America is once again drifting toward war. Less than ten years after the U.S. invasion (and subsequent occupation) of Iraq, its myriad lessons seem forgotten. A familiar, toxic mix of sloppy politicians and politicized foreign policy experts is telling the American public that an irrational Iranian regime hell-bent on acquiring and using nuclear weapons poses an imminent threat to its safety -- despite the highest levels of America's national security establishment speaking on the record to the contrary.
The ghosts of America's neoconservative past have successfully shaped the policy around its selling points despite next-to-zero discussion about the consequences of war. Obama administration officials have always been delicate when pushing back against their hawkish counterparts on Iran policy, and election-year considerations have heightened those sensitivities to the point of near-paralysis. Reductionism has focused the debate in America on how the military can stop an Iranian nuclear bomb that is neither in existence nor imminent.
Many Americans who believe this dishonest discourse cannot be blamed for basing their views on the misinformation they receive. A free press that reports with neither passion nor prejudice is part of America's democratic fabric. And yet, we despair about the credulousness of the U.S. media when it comes to this dangerous saber-rattling vis-à-vis Iran. Rather than learning from sins previously committed in the run up to the Iraq war, most media outlets are sticking to the same formula on Iran. To avoid a disastrous repeat, their questions need to recalibrate the frame of the debate to put it in its proper context.
To that end, the following are six questions reporters should ask of anyone advocating military action against Iran:
Q. America has not had a diplomatic presence in Iran for three decades. As such, much of our knowledge relies on intelligence. Given the controversy over our intelligence on Iraq, how are we factoring in and addressing the uncertainty of intelligence on Iran's nuclear program?
Q. What are the views of the Iranian people in regards to a potential war and the current sanctions regime? Is this current path helping us win or lose hearts and minds in Iran?
Q. What are the forces behind Iran's nuclear program? Could one factor be a desire for a nuclear deterrence due to a sense of insecurity and threat? If so, how can we affect Iran's sense of need for a nuclear deterrence? Does the increasingly bellicose and confrontational approach of the West actually increase Tehran's desire for nuclear deterrence?
Q. The U.S. has thousands of nuclear weapons. Israel has hundreds. Iran currently has a mighty arsenal of zero nuclear weapons. The U.S. has successfully deterred Iran for more than three decades. Why are we assuming that suddenly, deterrence will not work with Iran anymore?
Q. The U.S. military leadership does not believe Israel has an effective military option when it comes to unilaterally destroying Iran's nuclear sites. A tense exchange is currently playing out in public between the Netanyahu government and the U.S. military, with Israeli officials accusing Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey of having "served Iran's interests." What lies behind the starkly diverging views of the Netanyahu government and the U.S. military on Iran?
Q. According to the Congressional Research Service, total war-related funding for Iraq has exceeded $800 billion -- an average of approximately $100 billion per year. With these numbers in mind -- and at a time of over 8 percent unemployment and unprecedented government bailouts -- how will we pay for a war with Iran?
Looking back at America's recent wars, the American people trusted that their elected leaders accurately assessed the pros and cons of their policies. It didn't take long before protracted quagmires collapsed that trust. With the notable exception of neoconservatives, most Americans eventually realized the sad truth: their leaders didn't have a plan beyond bombing; they knew little if anything about the country in question; and they failed to conduct a realistic cost assessment -- in both blood and treasure -- of the endeavor. By the time Americans realized all of this, the damage had already been done.
Avoiding another war of choice will require a media that digs beyond agenda-driven analysis and prevents the debate from being curtailed. It will require a media that doesn't permit a question of life and death to be framed in a simplistic manner that leaves the U.S. with a false choice of either bombing Iran or accepting an Iranian bomb. It is the responsibility of reporters -- not congressmen, senators, neoconservatives or foreign governments -- to not only get answers to their questions, but also to define the questions properly.
On Iraq, the mainstream media did not ask the right questions until disaster was a reality. On Iran, those questions need to be asked now so that disaster can be avoided.
Reza Marashi is Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council and a former Iran Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of State. Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, is the author of the new book A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy With Iran (Yale University Press, 2012).
Cross-posted from Nieman Watchdog.