On Friday, I argued in a video analysis: “There’s a strange intersection of viewpoints here. The allies against an agreement on the nuclear issue are those people in the United States who say Iran is not to be trusted, linked up to those people in Iran who say the Americans are not to be trusted.”
Little did I know how quickly that alliance would emerge.
This is the story of how Fars News, linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and the Wall Street Journal, that exemplar of American free-market journalism, became best friends.
The friendship was sparked by an interview on CNN with President Hassan Rouhani.
Last Wednesday CNN’s Christiane Amanpour said to Rouhani, “I want to know you, your position on the Holocaust.”
Rouhani replied, according to CNN’s on-air translation and transcript:
I have said before that I am not a historian personally and that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust as such, it is the historians that should reflect on it.
But in general, I can tell you that any crime or – that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews, as well as non-Jewish people, is reprehensible and condemnable, as far as we are concerned.
And just as even such crimes are – if they are to happen today against any creed or belief system or human being as such, we shall again condemn it.
That possible utterance of the “H-word” by an Iranian President was too much for Fars, which put out its own translation, hours before the full interview was broadcast on CNN:
Generally we fully condemn any kind of crime committed against humanity throughout the history, including the crime committed by the Nazis both against the Jews and non-Jews, the same way that if today any crime is committed against any nation or any religion or any people or any belief, we condemn that crime and genocide.
Fars may have a specific point — it appears that Rouhani did not specifically say the “Holocaust” — but the Iranian President not only condemned the Nazis’ killing of the Jews in his answer to Amanpour, he did so on other occasions throughout his five days in New York.
So, for all Fars’ efforts to whip up the anti-CNN fervor — it has two more featured articles about the infamy of the American news outlet today, including one in which a leading MP threatens legal action — the campaign seems to have fallen flat in Iran.
But not in New York, at least for the Wall Street Journal and its columnist Sohrab Ahmari.
On Thursday, a day after the interview and Fars’ opening salvo, the Journal was echoing, “Our independent translation of Mr. Rouhani’s comments confirms that Fars, not CNN, got the Farsi right.”
The next day, the Journal ran another editorial denounced Amanpour with the curious charge in its headline, “The network relied on an Iranian government interpreter”.
Apparently Rouhani was duped by a junior member of his staff — even though Rouhani’s office put a transcript of the interview which, except for the word “Holocaust”, backed up the translation of his comments to CNN.
Meanwhile, the Journal’s columnist Ahmari was also trying to celebrate the demise of both Rouhani and CNN:
— Sohrab Ahmari (@SohrabAhmari) September 25, 2013
Ignoring the rest of Rouhani’s remarks, Ahmari turned the debate over the word “Holocaust” into the claim that “there are entire sentences in English voiceover of #Rouhani that [the President] never says”.
He concluded jubilantly, “Fars is right!”
Perhaps lest he be accused of favoring the IRGC-linked news agency, Ahmari was careful to add the next day, “Fars News is despicable”. However, he continued to use it as a reliable judge, noting that, “But it’s right here.”
Fars, never a news outlet to give up on a good US-bashing story, returned the compliment on Friday in yet another article, “Is Misleading the Public A Duty of CNN?”
It’s not bad to look at the judgment of some well-known western media outlets and journalists.
When WSJ Assistant Book Editor Sohrab Ahmari is asked to compare the translations of FNA and CNN to see if there is any ground for complaint, Ahmari (an Iranian-American) say, “Fars is right!”
Still, just as Fars has struggled to tarnish Rouhani’s New York trip with its anti-CNN campaign, the Journal and Ahmari have failed to get much traction with their outrage. Amanpour still has her job, the Obama Administration appears to be shifting behind genuine negotiations with Tehran, and Rouhani — boosted by an historic phone call from Obama as he left New York — has succeeded with his “engagement” message.
But that does not mean the efforts will not continue.
Here’s the bigger story, even bigger than some clear personal and professional animosity towards Amanpour.
As we said earlier this month, Rouhani’s election in June was a catalyst for an Iranian effort to get resolution of the nuclear issue. In part, that effort has been spurred by the punishing sanctions crippling Iran’s economy — thus the Supreme Leader’s backing for his President, despite Ayatollah Khamenei’s scepticism of the Americans — but in part it is a search for engagement not only over Iran’s uranium enrichment but on regional questions, including the Syrian crisis.
For some US commentators and outlets, not to mention many American politicians, that possibility is poison to the narrative of perpetual confrontation with the Islamic Republic.
The Journal and Ahmari are not alone in their attempt to build up the extract from the Rouhani interview into evidence of the Iranian President’s inherent duplicity that should expose the folly of any US-Iran engagement. Michael Moynihan on The Daily Beast took the Orwellian line that somehow the exchange showed Rouhani was “just another Holocaust denier”. Noah Pollak also called for Amanpour’s head, while John Podhoretz of Commentary fulminated about “an almost unimaginable act of journalistic malfeasance“.
Still, none quite captured the irony like the Journal and Ahmari. For these commentators and politicians, animosity towards any possibility of resolution between the US and Iran means that support from any quarter — even the mouthpiece of the Revolutionary Guards — is welcomed if it can be used to tarnish “moderation” and “engagement”.
On any other week of the year, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards would be the Wall Street Journal’s and Ahmari’s enemy. But for this one week, at least, they are a welcome ally.