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October 28, 2020 5:08 am

New York Times Editors Want to Send $5 Billion More to Iran. Here Are Nine Reasons They’re Wrong.

avatar by Ira Stoll


A taxi passes by in front of The New York Times head office, Feb. 7, 2013. Photo: Reuters / Carlo Allegri / File.

The New York Times is seizing on the coronavirus pandemic to push the idea of easing American economic sanctions on Iran, notwithstanding Iranian interference in American elections.

A staff editorial the Times published earlier this month was headlined, “Iran’s Covid-19 Death Toll Is Rising. Show Mercy, Mr. Trump.” It argued for relaxing the sanctions against Iran, calling them “particularly cruel during a pandemic.” The Times followed up days later by publishing an opinion piece describing Iranians as “crushed” by “extreme US sanctions.” And by publishing a follow-up editorial inaccurately claiming “Sanctions against Iran are opposed by allies and threaten a humanitarian disaster.”

Here are nine reasons the Times editorial line is misguided:

  1. It relies on a discredited expert. The Times editorial says: “Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, calls the American ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran ‘sadism masquerading as foreign policy.’” Slavin had to apologize in 2017 after being photographed making an obscene gesture to protesters against the Iranian regime. Back in January 2020, Slavin wrote a Times op-ed headlined “Qassim Suleimani’s Killing Will Unleash Chaos.” The chaos she predicted failed to materialize. The Times fails to mention that the Atlantic Council’s funders include foreign governments and foreign individuals, oil companies, a nuclear power company and undisclosed “anonymous” donors, some of which may want to do business in Iran or have commercial interests affected by the sanctions. The line about “sadism masquerading as foreign policy” is clever, but sending money to an enemy country, as the advocates of eased sanctions want to do, is masochism masquerading as foreign policy.
  2. It would erode trust in government and thus undermine democracy. President Trump campaigned in 2016 as a critic of the Iran nuclear deal and has followed through on his promise to get out of it. The Times editorialists should like it when politicians do what they promise. When politicians say one thing and do another, it erodes trust in government. How are voters supposed to make rational choices when politicians abandon the policies they campaigned on? It’s one thing to urge a vote for Biden, as the Times has, in part on the grounds that Trump ripped up the Iran nuclear deal. It’s another thing to urge Trump to abandon the stance that got him elected and instead pursue a course that is the opposite of what he promised the voters who elected him.
  3. It’s inconsistent with previous Times editorial policy on Iran. Here is a January 2010 New York Times editorial: “It is time for President Obama and other leaders to ratchet up the pressure with tougher sanctions.” In April 2010, the Times editorialists declared, “It is time for Mr. Obama’s European partners to think about more formal ways to tighten their own sanctions on Iran.” In June 2010 a Times editorial complained that a fourth round of UN sanctions on Iran “were too long in coming and do not go far enough.” In December 2011 a Times editorial declared, “We strongly support applying maximum economic pressure to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” Now, with no explanation of the reversal, the Times is suddenly denouncing as “sadism” the “maximum economic pressure” policy that it supported in 2011? The real sadism here is inflicting this shabby reasoning on readers. What has changed between 2011 and now? The regime in Iran now is the same terror-sponsoring, human rights-abusing, genocide-threatening, nuclear-bomb-pursuing enemy that it was then. The regime at the Times, however, has gotten worse, with a new publisher and editors. And the regime in Washington has changed, too; those sanctions editorials were supporting what was then an Obama-Clinton policy that was an alternative short of military action (“a disaster,” according to the Times) or regime change (“unpredictable and dangerous,” the Times insists). When there’s talk of military action or regime change, the Times prefers sanctions. When the sanctions that the Times had recommended under Obama are actually put into effect by the Trump administration and Secretaries Mnuchin and Pompeo, the Times denounces the sanctions as sadism, “collective punishment for tens of millions of innocent Iranians.”
  4. It’s inconsistent with previous Times editorial policy about election interference. A 2018 Times editorial about Russian interference in the 2016 election was headlined “Tough Action on Russia, at Last, but More Is Needed.” The editorial concluded in part, “[Trump] should also sanction Russian oligarchs — freezing their assets, barring them from the global banking system, preventing their children from attending Western schools — ensuring that Mr. Putin’s cronies feel America’s reach and use their influence to stop his aggression.” When it comes to punishing Russia, the Times has no worries about sadism or “collective punishment.” Yet with Iran, there’s a different standard. Now, one might argue that the editorial calling for easing sanctions on Iran was written before the Iranian election meddling came to light. But that is not even accurate. The Times published a news article on October 4, 2019 headlined “Iranian Hackers Target Trump Campaign as Threats to 2020 Mount.” It reported, “Microsoft said on Friday that Iranian hackers, with apparent backing from the government, had made more than 2,700 attempts to identify the email accounts of current and former United States government officials, journalists covering political campaigns and accounts associated with a presidential campaign.” That was well before the Times editorial calling for easing the Iran sanctions.
