Deception and the Iran deal: Did the Obama administration mislead America, or did the Rhodes profile?

Even before the print version was released, Sunday’s New York Times Magazine profile of Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, provoked a torrent of commentary. The article’s smarmy tone and the unseemly—though hardly unusual—hubris revealed by its subject have generated indignation and a healthy dose of humor from The Washington Post, its Monkey Cage blog, Foreign Policy, The Weekly Standard, The Atlantic, and seemingly half the Washingtonians on Twitter.

Much of what ought to be said about this piece has already been said, including by Rhodes himself. But the article’s substantive claims, particularly regarding the Obama administration’s approach to Iran, are serious enough to warrant yet another response. Specifically, the piece contends that the administration “largely manufactured” a dishonest narrative about the diplomacy surrounding the Iran nuclear deal—concluded in July 2015 and whose key provisions were implemented in January 2016—in order to win public support for the agreement.

If true, such a claim would be ruinous, particularly for a president who campaigned against his predecessor’s invasion of Iraq as “a war based on faulty premises and bad intelligence.” And the piece is already prompting demands from Republican lawmakers for Rhodes’ resignation and outraged accusations in the conservative blogosphere that Obama “lied to sell the Iran deal.” However, the core claims of official deception around the Iran deal are never actually substantiated. Rather, the Rhodes interview provides window dressing for a trumped-up jeremiad against the administration’s Middle East policy articulated by the author, David Samuels. 

[T]he core claims of official deception around the Iran deal are never actually substantiated.

Samuels is entitled to his opinions, but articulating them in the nation’s preeminent newspaper should entail distinguishing individual beliefs from established facts. For The New York Times to publish allegations that the president of the United States actively deceived the American people on an urgent and heavily contested foreign policy issue without providing a shred of actual evidence represents a shocking abdication of editorial oversight by a publisher who should know better.

Echo chamber

That Rhodes engaged in a no-holds-barred campaign to win support for the deal is not news. He and his White House colleagues assembled a formidable messaging machine, enlisting an array of enthusiastic advocates for the deal to create “an echo chamber” in the media, whom he derides as easily manipulated. Left unsaid in the Times piece is that the administration’s campaign to sell the deal was matched (some might even say dwarfed) by opponents’ efforts to undercut the negotiations and mobilize support against any agreement. As others have explained, this is the normal stuff of politics, shrewdly adapted by strategists like Rhodes and his rivals to advance their cause in the internet age.

In addition to this digital strategy, Rhodes and other senior U.S. officials convened West Wing briefings to evangelize the administration’s key messages among core constituencies (including, notably, skeptics of the Iran diplomacy). Advocacy groups on both sides of the debate eagerly jumped into the fray, dispatching their partisans to European hotels to stalk the sidelines of the negotiations and feed quotes to the hordes of journalists assembled in anticipation of news. 

Rhodes’ masterstroke in selling the deal came in appropriating an argument that was already circulating among advocates of diplomacy with Iran—that war was the only viable alternative to an agreement. While many—including me—disputed this argument, it proved to be Rhodes’ money shot. The opponents of the deal never managed to muster a persuasive case to the contrary or to articulate a credible alternative that better served U.S. interests. In Congress’ review of the nuclear agreement, this absence of a compelling alternative ultimately sealed the deal.

In this sense, the framing of the arguments proved vital to the success of the diplomatic initiative itself. The Iran deal wasn’t the first time that an administration used public relations to advance its foreign policy agenda, but it was a masterful case of forceful policy contestation in the contemporary context of profound polarization and information overload.

The Iran deal wasn’t the first time that an administration used public relations to advance its foreign policy agenda, but it was a masterful case of forceful policy contestation in the contemporary context of profound polarization and information overload.

Iranian politics

While the article usefully sheds light on the art of selling the Iran deal, the more startling thesis of the piece—that the administration deceived the public on the diplomatic process as well as the intent of the deal—is articulated without even a cursory attempt at corroboration. Instead, the article advances a series of unconfirmed or questionable assertions as established facts. 

First, the article argues that President Obama deliberately deceived the public about the Iranian commitment to the deal—“obtaining broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime, and that the administration was reaching out to moderate-minded Iranians who wanted peaceful relations with their neighbors and with America”—in order to gain traction for the deal and “evade what might have otherwise been a divisive but clarifying debate over the actual policy choices that his administration was making.” 

Samuels puts forward two supposed smoking guns: an admission by Rhodes that “we are not betting on” political change in Iran and the assessment of former CIA director Leon Panetta that his former agency was certain that “the Quds Force and the supreme leader ran that country with a strong arm, and there was not much question that this kind of opposing view could somehow gain any traction.”

The suggestion that Obama or his surrogates painted a false image of Iran is demonstrably untrue.

The suggestion that Obama or his surrogates painted a false image of Iran is demonstrably untrue. Political change was never an American precondition for the nuclear diplomacy with Iran. George W. Bush first conceded to a bargaining process with Tehran over the nuclear issue in 2006, and both he and Obama sought to resolve the crisis even while Iran’s leadership was dominated by hard-liners such as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And Obama administration officials repeatedly emphasized that the accord does not rely on the expectation of political change within Iran. On the day after the agreement was finalized, Obama explained in a press conference that “this deal is not contingent on Iran changing its behavior. It’s not contingent on Iran suddenly operating like a liberal democracy. It solves one particular problem, which is making sure they don’t have a bomb.”

