There are two common reporting challenges that inevitably become more pronounced when a topic of great interest and importance becomes part of the day-to-day news: the tendency of stories to offer no new information whatsoever, and the habit of reporters to allow themselves to be spun into writing self-contradicting pieces.
Today’s New York Times dispatch on Iran is an example of both. The takeaway from the story is that American and Israeli officials talk to each other about the Iranian nuclear program, and that they sometimes agree and sometimes disagree, but don’t expect that to result in an Israeli airstrike on Iran anytime this afternoon, certainly not before dinner. The reporters write that a phone call last month between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu left American officials “persuaded that Mr. Netanyahu was willing to give economic sanctions and other steps time to work.” This is a sentence that could have been written anytime over the last fifteen years, and in fact is only relevant now (a full month after this phone call) because it still hasn’t changed.
But the curious aspect of this article is that the writers seem to contradict that point in the next paragraph — or, rather, contradict the relevance of even using that quote. They write:
The difference of opinion over Iran’s nuclear “immunity” is critical because it plays into not just the timing — or bluffing — about a possible military strike, but the calculations about how deeply and quickly sanctions against Iran must bite. If the Israeli argument is right, the question of how fast the Iranians can assemble a weapon becomes less important than whether there is any way to stop them.
“‘Zone of immunity’ is an ill-defined term,” said a senior Obama administration official, expressing frustration that the Israelis are looking at the problem too narrowly, given the many kinds of pressure being placed on Tehran and the increasing evidence that far tougher sanctions are having an effect.
The Israelis have zeroed in on Iran’s plan to put much of its uranium enrichment near Qum in an underground facility beneath so many layers of granite that even the Pentagon acknowledges it would be out of the reach of its best bunker-busting bombs. Once enrichment activities are under way at Qum, the Israelis argue, Iran could throw out United Nations inspectors and produce bomb-grade fuel without fear the facility would be destroyed.
Now hang on a minute. That sounds like the opposite of an “ill-defined” term. It sounds like the Israelis have clearly and explicitly defined it, in order to reduce possible confusion on the part of, say, unnamed Obama administration officials or reporters. Additionally, if it is merely a question of when the Iranians finish this underground facility, then sanctions have a built-in clock; at some point, they become irrelevant, and according to the logic of this story that is when Israel (or someone) will strike. The moment Netanyahu believes time has run out, something will be done about it. Until then, it is extraordinarily obvious that Netanyahu will give sanctions “time to work.”
It’s entirely possible, of course, that that Netanyahu must be persuaded by the Americans that this Iranian facility is not at the point of no return, and that American intelligence on this matter is superior to the intelligence available to the Israelis. But that’s not what the article says. In fact, the article is actually making the opposite case. The Obama administration official talking to the Times reporters is presenting the case that the administration believes Netanyahu is using the wrong benchmark.
The article explicitly states this. The reporters write that Netanyahu is concerned about the Iranians’ “impregnable breakout capability,” the term for this point of no return. “The Americans have a very different view,” according to the Times.
The article pulls the rug out from under itself in this matter several times. Perhaps these unnamed administration officials were “not authorized to describe the conversation” in part because they have no idea what they’re talking about.