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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Could a news war between America and Iran become a physical war?

By Mahmood Ahmadi Afzadi

Fox News says Iran should be bombed. This doesn’t surprise me, given that channel’s track record in Iraq. What worries me, however, is that the hawkish channel has just begun saying that its drumbeat for war is a mere reflection of public opinion, and not studio war mongering.

Based on a recent poll by the channel, most Americans believe Iran’s nuclear program is for military purposes. Furthermore, more voters would rather see the United States take a tougher line with Iran than a softer diplomatic path. “A tougher line” is a euphemistic term for war.

But is its evidence really “documented”?  I have gone through its recent poll and found a few interesting points. The timing of this poll is highly questionable; even the network’s website admits that the poll’s coincidence with “all the controversy over the Iranian president’s visit to New York may have somewhat inflated feelings about Iran”. The same poll at any other time could produce a less war-supportive result.

Fox then asked if the viewers thought “al-Qaeda or Iran pose the greatest threat to the safety of the United States today”. The answers suggest that al-Qaeda is envisaged as twice the threat as that of Iran. The milder anti-Iranian result, however, is not reflected in the channel’s analysis, which still insists on Iran’s clear and present danger.

The most elusive question posed in the poll is whether the visiting Iranian president Mahmood Ahmadinejad’s intention to visit Ground Zero was to honor the victims or the terrorists who killed them. Regardless of what the real intention might have been, how can any intention like that ever be discovered, much less polled?

Furthermore, the majority of those asked said they thought Iran’s uranium enrichment program was for military purposes and not producing electricity. However, that falls short of suggesting the viewers voted for a US bombing of Iran.

We can hardly hold Fox News responsible for a war that has not yet happened. Whether or not the Bush administration will go to war with Iran is still uncertain. But what is certain is that the channel has practically raised the possibility of a military encounter with Iran, simply because its anti-Iranian antagonism spoken on behalf of the US people and government is believed and taken seriously by the players at the other end of the game: Iranians.

Thanks to its ability to arouse anti-American sentiments, Fox News is now the most quoted American political source among the hard-line Iranian media including the state-run radio and television and the pro-government dailies, which are scrutinizing every single minute of its programs in search of vilifications of Iran.

Iranian state-run radio and television news have referred to Fox News (which they call “the official organ of the Pentagon”) 94 times in the past two months as compared to 75 and 32 times for Reuters and CNN in the same period respectively. And while the latter two have, in more than 70 percent of the cases, been referred to for news other than the US-Iranian standoff, Fox News has been quoted or mentioned for vilifying Iran in each and every one of those 94 cases.

The pro-government daily, Iran, has meanwhile reported on the network’s provocative language more than other Iranian newspapers. Each time Fox News is quoted with reference to a US confrontation with the Islamic republic, the morning daily has run up to five articles slamming the United States in the same edition, on average a five-fold increase in its daily anti-American rhetoric.

Interestingly, the daily seems to be hardening its tone in proportion to the tone and intensity of Fox News’s anti-Iranian reporting. In its editorial one day after President Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University, Fox News was buzzing with anti-Iranian sentiment, while Iran likened the standoff to “a battle which will eventually result in a bloody American defeat.” Such an explicit reference to war by an Iranian medium is still rare, but the rhetoric is increasing as Fox’s does. It was about this time in the lead-up to the Iraq war when the other American networks started following Fox’s lead; now it seems to be Iranian media that are following the network’s style.

Spreading mutual hatred at this pace will undoubtedly contribute to more tensions between the United States and Iran. A sentence from Thomas Schelling’s wonderful cold war era book, Arms and Influence, written in 1966, illuminates the present situation: “The threat of war has always been somewhere underneath international diplomacy, but for Americans [and I would dare add Iranians] it is now much nearer the surface.”

At this precarious point in history, both Iranian and American media would do well to reflect on how their reporting draws the threat of war to the surface.

MAHMOUD AHMADI AFZADI has worked in Iranian radio and television since 1992, reporting on events like the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 1996, the killer earthquake in the southern Iranian city of Bam in 2004, and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. He has also interviewed such politicians as Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, Benazir Bhuto and Mahmood Ahmadinejad. He has been researching the Iranian nuclear issue since 2003. He is currently studying at the University of B.C.’s Individual Interdisciplinary Program.

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