Examples abound of this kind of nuanced depiction of Iran’s complicated internal dynamics by U.S. officials. That same week, Secretary of State John Kerry, who was deeply engaged in negotiating the agreement, characterized Iran’s political dynamics in this fashion: 

“We are not allies and friends by any means, and this agreement does only one thing…you heard the ayatollah [Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei] just in the last days proclaiming the continued enmity with the United States. So there are no illusions about that. What we know, however, is that an Iran without a nuclear weapon is a very different country than Iran with one, and that a Middle East without a nuclear weapon is a safer Middle East.”

And if the administration emphasized Iran’s political divisions—an assessment that happens to be shared by most mainstream Iran analysts with the possible exception of Panetta—it wasn’t simply because, as the Times article contends, “the idea that there was a new reality in Iran was politically useful to the Obama administration” in gaining support for the deal. Iran’s infighting had a direct and fairly obvious relevance for the negotiations themselves. It was only after the June 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani, a self-described moderate, that American efforts to jumpstart serious talks with Iran on its nuclear program began to make progress, after seven years of futile attempts by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Getting the diplomatic timeline straight

The duration of the negotiating process highlights another serious issue in the Times piece, which asserts that the administration presented an “actively misleading” timeline of the diplomacy that produced the deal and omitted the fact that “the most meaningful part of the negotiations with Iran had begun in mid-2012” rather than after Rouhani’s June 2013 election.

That is a damning accusation—except that the article proffers no evidence of such malfeasance and it doesn’t actually happen to be accurate. In his campaign for the presidency, Obama advocated for direct engagement with Iran, and after he was elected, he engaged in both public and private diplomatic overtures toward Tehran—just as each of his predecessors, both Democratic and Republican, had done. The public aspects of this diplomacy are well-known: for example, Obama’s 2009 Nowruz (Persian New Year) video broadcast to Iranians and the intensive engagement with the multilateral negotiating process, including the attempt at a confidence-building measure in October 2009. 

The administration also pursued quiet backchannel dialogue with Iran, a tactic that had produced some gains for the Bush administration during the 2001-2003 period on Afghanistan. Obama sent several letters to Khamenei—a first for an American leader—and he authorized senior officials to engage in undisclosed talks with Iranian counterparts in 2012 and 2013. The existence of those meetings was revealed long before the signing, or selling, of the final nuclear deal, and their substance—according to participants—was not particularly consequential. One American representative described the meetings as “a useful engagement, but not much progress was made, because the Iran leadership was not really interested…It helped provide some basis [for understanding]… It was clear that while there could be more intensive and candid discussions bilaterally, the real progress wasn’t going to be possible” prior to Iran’s June 2013 elections.

By elevating Rouhani—a former chief negotiator who had made the resolution of the nuclear deal the central plank in his bid—to Iran’s presidency, that election proved to be the “real breakthrough.” In its aftermath, the Oman backchannel picked up steam. Obama reached out covertly to Rouhani, and several influential U.S. diplomats undertook a quiet effort to hammer out an interim accord in parallel with the formal multilateral negotiations. This backchannel was also widely reported long before the comprehensive agreement was finalized.

Secret diplomacy entails risks as well as rewards, and the covert talks with Tehran provoked some discomfort among U.S. allies, who were not informed of the dialogue and, in some cases, were caught off guard by the extent to which the quiet bilateral talks had leapfrogged ahead of the public multilateral process. However, the Obama administration’s quiet contacts with Iran do not differ from those of its predecessors—except insofar as they expanded into a public expansion of the bilateral relationship. And the argument that Rhodes or other officials were “actively misleading” on the timeline of diplomacy is contradicted by the fact that all backchannel dialogue on the nuclear issue was widely reported long before the comprehensive agreement was finalized.

Chaos theory

Samuels writes that the underlying intent of the Iran nuclear deal was to “create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey” and “effectively begin the process of a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.”

The problem with this assertion is that Rhodes never says any such thing. Nor do any of the other U.S. officials quoted in the story, or anyone else for that matter. And nowhere does the article assemble actual evidence to corroborate this provocative description of the Obama administration’s grand strategy in the Middle East. This proposition was first and most fully articulated by my former colleague Michael Doran, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, in a 2015 article for an obscure internet magazine that went viral. Its thesis clearly animates many of the deal’s opponents. But absent evidence, the premise that Obama harbors a “secret plan” to jettison America’s deep security partnership with Israel and the Gulf states constitutes pure conjecture, not fact. Or, as Ben Rhodes might say, spin.

[N]owhere does the article assemble actual evidence to corroborate this provocative description of the Obama administration’s grand strategy in the Middle East.

The victim of his own profile

The transformation of a relatively young man with a creative writing degree into the one of the most consequential policymakers shaping Obama’s approach to the world is well worth a magazine profile, as is the intense public relations battle over the diplomacy with Iran. And there are legitimate grounds for debate over the administration’s tactics, as undertaken by Rhodes, in pushing for the deal, and about the prospects for political change in Iran. One friend in the region commented recently that he supported the deal in spite of—rather than because of—the administration’s rhetoric.

Unfortunately, the Rhodes profile is simply too one-sided to provide a platform for that discussion. Its deficiencies may reflect preconceptions on the part of its author; Samuels last year warned, with almost Rhodes-ian grandiloquence, of “terrifying” consequences of the administration’s Iran diplomacy as part of a discussion entitled “What’s Wrong with the Proposed Nuclear Deal with Iran.” He once described Iran as “a doomed society headed toward total economic, educational, demographic, and military collapse.”

In a discussion with writer Jeffrey Goldberg about other problems with the piece, Jake Silverstein, editor of The New York Times Magazine, states that the author’s “assertions are backed up by the reporting he did.” If that is indeed the case, that evidence should have been included in the piece itself. In their absence, it is an unfortunate irony that the White House master of spin—a man who unashamedly disdained the press corps—and one of his most hard-fought accomplishments have been undercut by shoddy journalism.