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Published on June 12th, 2009 | by Marsha B. Cohen

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Trans-Atlantic Con Man

Guest Post by Marsha B. Cohen

Two weeks ago, the head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s “Task Force on Isolating Iran” sent a classified telegram to all Israeli embassies and consulates titled “Activities in the Run-up to Iran’s Presidential Election.” It detailed a variety of ways that Israeli representatives could “blacken Iran’s international reputation” and delegitimize the Iranian elections, before, during and after they took place on June 12.

The primary target of the Task Force’s campaign against Iran’s election has been the media, particularly the “hundreds of journalists from around the world will go to Iran to cover the election.” To prevent any potential Roger Cohen-type rogues from getting out of control during their visit, “Israeli representatives must try to give background briefings to various media outlets before the journalists depart, and to the host country’s foreign ministry officials.”

The Israelis couldn’t hope for a more energetic debunker of Iran’s elections than Con Coughlin. Before a single vote had been cast, Coughlin’s op-ed in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, a fitting curtain-raiser to John Bolton speculations on “What If Israel Strikes Iran?” the following day, had trashed the whole Iranian election exercise as a meaningless fraud (as Elliott Abrams did in the The New York Times Friday).

After suffering three decades of international isolation and unremitting Islamic revolution, millions of pro-democracy voters in Iran were supposed to have the opportunity in this Friday’s presidential election to express their disenchantment with religious dictatorship. It is not to be. The guardians of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution will remain deeply entrenched.

In his column in Thursday’s Daily Telegraph, of which he is the “executive foreign editor,” Coughlin took a somewhat more upbeat approach to come to the conclusion that the Iranian election wasn’t going to matter.


Suddenly, it appears the Iranians have a genuine election contest on their hands. Today’s ballot was supposed to rubber-stamp a second term for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Instead, that assumption will be vigorously challenged by millions of young Iranians who are clamouring for a dramatic change in the way their country is governed.

From the mass political rallies that have brought large parts of the country to a standstill to the lively television debates that have seen the leading candidates trade insults, Iran has been transfixed. This has been arguably the most vibrant election it has held in the three decades since Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution transformed the landscape of the modern Middle East.

Nevertheless, any oped under the headline At last, a real election in Iran – but it won’t help relations with the West, isn’t going to have a happy ending:

It doesn’t matter who wins this election, the bottom line is that it is highly unlikely it will bring about a significant change on the nuclear front,” says a senior British official, who is closely involved with the Iran negotiations. “Pursuing the nuclear programme is an article of faith for the regime, and not even a change of leader is going to alter that.”

If that is the case then the West cannot afford to waste any more time deliberating over how to resolve the nuclear crisis, when Iran is so close to having sufficient quantities of fissile material to build a nuclear warhead.

In the past, western policymakers have all too often clung to the hope that relations might improve if only they could establish a dialogue with the moderates. But as this election, and all the other false dawns of the past 30 years have demonstrated, there is little that distinguishes Iran’s moderates from its Islamic revolutionaries.

This is classic Coughlin for whom citing an unnamed “senior British official” is standard operation procedure. Paul Ingram, the Executive Director of the British American Security Council (BASIC), has brought Coughlin’s use of unidentified (and unidentifiable sources) to the attention of the British Press Complaints Commission (PCC), particularly when Coughlin writes about Iran:

“Over the last few years Con Coughlin has published in the Telegraph several claims about Iran’s activities that are based entirely upon unidentified intelligence sources, and have not had any supporting reports or evidence published anywhere else. This is highly unusual and particularly dangerous when such claims could have contributed to a build up to military conflict.”

Not that Coughlin doesn’t actually have sources that tell him such things. Nine years ago, investigative reporter David Leigh of the Guardian revealed in an article in the British Journalism Review (11:2, 21-26) that British intelligence officials from MI6 had been feeding Coughlin false intelligence and propaganda for years, which Coughlin promptly converted into breaking news stories published in the Telegraph.

