Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has spent the last few days in New York, using American media to make a full-court press in a last-ditch attempt to persuade the United States not to tear up the nuclear deal with his country. As President Trump and Macron discussed what to do about Iran, Zarif complained about the lack of respect Donald Trump’s administration has shown the Islamic Republic. Talking about the prospect Trump will decide by the May 12 deadline not to recertify the deal, he asked rhetorically, “Who would, in their right mind, deal with the U.S. anymore?”
It’s a striking strategy, not least because President Trump couldn’t make a similar media tour in Iran. Neither can Iranians themselves express the sort of disapproval of their own government that Zarif has of America’s: In Iran, it’s against the law to criticize the regime, and the government all but controls the media.
Zarif can’t be so heavy-handed with the press in this country, but he doesn’t have to be. Most members of the media here seem happy to let the top diplomat of a country whose lawmakers regularly chant “Death to America” get his message out unimpeded. Some of their questions didn’t even seem all that different from ones he might get asked back home. In her half-hour interview with Zarif that aired Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation, Margaret Brennan asked about Trump’s new national security advisor, John Bolton, and his nomination for new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. “Do you think that as national security advisors they’re going to be honest brokers with the president presenting him with these diplomatic options?” she asked in one leading question.
Since protests broke out across Iran on December 28, 2017, the regime has arrested 8,000 people and murdered 50, including 16 who were killed while in detention. The discontent began as demonstrations against economic conditions but within hours transformed into political protests. Yet Brennan didn’t mention a word about this almost unprecedented unrest in Iran during her broadcast. And the only mention she made of it in the full interview transcript that CBS published online was to note that it indicates Iran is facing some economic difficulties. She didn’t ask why peaceful protesters have been punished with imprisonment and worse. She did ask Zarif, though, if President Hassan Rouhani thinks “he can trust” Trump.
Steve Inskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition wasn’t much better in his 7-minute Tuesday morning broadcast. “What did the protests say about the public in Iran right now and what they want from your government?” he asked Zarif. The minister claimed the protests stemmed simply from the fact that the country, despite what he trumpeted as impressive economic growth, can’t create new jobs quickly enough. “Sometimes those demonstrations get violent and the way they are treated when they get violent in the United States same way is in Iran,” Zarif said. Inskeep didn’t question these ridiculous claims—protesters have chanted, among other things, asking why their resources are being spent to kill civilians in Syria—and he didn’t ask about the violent methods the government is using to crush dissent. His interview, the full transcript of which was also posted online, ended with another leading question: “Your president promised in his last re-election campaign to address that shortfall of jobs by ending more sanctions and improving relations with the world. How disappointing is it to you that he’s not able to do that?” This allowed Zarif to blame America for Iran’s problems—never mind that none of the money in the famous “pallets of cash” the Obama administration sent to the regime made it to the Iranian people, one of the factors that triggered the recent protests.
The Associated Press claimed it conducted “a wide-ranging interview” with Zarif in New York, but the agency’s piece didn’t even mention the protests that have been one of the biggest stories out of the Middle East in the last few months. The widely distributed article didn’t have a single statistic about the mullahs’ bloody rule, in fact. Here’s just one it could have mentioned and put to Zarif: Amnesty International’s latest report notes that of the executions recorded across the world last year, more than half took place in Iran.
Not a single news outlet that I could find mentioned such statistics or death tolls in its interviews with Zarif. And none asked about the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, just released by the State Department on Friday, before these interviews took place. In announcing this year’s edition of the annual report, acting secretary of state John Sullivan declared that the “right of peaceful assembly and freedoms of association and expression” in Iran “are under attack almost daily.” But no interviewer thought this was a topic interesting enough to question Iran’s top diplomat on. It would have been telling to hear his reply: He’s previously claimed—laughably—that no one in Iran is jailed for his or her opinion.
Those who should know better didn’t do any better in their questioning of Zarif, unfortunately. The foreign minister has made an annual pilgrimage to the Council on Foreign Relations, making himself available at an event always much-anticipated at the group’s New York office. The questions were slightly better than those asked by reporters—though the group only left 15 minutes for Q&A after Zarif’s speech and some discussion with the moderator—but no one, including that moderator, pushed back on any of Zarif’s claims, even the most outlandish. He declared, for example, “We do not again punish or criminalize anybody for their activity at home. What is important is what they do in the street.” Never mind that no one at the event had a problem with Zarif saying Iranians aren’t free to express their opinions in public; his first sentence there is a lie. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee is currently serving a sentence in an Iranian prison, after being beaten by regime thugs, for an unpublished short story she wrote about stoning that authorities found when they searched her home.
Moderator Stephen Hadley did ask Zarif an interesting question about Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer who recently said, as Hadley put it, “that the Iranian people have given up on reforming the current Iranian system, and she has called for a U.N.-monitored referendum on the Iranian constitution that would propose elimination of the office of supreme leader and establishment of a secular constitution based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Zarif disdainfully dismissed the question: “With all due respect to Mrs. Ebadi, I don’t think anyone voted for her to speak on behalf of the Iranians.” Hadley didn’t inform the audience that Ebadi was unlikely ever to be allowed to seek votes, as a group mostly appointed by the supreme leader she questions gets to decide who can and cannot run for office.
No wonder Zarif had a huge grin on his face during the entire hour.