Corporate media outlets are echoing CIA analysts to popularize a misleading narrative, erasing US intervention and portraying Middle East conflicts as a sectarian cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
By Ben Norton / FAIR
A video by Vox (7/17/17) is the latest addition to a media onslaught that propagates numerous misleading talking points to demonize Iran—just as the US government, under Donald Trump’s vehemently anti-Iran administration, is ratcheting up aggression against that country.
The 10-minute film, titled “The Middle East’s Cold War, Explained,” is a textbook example of how US government propaganda pervades corporate media. With the help of a former senior government official and CIA analyst, the Vox video articulates a commonplace pro-US, anti-Iran narrative that portrays the violent conflicts in the Middle East as sectarian proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In order to do so, the film grossly downplays US involvement in the region, treating Saudi Arabia as though it acts independently of the US. It also fails to ever mention Israel, totally removing one of the most important players in the Middle East from its “Cold War” narrative.
Vox multimedia producer Sam Ellis likewise constructs a false equivalence for Iran, depicting it as a kind of Shia Saudi Arabia that is just as guilty of spreading sectarianism. The video correspondingly exaggerates Iran’s international influence, which is assumed to be dastardly and malign.
“The Middle East’s Cold War, Explained” made a huge splash. It garnered nearly half a million views in one day, and was trending as one of YouTube‘s most-watched videos. It serves as an illustrative case study of how corporate media not only grossly simplify the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, they also effectively act as a mouthpiece for the US government.
Echoing the CIA
The crux of the video is an interview with a former top US government official, CIA analyst and think tank apparatchik who has spent years crafting US policy in the Middle East. Vox presents his deeply politicized views as unchallenged facts.
Kenneth Pollack, the only person featured in Vox‘s video, is identified simply as a “former Persian Gulf military analyst, CIA.” After several years as an Iran/Iraq military analyst at the CIA, Pollack went on to direct Persian Gulf affairs and Near East and South Asian affairs for the Clinton administration’s National Security Council. Pollack’s bio at the Brookings Institution notes “he was the principal working-level official for US policy toward Iraq, Iran, Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council States at the White House.”
The man around which the entire video is framed is also a resident scholar at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute—although Vox does not disclose this in the video. AEI, a conservative bastion that has received generous funding from large corporations and the ultra-right Koch brothers, clearly appreciated Vox‘s work: the think tank posted the video on its website, and its official YouTube account even wrote to Vox in the comments, “Thanks for featuring our scholar Ken Pollack in your video!”
Pollack is also a senior fellow at Brookings, an establishment friendly think tank that gets generous financial support from US-backed Gulf regimes. Pollack previously directed Brookings’ prestigious Saban Center for Middle East Policy, which was named after and funded by Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban—who proposed bombing “the living daylights out of” Iran.
A lifelong anti-Iran hawk, Pollack was one of the most influential advocates for the illegal US invasion of Iraq, writing in his 2002 book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq:
The only prudent and realistic course of action left to the United States is to mount a full-scale invasion of Iraq to smash the Iraqi armed forces, depose Saddam’s regime and rid the country of weapons of mass destruction.
His support continued steadfastly throughout the Iraq War, even when many former champions had become opponents. Pollack penned an op-ed in the New York Times (7/30/07) in 2007, staunchly defending the US troop surge and insisting, “We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq.”
Ironically, neoliberal pundit Matthew Yglesias—a co-founder of and senior editor at Vox—criticized Pollack in a 2007 column in the Los Angeles Times (8/2/07), noting the former CIA analyst was a key influence in persuading him to support the Iraq War. Yglesias wrote:
Those of us who read Pollack’s celebrated 2002 book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, and became convinced as a result that the United States needed to, well, invade Iraq in order to dismantle Saddam Hussein’s advanced nuclear weapons program (the one he didn’t actually have) might feel a little too bitter to once again defer to our betters.
