New York Times Magazine profile of White House foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes, boasting about manipulating “naïve” journalists into telling the American people how nascent moderation within the Iranian regime made the Iran nuclear talks viable. He also highlighted the White House creation of an “echo chamber” using outside groups to pursue its objectives.
In his profile, Rhodes put the Ploughshares Fund at the center of the echo chamber constructed to sell the Iran deal:
“We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else.”
The Associated Press followed up with a detailed story, based on Ploughshares’ most recent annual report detailing funding of some 85 organizations and 200 individuals. That network included journalists and media outlets, think tanks, nuclear associations, and pro-Tehran lobbies, including the infamous National Iranian American Council (NIAC).
Last year, NIAC was paid $281,211; over the past five years, more than $814,000. According to Trita Parsi, NIAC’s lifetime President:
“What Ploughshares Fund has done
by bringing these groups together — structuring a campaign and crafting a strategic vision — is unprecedented and that’s part of the reason these battles have been won.”
In its annual report, Ploughshares boasted of contributing to “building the narrative across the country,” by “proactive media work by Ploughshares Fund grantees, partners and allies,” who published “nearly 1,400 pro-diplomacy op-eds, letters to the editor and editorials” during critical moments of the Iran campaign (June 2014-September 2015).
Ben Rhodes’ “narrative” worked wonders for the Obama administration’s nuclear sales pitch but, like all schemes, it had a dark side yet to come to light. One aspect involves how information exposing the true scope of the Iranian secret nuclear weapons program was filtered.
Anyone knowledgeable about human intelligence understands that obtaining such information entails huge risk. This was certainly the case in Iran, where the network of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and its biggest component, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), provided the lion’s share of sensitive information, acting as the international community’s eyes and ears on the ground.
Over the years, MEK operatives put their own lives and those of their families on the line to inform the world about Tehran’s most closely guarded secrets. In 2002, the NCRI revealed the Natanz and Arak secret sites, which triggered the inspections of the Iranian nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for the first time. NCRI disclosed the construction of the underground enrichment facility, Fordow, near Qom in December 2005.
On numerous occasions, the U.S. Government conceded the Iranian opposition’s crucial role. On March 16, 2005, for instance, President Bush told reporters that "Iran has concealed its nuclear program that became discovered, not because of their compliance with the IAEA or NPT but because a dissident group pointed it out to the world.”
Frank Pabian, a senior adviser on nuclear nonproliferation at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, lauded the accuracy of the information provided by the NCRI, in an interview with the New York Times in 2010. “They’re right 90 percent of the time,” he said of the council’s disclosures about Iran’s clandestine sites. “That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, but 90 percent is a pretty good record.”
New revelations followed, helping to corner Tehran and compel it to negotiate with the world community. In July 2011, the MEK revealed a new organization, SPND, formed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to consolidate all nuclear weapons activities. SPND and its detailed activities were reflected in the November report of the IAEA, and SPND was designated by the State Department in August 2014.
But after mid-2013, when Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran, the theocratic government was ready to relinquish many of its nuclear ambitions, and negotiate in good faith with its traditional enemies in the West. The Rhodes narrative took off, and the administration became dismissive of the NCRI’s non-conforming information.
Some cases are telling.
In 2014, intelligence surfaced about suspicious activities in a military site called Parchin, where high-explosive tests with exploding bridge wire were widely recognized as having potential applications to the detonation of a nuclear device. Those tests were carried out with the help of foreign nuclear experts, in a specially designed explosive chamber that subsequently disappeared.
In Nov 2014, in a press conference in its Washington office, the NCRI revealed details about the explosive chambers in the early 2000s, including individuals and IRGC entities involved in their design, construction, set up, and testing. The critical revelation involved details establishing that two such chambers had been manufactured, not one.
This revelation should have been vigorously investigated by the Obama administration’s experts; it never happened.
On February 24, 2015, in a widely reported press conference, the NCRI revealed details of a site in Tehran where the regime conducted secret research involving advanced nuclear enrichment centrifuges. According to dissident operatives, the entrance to the plant, called Lavizan-3, was a series of tunnels leading from under a building ostensibly used to process passports and identity cards.
In response to questions in a daily briefing, a State Department spokeswoman said, “We have seen these claims and we take all such reports seriously.” The next day, Secretary of State Kerry told members of the House of Representatives in a hearing, “I’m not going to go into greater detail. But these things are obviously going to have to be resolved as we go forward.”
The next day, less than 48 hours after the revelation, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, “We don’t have any information at this time to support the conclusion of the report.”
No inspector ever visited the site, nor was any request ever made to do so. Instead, many now revealed as components of “the echo chamber” attacked the NCRI’s information on Lavizan-3 as having been fabricated to sabotage the nuclear agreement. Clearly the facts did not fit “the narrative.”
And the talks went forward.
In May 2015, the NCRI revealed new details on Iranian cooperation with North Korea on ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. When questioned by reporters, the State Department reacted in standard form: “We have seen these claims and we take all such reports seriously.”
Ultimately, despite growing evidence of nefarious conduct, the possible military dimensions of Iranian nuclear activities were glossed over in the final phase of negotiations. The Obama administration discarded non-conforming realities as nuisances. “The narrative” had to be maintained, whether or not the good people who wanted the world to know the truth of the Iranian nuclear program paid the ultimate price.
For the ayatollahs, conceding to the nuclear agreement was a major retreat, albeit a temporary one. But if the true scope of their nuclear program had been exposed, and if Tehran had been held accountable for its lies and deceptions, that retreat would have been more profound and lasting. That would have made the world a safer place.
So far as “the narrative” is concerned, the appropriate narrative should have been the one that aligns with reality, the one that the American people deserved to hear.