One such story, published on November 25, 1995, accused the son of Libyan leader Col Moamar Gadafy of involvement in a currency counterfeiting plan. Coughlin, then the newspaper’s chief foreign correspondent, claimed as his source a “British banking official”. The younger Gadafy sued the Telegraph for libel. According to Leigh, “The paper was unable to back up its suggestion that Gadafy junior might have been linked to a fraud, but pleaded, in effect, that it had been supplied with the material by the Government.”

Coughlin has made a career of cultivating and accomodating such sources. A front-page story by Coughlin was published on December 14, 2003, under the headline “Terrorist behind September 11 strike was trained by Saddam“:

Iraq’s coalition government claims that it has uncovered documentary proof that Mohammed Atta, the al-Qaeda mastermind of the September 11 attacks against the US, was trained in Baghdad by Abu Nidal, the notorious Palestinian terrorist.

The handwritten memo, which Coughlin claimed had been discovered in Iraq and provided exclusively to the Telegraph, affirmed a link between the 9/11 hijackers and Saddam Hussein, and, conveniently, Palestinian terrorism. A second part of the memo discussed a report of “Niger Shipment” which, according to Coughlin, was “believed to be uranium – that it says has been transported to Iraq via Libya and Syria.” Of course, this breathless discovery came at precisely the moment when the White House was beginning to get serious heat for “outing” former CIA operative Valerie Plame whose husband, Joe Wilson, had publicly denounced the infamous “yellowcake” report as a fraud five months before.

Which goes back to the Israeli talking points designed to demean and delegitimize the Iranian election, which are making the rounds not only in Israel but in neo-conservative coverage of the election here as well. They seem to fall under three main categories, and Coughlin has provided examples of all of them.

One is that the Iranian election is pointless, since Iran’s president doesn’t have any real power. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, holds the strings, and the presidential puppet moves according to his directives. Coughlin writes in the WSJ :

After suffering three decades of international isolation and unremitting Islamic revolution, millions of pro-democracy voters in Iran were supposed to have the opportunity in this Friday’s presidential election to express their disenchantment with religious dictatorship. It is not to be. The guardians of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution will remain deeply entrenched.

The leading candidate is the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was a founding member of the Revolutionary Guards and got to know Khomeini during the American embassy siege (he was not directly involved in the hostage-taking itself). Meanwhile, the country’s all-powerful supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was installed directly at the behest of Khomeini to be his successor shortly before the latter’s death in June 1989.

Khomeini’s heirs have maintained their iron grip of power, which has enabled them to uphold his guiding principles as well as export the Iranian revolution to places such as Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq. They are also pressing ahead with the development of a controversial nuclear program.

A second delegitimization strategy claims that president does indeed have power (how could Ahmadinejad be another Hitler if he didn’t?), but none of the other presidential candidates is any better, certainly not for the West in general and for Israel in particular. Coughlin writes in the Telegraph:

Even the so-called moderate candidates, such as Mr Mousavi and former president Mohammed Khatami (who has now withdrawn from the contest), have been closely associated with some of the darker episodes in recent Iranian history. As prime minister in the 1980s, Mr Mousavi was a key ally of Ayatollah Khomeini, and actively endorsed his virulent hostility towards the West. It was under Mr Mousavi, for example, that Iran masterminded the hostage crisis in Lebanon, which resulted in Terry Waite and John McCarthy being held in captivity for five years.

It was during Mr Khatami’s two-term presidency that Iran made the most significant work on developing its atom bomb. This was the period when key nuclear installations, such as the underground uranium enrichment complex at Natanz, were constructed under strict secrecy. Tehran only stopped work on its military nuclear programme following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which persuaded Mr Khatami that Iran might be next on Washington’s hit list if it persisted with attempts to build a nuclear bomb.