Moreover, while Pollack spent years formulating US policy on Iran and the broader region, analyzing it for US intelligence and writing several books on the subject, journalist Philip Weiss noted in a 2006 column in The Observer (4/28/06) that “Pollack has never been to Iran and doesn’t speak Persian, [and] has only dribs and drabs of Arabic.” This crucial detail was only mentioned in an author’s note at the end of Pollack’s book The Persian Puzzle. “You’d think a book that purports to explain the ‘Persian Puzzle’ might have offered that disclaimer at the front,” Weiss quipped.
Without providing any of this context, Vox centers Pollack’s expertise, extensively quoting him throughout its explainer video to paint a particular narrative of the Middle East that is, predictably, pro-US and anti-Iran.
Vox‘s video expertly reflects the CIA’s perspective of Iran, first and foremost by regurgitating a popular yet false talking point: The violent conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and part of a larger new Cold War.
Ubiquitous in US media, this narrative is misleading for two primary reasons: These wars are not all proxy conflicts, and Saudi Arabia is not acting independently of the US.
Yemen is a great example of just how false this narrative is. Vox casually states in the video that the conflict in this impoverished country is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, even going so far as to call Yemen’s Houthis “an Iranian proxy.” This is an outrageous propaganda point used by the US and Saudi Arabia.
Even the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—which gets significant funding from the US and British governments—has published research acknowledging that “Iranian support for the Houthis has been marginal and does not shape their decisionmaking as much as local alliances and conflict dynamics do,” and that “claims of Iran’s influence over the Houthis have been overblown.”
According to the US government narrative peddled by Vox and virtually all corporate media, the Houthis are “Iran-backed” “Shia rebels.” Yet the Carnegie report, titled “Iran’s Small Hand in Yemen,” criticizes this sectarian language used about the war in Yemen, noting the Houthis, who are Zaidi Muslims, are theologically closer to Sunnis than they are to Twelver Shiites, the dominant tendency in Iran.
In fact, the word “Shia” was not even used to refer to Yemenis until the 2011 Middle East uprisings—when the sectarian narrative was weaponized. Ansar Allah, the official name of the Houthi movement, is an organic group that was founded in Yemen in the 1990s.
The framing of the conflict in Yemen as an Iran/Saudi Arabia proxy war, as Vox does so lazily, is a US government narrative that has been imposed after the fact.
The reality is the war in Yemen is a foreign war on Yemen, carried out by the US, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Britain and several other countries, which have desperately tried to restore an unpopular leader, Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi, who won an “election” in 2012 with no other candidates, illegally overstayed his term in office and then officially stepped down before he fled to Saudi Arabia for protection.
With planes, bombs, weapons, ammunition, fuel and military intelligence from the US and Britain—along with foot soldiers from several other countries (including even mercenaries from Colombia)—Saudi Arabia has waged a relentless war inside Yemen, launching more than 90,000 air sorties, incessantly bombing civilian areas, killing thousands of innocents. At most, Iran may have provided some small guns—and even that is contested. Vox, however, falsely portrays this as a proxy war in which Saudi Arabia and Iran supposedly bear equal responsibility.
Creating a false equivalence
At the heart of the US government narrative echoed by Vox—and by most US corporate media—is the notion that Iran is merely the Shia Saudi Arabia, that Iran is just as sectarian as Saudi Arabia, that both states are ultimately sectarian reflections of each other.
This false equivalence glosses over the fact that Iran’s government, although Shia, has allied with numerous Sunni forces. In fact, Iran is regularly attacked by Western governments over its support for Hamas, the Sunni Islamist political group in the besieged Gaza Strip. Iran has in general been one of the only states to consistently support Palestinian militant groups resisting illegal Israeli military occupation and colonization, and nearly all Palestinian Muslims are Sunni. (Although, again, Israel is never mentioned in Vox‘s video.)
Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also recently spoken out in support of Muslims in Kashmir, the vast majority of whom are Sunni. And Iran has pressured the United Nations to take international action to protect the rights of the Rohingya, a primarily Sunni minority facing genocide and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
While Iran’s Shia government certainly has sectarian tendencies and has discriminated against religious minorities, there is no comparison to the extreme sectarianism of Saudi Arabia’s state doctrine of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist ideology that considers Shia to be non-Muslim apostates, and that is shared by genocidal militias like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Government documents have acknowledged that US client Saudi Arabia has supported ISIS and Al Qaeda. The so-called Islamic State even used official Saudi state textbooks to brainwash children in its capital Raqqa. All of ISIS’s judges in Raqqa were Saudi, and based their draconian system on Saudi-style policies.
