Passport

Iran's State Press Stole Our Article -- and Turned It Into Blatant Propaganda

Fars News Agency, the state-run Iranian news outlet famous for picking up an Onion story and presenting it as news, has apparently decided that plagiarizing satirical articles isn't brazen enough. On Thursday, the news agency's editors reprinted a Foreign Policy article on the debate over chemical weapons in Syria. And by "reprinted" we mean they lopped off entire paragraphs, changed key words, and added others to turn the argument into a case for why the U.S. shouldn't take military action in Syria -- and why the rebels, not Syrian President and Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad, have committed unspeakable atrocities (oh, and Iran comes off looking pretty good too). "This article originally appeared on the US Foreign Policy magazine," the Fars article notes at the end of the story. We beg to differ.

The article -- "Questioning Credibility," by Shibley Telhami -- examined Arab attitudes on chemical weapons and U.S. intervention in Syria. Early on in the piece, Telhami argues that views on chemical weapons use are not the primary drivers of Arab opinion on the crisis: 

What most Arabs think needs to be done in the Syrian conflict, including by the United States, has not been shaped or changed by the use of CW. In reality, three issue areas, none of them driven by the CW question, determine Arab attitudes on Syria: humanitarian, sectarian, and strategic.

The Fars reprint deletes Telhami's paragraph on the sectarian dimension of the conflict -- a touchy subject for Iran's Shiite leaders (Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and he is engaged in a civil war with largely Sunni rebels). You may notice that in making Telhami's mention of sectarianism vanish, the editors at Fars forgot to strike a comma (the reprint also changes "use of CW" to "accusation of CW use," a tweak Fars makes throughout the piece). Changes are in bold:

What most Arabs think needs to be done in the Syrian conflict, including by the United States, has not been shaped or changed by the accusation of CW use. In reality, two issue areas, none of them driven by the CW question, determine Arab attitudes on Syria: humanitarian, and strategic.

Telhami goes on to sketch out the humanitarian perspective on the crisis:

The humanitarian concern arose at the outset of the Syrian uprisings, as Bashar al-Assad used the might of his army to brutally attack civilians. CW use was another example of brutality, but not the main force behind regional perceptions. 

Fars is comfortable with that assessment -- except for the part about the Syrian president mowing down his own people, and the conflict stemming from a popular uprising. The Iranian news agency would rather attribute the violence to "terrorists" -- the term the Assad regime prefers for the rebels. Observe that the agency has no trouble dropping qualifiers like "allegedly" when describing chemical weapons use "by extremists":

The humanitarian concern arose at the outset of the Syrian crisis, as terrorists used army to brutally attack civilians. CW use by extremists was another example of brutality, but not the main force behind regional perceptions.

Telhami then moves on to the strategic issues in the conflict:

The strategic side of Arab attitudes has of course many dimensions, but at the core is Saudi-Iranian competition that has drawn allies on each side. This is also independent of CW concerns. Saudi rulers have been privately lobbying the West to intervene since the beginning of the Syrian uprisings, long before the use of CW. Iran, too, sees the American role in Syria as part of a bigger strategic picture involving U.S. and Israeli interests, not CW as such.  

Fars takes the opportunity to inform readers that its rivalry with Saudi Arabia is a "confrontation," not a mere competition, and throws in an Iranian government talking point about the country's role in the Syrian crisis for good measure:

The strategic side of Arab attitudes has of course many dimensions, but at the core is Saudi-Iranian confrontation that has drawn allies on each side. This is also independent of CW concerns. Saudi rulers have been privately lobbying the West to intervene since the beginning of the Syrian uprisings, long before the accusation of CW use. Iran, too, sees the American role in Syria as part of a bigger strategic picture involving US and Israeli interests, and believes that this crisis should be solved peacefully with cooperation of all Syrian groups, not by a foreign intervention.