  5. It ignores the reason that Iran was hit so hard by Covid-19 in the first place — its close ties with China. “The Covid-19 death toll continues to climb in Iran — the hardest-hit country in the Middle East,” the Times editorial says. It’s funny, because the Times is constantly blaming President Trump for US coronavirus deaths. When it comes to the deaths in Iran, though, the Times lets the ayatollahs off the hook. The editorial likens Covid to the 2003 earthquake that hit the Iranian city of Bam, rather than describing it as a consequence of Iran’s policy choice to maintain close commercial, scientific, and military ties with Communist China, where the plague came from.
  6. With its sub-headline plea to “show mercy, Mr. Trump,” the Times editorial claims that easing the sanctions would be merciful. But it’s not merciful to the Iranian people to inject more funds into what even the Times editorial concedes is “a brutally repressive regime.” The merciful thing for the Iranian people would be to help defeat that regime, not to subsidize it. What about some mercy for the victims of Iran’s murderous worldwide terror campaign? Any foreign funds that make their way to Iran are likely to be diverted to buy ammunition for terrorists, not medicine for coronavirus patients.
  7. The Times spends a few paragraphs of the editorial urging Iran to release some political prisoners. The full editorial sub-headine is “US efforts to cut Iran off from the rest of the world in the midst of the pandemic are cruel. So is Iran’s refusal to release political prisoners.” So the American government and the Iranian government are both cruel? This sort of moral equivalence is embarrassing. As if implementing the “maximum economic pressure” campaign that the Times itself said it supported in 2011 and is designed to force Iran back to the negotiating table while depriving it of resources to support terrorism were somehow roughly parallel to keeping innocent protesters in what even the Times editorial describes as the “notorious Evin Prison.”
  8. It ignores climate change. The Times backs Joe Biden for president in part because of the hope for what the Times editors call “a new and welcome environmental ethic in the Oval Office.” Yet any easing of sanctions on Iran basically amounts to making it easier for Iran to sell oil and gas, because that, other than terrorism, is Iran’s main export industry. Now, you can argue that it’s a world market, and that any petroleum not exported by Iran will be drilled somewhere else. But that is not the approach the Times takes to, say, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The tougher the sanctions are on Iran, the quicker Iran’s petroleum-product customers will transition to the wind and solar that the Times prefers for climate change reasons. Restricting Iranian production, as the sanctions have the effect of doing, helps drive up prices and make wind and solar more competitive in the energy market. Yet the Times is so desperate to get money to the mullahs that the editorial board forgets all about climate change. The Times editorialists are so steadfastly opposed to fossil fuel profits that they support Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ban on hydraulic fracturing, which could help lift the economy of upstate New York. New Yorkers can’t make money from fossil fuels, but the terror-sponsoring Iranian regime can?
  9. It disregards the Israelis and other US regional allies. One of the constant Times complaints about President Trump is that he has supposedly alienated our allies. “Sanctions against Iran are opposed by allies,” an editorial in the October 18 print Times put it. Israel’s former ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, tweeted, “NYT editorial calls on US to ‘show mercy’ and lift sanctions on COVID-struck Iran. How about calling on Iran to stop spending BILLIONS on Middle East and world terror, and intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States?” The Israelis — and others in the region — are the ones immediately and directly threatened by Iran, though Tehran’s terror and cyberwarfare reaches worldwide, including the US. Why not take the views of major non-NATO allies such as Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Kuwait into account on the Iran sanctions issue?

Israel supports tough sanctions on Iran and opposed the Obama-era nuclear deal that eased the sanctions. Why? Israelis know that Iran uses the money to kill Jews. That is what Oren is probably getting at when he speaks of “spending BILLIONS on Middle East and world terror.” Times columnist Bret Stephens marked the two-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre with an article observing that “Pittsburgh should serve as a permanent reminder of how easily the politics of demonizing immigrants can lead to killing Jews.” True. But you know what else can lead to killing Jews? Sending $5 billion, as the recent Times editorial suggests, to Iran, the world’s leading Jew-demonizing, Jew-killing regime. That regime has been pursuing nuclear weapons and missiles with which to fulfill its announced intention of wiping Israel off the map. A former Times editorial page colleague of Stephens, Bari Weiss, recently accused the paper’s editors of “a worldview in which Jew hate does not count.” She was speaking of an April 2019 cartoon that the Times eventually said it was “deeply sorry” for publishing and acknowledged was antisemitic, and also of an op-ed piece glorifying Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March and failing to provide context about Farrakhan’s antisemitism. This Times editorial campaign to bankroll the Iranian regime is yet more evidence of “a worldview in which Jew hate does not count.”

Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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