Moreover, Saudi state clerics often go on television and call for genocide of Shia and other religious minority groups. Seeing these explicit incitements to genocide is not at all uncommon in Saudi Arabia (as well as in the US-backed regimes in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates). Shia clerics in Iran do nothing remotely close to this.
Politically, this false equivalence is even less accurate. Iran is a theocracy with autocratic elements, by no means a progressive model that leftists would want to emulate. But in contrast to Saudi Arabia, Iran is a republic that just held a presidential election with an impressive 73 percent voter turnout, in which a popular reformist politician, Hassan Rouhani, was re-elected in a landslide. Women and religious and ethnic minorities in Iran do indeed face various forms of structural oppression, but the government is also consistently reforming, and Rouhani has pledged to continue moving forward.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is an extremist absolute monarchy that is tightly controlled by the royal family, and that bans women from traveling and making major life decisions without the consent of a male guardian. The Saudi monarchy has made no serious indications that it is planning on significantly reforming, despite some PR rhetoric and cynical op-eds in major US newspapers to the contrary (FAIR.org, 4/28/17).
Yet this false equivalence between Iran and Saudi Arabia has several useful effects: It exaggerates the sectarianism of Iran while minimizing the US-backed fundamentalist sectarianism of Saudi Arabia that is fueling Salafi-jihadist groups throughout the world. And it obfuscates the complexity of the wars in the Middle East.
Vox‘s risible portrayal of the Iraq War is another great example of this false equivalence. Producer Sam Ellis depicts the aftermath of the illegal 2003 US invasion as a sectarian proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, noting that each side supported militias—Shia and Sunni, respectively.
What Vox doesn’t mention is that most Iraqis are Shia, and that many of those “Shia militias” were in fact linked to the Iraqi government—given the US had entirely dissolved Iraq’s non-sectarian army and effectively dismantled the government through its unilateral policy of De-Ba’athification (facts Vox also fails to include).
Vox likewise depicts Iraq’s “Shia militias” as politically equivalent to the “Sunni militias,” while failing to point out that some of the latter, who enjoyed support from Saudi Wahhabi authorities, were fighters in Al Qaeda in Iraq or Salafi groups linked to AQI, which later metastasized into ISIS.
In the same vein, the Vox video describes the Lebanese militia Hezbollah simply as an “extremist group,” the implication being that it is in some way similar to Salafi extremist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, which frequently intentionally massacre civilians. Unlike them, however, Hezbollah rarely targets civilians, and instead goes after military and police targets, typically from the US and Israel. Moreover, Hezbollah has recruited Sunnis, Christians and Druze to fight ISIS and Al Qaeda.
The video’s treatment of Bahrain is just as misleading. Vox says, “In Bahrain, Iran supported Shia leaders seeking to overthrow the government. Saudi Arabia in turn sent troops to help quash the unrest.” What Vox again fails to report is that the vast majority of the population in Bahrain is Shia, so of course the protesters are largely Shia. On the other hand, the Khalifas, the extremely repressive Bahraini royal family that is propped up by the US and Saudi Arabia, are from the minority Sunni community, and discriminate against the Shia majority.
Similarly, Vox depicts the war in Syria as a conflict in which both Saudi Arabia and Iran share equal responsibility. Compared to Yemen and Iraq, Syria is indeed more of an actual sectarian proxy war. But this is largely because the armed opposition to the Syrian government—backed by the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey—is dominated by extremist Salafi-jihadist groups that have threatened genocide against Syria’s religious minorities.
Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is Alawite—an offshoot of Shia Islam—and religious minorities are indeed disproportionately represented in the government. Yet, on the other hand, the majority of the Syrian Arab Army is Sunni, as are many state officials. Syria’s government is religiously pluralist.