The edits get even more egregious when Telhami turns to regional perceptions of Iran's nuclear program. Here's Telhami:

[D]espite popular unease with Iran and outright animosity toward Tehran by some rulers, the majority of Arabs have consistently opposed international pressure to curtail Iran's nuclear program. Only a minority has said that a nuclear Iran would be bad for the region. And the angrier Arabs are toward the United States (and Israel), the more permissive they are toward Iran and its nuclear program.

And here's Fars:

[D]espite unease with Iran's peaceful nuclear program and outright animosity toward Tehran by some rulers, the majority of Arabs have consistently opposed international pressure to curtail Iran's nuclear program, even though Iran always has said that it sees no need to nuclear bomb. And the angrier Arabs are toward the United States (and Israel), the more permissive they are toward Iran and its nuclear program.

We could go on and on. Telhami refers to America as a "feared superpower in the Middle East," while Fars opts for "hated country." A reference to the "strong anti-Assad mood" in the region is nowhere to be found. Entire paragraphs grappling with the question of whether the U.S. should intervene are stricken from the record.

Call it plagiarism by find-and-replace, or the Iranian state media's house style. And perhaps we shouldn't be all that surprised, given that we're talking about a news agency that fell for an Onion story about rural white American voters preferring former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Barack Obama, and doctored a photo of Michelle Obama to cover up her shoulders. Just earlier this week, IranWire, a website run by Iranian journalists outside the country, called out Fars for getting duped by a story on the Daily Rash, another American satire site, about Russian President Vladimir Putin unfriending Obama on Facebook. So sure, this is not the first time Fars has shamelessly reshaped the Internet to its liking -- but it might be the first time the news agency has taken that effort quite this far.

Passport

That Awkward Time Putin Called for Military Intervention in the New York Times

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a direct appeal to the American public in an editorial in Thursday morning's New York Times. "The potential strike by the United States against Syria," he writes, "despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.... It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."

But Putin seemed notably less concerned about civilian deaths and the second-order effects of military intervention when he took to the same opinion page in 1999 to make the case for intervention -- in Chechnya. In an editorial titled "Why We Must Act," he defended Russian military action, writing that "in the midst of war, even the most carefully planned military operations occasionally cause civilian casualties, and we deeply regret that." Despite international concerns, though, he assured readers that the Russian counterinsurgency operation would not cause widespread harm to civilians. "American officials tell us that ordinary citizens are suffering, that our military tactics may increase that suffering," he wrote then. "The very opposite is true. Our commanders have clear instructions to avoid casualties among the general population. We have nothing to gain by doing otherwise." Because when the Russians stage a military intervention, it's different.

Today, Putin is much more concerned about the civilian toll of military action, and questions the use of force entirely. "No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect," he writes -- this time not as a reason for caution, but rather as a rationale for opposing intervention. Elsewhere in the world, he writes, "force has proved ineffective and pointless."

In 1999, Putin justified the "decisive armed intervention" in Chechnya as "the only way to prevent further casualties both within and far outside the borders of Chechnya, further suffering by so many people enslaved by terrorists." "[W]hen a society's core interests are besieged by violent elements," he wrote, "responsible leaders must respond."

That's not unlike the case President Obama made on Tuesday. The use of chemical weapons in Syria demonstrated "why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits -- a crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war," Obama said. In that speech, the president laid out his case that the enforcement of the international ban on chemical weapons is, to borrow Putin's words, one of society's core interests. "As the ban against these weapons erodes," Obama said Tuesday, "other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians."

Putin claims in his editorial to be more interested in protecting the United Nations, where Russian obstinacy has consistently blocked Security Council proposals for sanctions. This week, the Russian delegation said it would veto a Security Council resolution to enforce the terms of a chemical weapons disarmament plan being worked out by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. "No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage," Putin writes today. As for what leverage the United Nations -- which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday had suffered a "collective failure to prevent atrocity crimes in Syria" -- should apply to Syria, Putin did not address that in his editorial this morning.

ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images