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What really happened in Geneva with Iran?

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Where does the truth lie?

That’s the question a lot of journalists are asking these days, even if, as many would argue, it’s the primary responsibility of the media to determine what’s true.

CBS’s flagship investigative program 60 Minutes recently ran afoul of this responsibility – in what’s being called its “Benghazi scandal” – when it interviewed, as an apparently credible source, a security contractor who claimed to have witnessed the attack last September on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in which American ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his staff were killed. When other news outlets pointed out that this source had previously confessed to the FBI that he had not in fact been at the compound, 60 Minutes was forced to admit that they got it wrong, despite the host’s assurance that “The most important thing to every person at 60 Minutes is the truth.”

On another Middle East-related story, determining the truth has been a different sort of challenge.

When the P5+1/Iran nuclear talks in Geneva were leading to an impasse on Nov. 9, reports circulated that it was French foreign minister Laurent Fabius alone who refused to go along with what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and others were prepared to concede to Iran for an interim deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for reduced sanctions.

Fabius himself famously said that France could not play a ”fool’s game” by yielding too much to Tehran – particularly by allowing Iran to continue work on its heavy-water facility at Arak that could produce plutonium, another path to a nuclear bomb, nor was France prepared to allow Iran to keep its stockpiles of 20 per cent enriched uranium. 

On Nov. 9, Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, spokesman for Iran’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said “the behaviour of the French representative in the nuclear talks shows that France is trying to blackmail” Iran and that ”the French government prefers [enacting] the will of Zionist regime,” meaning that France is acting as Israel’s agent.

Kim Ghattas, the BBC’s U.S. State Department correspondent, reported on Nov. 10: “French diplomats have told me in recent years they believed the Obama administration was willing to concede too much, too soon.”

Also, on Nov. 10, when the talks with Iran concluded without an agreement, Kerry went on NBC’s Meet the Press to deny charges by Israel and the Gulf states that the Americans were prepared to reach a bad deal with Iran. Kerry declared: “We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid.”

The following day, when Kerry was in Abu Dhabi, Mark Landler of the New York Times reported that he “is insisting to allies that the United States will drive a hard bargain with the Iranians and doing his best to dispel rumours [that the Americans are caving in to Iran].”

Landler continued: “The latest round of talks failed, he said, not because of dissent from France, as has been reported, but because the Iranians rejected an offer put on the table by the French, along with the United States, Britain, China, Germany and Russia. ‘The French signed off on it. We signed off on it,’ Mr. Kerry said. ‘There was unity, but Iran couldn’t take it.’”

Kerry’s remarks prompted Iranian officials to criticize him, but his comments also raised questions about what had actually happened during the Geneva talks. Did the French prevent the Americans from accepting a weak deal or, as Kerry claims, were the parties united against Iran?

For days, reporters ended up with “he said/she said” stories, and no one, it seems, determined which account was accurate.

Why was it so hard for reporters to determine where the truth lies? Did they not dig deeply enough or have sufficient time? Bloggers overwhelmingly credited the French for saving the day while criticizing the Americans for weakness. 

This column appears on Nov. 21, just as the next round of the Geneva nuclear talks resumes. As difficult as it may be, we should pay close attention to what’s true in the reporting.

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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