Moreover, the war in Syria was not an offensive war for Iran. Iran was not trying to replace Syria’s government; it was trying to preserve it. It is the US and Saudi Arabia that spent years trying to overthrow Syria’s government in an offensive war. Iran was already allied with the Syrian government before the violence even began.
By creating this overly simplistic polar inversion, nevertheless, in which Iran is the Shia Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia is the Sunni Iran, media outlets can gloss over any complicating factors.
“Neither the government of Saudi Arabia nor the government of Iran are looking for a fight,” Kenneth Pollack insists in the Vox video. Yet Saudi Arabia was indeed looking for a fight when it spent years trying desperately to overthrow Syria’s government.
Pollack likewise claims the Saudis “are the ultimate status quo power. They want the region stable, and they don’t want anybody rising up and overthrowing a sclerotic autocratic government.” Whereas, he adds, “The Iranians are the ultimate anti–status quo power.” This, again, is categorically false. Saudi Arabia has played a key role fueling the wars in Syria and Yemen, the bloodiest of the Middle East conflicts.
Saudi Arabia and Iran—like all other countries in the world—are only interested in preserving the status quo when it benefits them. Thus far, the US-dominated status quote in the Middle East has benefited Saudi Arabia. But that status quo has been changing since the US invasion of Iraq.
Downplaying US involvement
Vox is far from alone in peddling these myths. In an article in AlterNet (7/17/17), FAIR analyst Adam Johnson dissected a New York Times article (7/15/17) that rewrote the history of the Iraq War in order to paint Iran as a malevolent villain. This plays into US war hawks’ favorite sectarian narrative of the “Shiite Crescent” Iran is supposedly constructing in the Middle East—a narrative that emerged around the time Hezbollah defeated Israel in its 2006 war in Lebanon.
All of this highlights another misleading point in the “Middle East’s cold war” framework: this cold war is not just between Saudi Arabia and the Iran; it is between the US and Iran. This reporting by Vox and the New York Times overlooks the fact that Saudi Arabia does very little independently of the US, of which it is effectively a proxy.
Saudi Arabia is politically a rather weak state. It has enormous oil reserves that have kept it afloat economically, but it has never developed a significant independent political and military apparatus.
On paper, the Saudi military is very large, with hundreds of thousands of personnel and with a staggering one-quarter of the regime’s budget going toward funding it. But the Saudi military has little experience, and has seen ghastly results in the few military operations it has participated in.
In Yemen, for instance, the Saudi military is relying on US and UK planes, weapons, bombs, ammunition, fuel, intelligence and training. American and British military official have physically been in the command room advising the Saudis. The Saudi military is effectively an outsourcing or extension of the US military; Saudi Arabia can be seen as a kind of Western protectorate.
Saudi Arabia did $112 billion in arms deals with the Obama administration, and President Trump has claimed he will sell them another $110 billion in weapons. Yet, while the Saudi military has vastly outgunned the Houthis and allied forces loyal to ousted Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, it has made little progress. For months, the Saudi military, with huge support from the US and UAE, has gained little ground, killing thousands of civilians in order to effectively maintain a stalemate.
Vox and most media reporting on Yemen ignore the fact that, as the New York Times editorial board (8/17/16) once surprisingly acknowledged, “Experts say the coalition would be grounded if Washington withheld its support.” Or, as Foreign Policy (3/14/16) put it, “None of the raids [in Yemen] could happen without direct US support.”
Similarly, in Syria, Saudi Arabia worked hand-in-hand with the US, spending billions of dollars to support the US-led training program. Saudi Arabia was not acting alone. The deal was the Saudi monarchy would provide the money, while the CIA did the dirty work.
The narrative peddled by Vox and many corporate media outlets would have us think otherwise—that Saudi Arabia intervened in Syria, while the US played a minor supplementary role (FAIR.org, 9/5/15, 4/7/17). But the reality is the opposite: Washington was in charge, not Riyadh.
Echoing the CIA perspective, nevertheless, Vox and other corporate media present Saudi Arabia as an independent actor. This allows them to maintain a nationalist, exceptionalist view of the United States, as a nation that might have problems but ultimately is a benevolent actor, fighting for freedom and democracy. From this perspective, the US has to sometimes dirty its hands by supporting dubious allies like Saudi Arabia, in order to counterbalance big baddies like Iran. But it is Saudi Arabia that is ultimately the morally questionable actor in this view, not the benevolent US. If the problems in the Middle East are presented as mainly internal ones, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Western imperial intervention is only incidental.