The third, and perhaps most dangerous of the Iran arguments is that all of the candidates intend to proceed with the development of nuclear weapons, with which they will threaten the world.

“It doesn’t matter who wins this election, the bottom line is that it is highly unlikely it will bring about a significant change on the nuclear front,” says a senior British official, who is closely involved with the Iran negotiations. “Pursuing the nuclear programme is an article of faith for the regime, and not even a change of leader is going to alter that.”

If that is the case then the West cannot afford to waste any more time deliberating over how to resolve the nuclear crisis, when Iran is so close to having sufficient quantities of fissile material to build a nuclear warhead.

In a case before the PCC last year, PCC Case #083618–Simanowitz vs. the Daily Telegraph– a complaint was filed about a Coughlin story published in the Telegraph on Sept. 12, 2008 under the headline “Iran Renews Nuclear Weapons Development’. Citing a single unnamed “nuclear official” as their source, Coughlin and co-author Tim Butcher, claimed that enriched uranium, “equivalent to that of six atomic bombs” had disappeared from Iran’s nuclear facility in Isfahan.

International Atomic Energy Agency spokesperson Melissa Fleming issued a press release and wrote a letter to the Telegraph in response to Coughlin and Butcher’s charges, which she declared were “fictitious.” All material at the Isfahan Nuclear Facility not only was accounted for, but was under the IAEA’s direct supervision. Fleming also pointed out that uranium is enriched at Natanz, not Isfahan (an error that Coughlin did not make again in his latest articles).

Moving to the present, in anticipation of Iranian Election Central, Coughlin makes it clear to his U.S. audience exactly why all hopes are misplaced because nothing can be gained from any of the Iranian candidates. He explains in the WSJ:

“It doesn’t matter who wins this election, the bottom line is that it is highly unlikely it will bring about a significant change on the nuclear front,” says a senior British official, who is closely involved with the Iran negotiations. “Pursuing the nuclear programme is an article of faith for the regime, and not even a change of leader is going to alter that.”

If that is the case then the West cannot afford to waste any more time deliberating over how to resolve the nuclear crisis, when Iran is so close to having sufficient quantities of fissile material to build a nuclear warhead.

In the past, western policymakers have all too often clung to the hope that relations might improve if only they could establish a dialogue with the moderates. But as this election, and all the other false dawns of the past 30 years have demonstrated, there is little that distinguishes Iran’s moderates from its Islamic revolutionaries.

One would never guess from reading Coughlin that just about three weeks ago, the IAEA’s Mohammed El Baradei, told Christopher Dickey in a Newsweek interview on the topic of Iran’s presidential candidates: “Everybody is positioning himself to be the national hero who would finally put Iran back onto the world map as part of the mainstream. They are not like the stereotyped fanatics bent on destroying everybody around them. They are not.”

But to Coughlin they are. He continues to hammer home the message of the bleak prospects for rapprochement with Iran, irrespective of the ultimate outcome of the Iranian election.

So Con Coughlin has hit the trans-Atlantic jackpot, and so has the “Task Force on Isolating Iran.” Coughlin’s Iran-bashing has run on both the op-ed page of Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, as well as the Daily Telegraph the following day. Coughlin, of course, also now joins Michael Ledeen (Khameini is dead), Amir Taheri (Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians must wear specially coloured ribbons), and various other Iran fantasists as occasional contributors to the Journal.

Jim Adds:

It’s worth noting that the Telegraph’s often-dramatic accounts of all kinds of Islamic skullduggery appeared frequently in the Pentagon’s “Early Bird,” a compilation of up to 50 or so “must-read” news stories, including Coughlin’s, distributed throughout the national-security bureaucracy every weekday morning, during the six-year stewardship of Donald Rumsfeld, as did similar articles taken from the Likudist Jerusalem Post. Since Bob Gates took over, the Post has all but disappeared form the “Early Bird’s” pages, while the Telegraph’s contributions have gradually fallen off of the same period.

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About the Author

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Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



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