Telling history selectively
In its historical overview of the conflicts in the Middle East, Vox‘s video echoes this same US government perspective. Accordingly, in Vox‘s telling of the history, the trouble all began with the Iranian Revolution.
In order to explain the 1979 revolution, Kenneth Pollack tells viewers the Shah of Iran did not have “the same legitimacy and affection that the Saudi people felt toward their monarchy.” This phrase is loaded with baseless presuppositions, namely that the Saudi people do indeed feel affection toward their brutal absolute monarchy, yet alone the notion that this supposed love—and not the US military—is what keeps it in power. But this also, again, glosses over the crucial factor of Western empire.
Vox paints the Iranian Revolution as an Islamist backlash against the Shah’s secular, pro-Western reforms. The reality is much more complex. The Iranian Revolution was fundamentally an uprising against US imperialism (a concept corporate media studiously avoid in their Middle East “explainers”), and there were different tendencies within it. The Islamist elements ultimately came out on top, but there were also revolutionary Marxist elements involved, united in their collective opposition to foreign domination. (Many of the leftist revolutionaries were however later violently purged by the Islamists.)
To its credit, Vox‘s video does acknowledge that, in 1953, the US staged a coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh—although Vox does not mention that Mosaddegh was democratically elected.
But Vox, like many US media, still depicts the revolution as the source of the region’s woes: “The rise of Iran as a regional power threatened other neighboring countries,” Vox‘s narrator states.
In this perspective, it was Iran doing the “threatening.” But the video then immediately proceeds to report that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran in 1980.
Vox‘s discussion of the subsequent Iran/Iraq War is correspondingly misleading. The video does not mention that the US supported Saddam Hussein in his merciless war against Iran, even as he carried out heinous chemical weapons attacks.
It does, however, note: “When Iran started winning, the Saudis panicked, and came to Iraq’s rescue. They provided money, weapons and logistical help.” Once more, Vox conspicuously avoids mentioning US intervention. Where did Saudi Arabia get the weapons it gave to Iraq? The US looked the other way as Saudi Arabia shipped US-made weapons to Iraq in violation of rules against third-party transfers.
It is Iran that is depicted as a threat, even though it was the country that was invaded by a US-backed dictator, who then waged an exceedingly bloody eight-year war.
After the Iran/Iraq War, Vox‘s video then says, “Fast forward 15 years”—totally omitting the Gulf War and the genocidal US-led UN sanctions against Iraq.
Hyping the Iran ‘threat’
Portraying Iran as the regional threat ever since its revolution is ultimately the effect of media reporting like this. It shields the US government from fundamental critiques, and shifts the blame onto proxies like Saudi Arabia and, more so, Official Enemies like Iran.
Vox does not just frame its film around a former CIA analyst. It even cites a 1980 CIA report that warns of Iran’s international meddling, of the “threat” of the country “exporting its revolution.”
But Vox‘s video is also a form of more sophisticated propaganda. Instead of directly articulating neoconservative talking points and openly calling for regime change in Iran, it portrays Iran as one side in a “Cold War,” with Iran supposedly escalating aggression against Saudi Arabia, not the other way around.
The decades of efforts the US has pursued in trying to topple Iran—the heart of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil”—are erased. The crippling sanctions the US has imposed on Iran, which continue to increase, are overlooked.
Vox portrays itself as a voice of the “resistance” against far-right US President Donald Trump. Yet, on issues of foreign policy, it fails to even pretend to buck the trend.
Liberal media in general have been derelict in their duty to hold the US government responsible vis-à-vis war. In fact, when it comes to Trump’s most destructive, warmongering policies, corporate media have almost universally echoed the bipartisan consensus, even actively applauding (FAIR.org, 4/11/17).
Instead of challenging and informing the public, corporate media speak directly from the perspective of the CIA, and act as handmaidens to empire.