Open Zion

01.28.13

How Israeli Government Officials Fueled A Conspiracy Website Story About Iran

Here's an object lesson that shows just how far some press—and even Israeli government officials—have gone down the rabbit hole on Iran issues by propagating a story reported on a conspiracy website. The dubious tale goes like this: there was a huge explosion at Iran's main nuclear facility at Fordow, near the city of Qom, leaving hundreds of workers trapped underground. The facility is the source of much trepidation in Israel, where fears of insufficient military capabilities make the nuclear plant impenetrable to Israeli attack. The report came from a completely unreliable character writing for none other than World Net Daily, a website most famous for being the most prominent hub of the "Birther" conspiracy theory positing that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim and not American (among other conspiracy theories about the Obama administration). What's more, the story, thanks to a firm denial by American officials, reveals yet another rift between the Obama administration and Israel's government over Iran—a rift that can be laid nowhere except at the feet of overeager Israeli officials.

The tale first popped up three days ago on WND, written by an author going by the pseudonym Reza Kahlili who claims to be a former CIA spy in Iran. But Kahlili is unreliable, to say the least: among other outlandish claims peddled by Kahlili, he wrote that Iran already has nuclear weapons. But that didn't stop all kinds of news media repeating Kahlili's unsubstantiated claim. The website of the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronot ran a story on Saturday that began, "WND, an American news website affiliated with the Right, reported Friday that a mysterious explosion has destroyed a significant portion of Iran's Fordo nuclear facility." (If I was on the right, I'd be angry about the claim that my political beliefs are "affiliated" with WND.) On Sunday, the Jewish Press ran a story riddled with punctuation errors that cited WND and Yedioth, reprinting parts of the latter's piece in full. And another story today at the Jewish Press, under a credulous headline, admitted the story might not be right in its lede. 

But it didn't stop there. Speaking frankly, it's not that surprising that a tabloid like Yedioth would run with an unreliable story. (In contrast, the liberal Israeli paper Haaretz deserves kudos for not simply repeating the rumor and its unreliable source, but rather giving context and doing some—gasp!—reporting on it.) What was surprising was that Israeli government officials would publicly comment on such a story. But that's exactly what happened when a top national security adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to take the report at face value. Responding to an inquiry from the Times of Israel, Homefront Defense Minister Avi Dichter—the acting defense minister at the time—said, "Any explosion in Iran that doesn’t hurt people but hurts its assets is welcome." That's all fine and dandy, except that it propagates a potentially false story from an unsavory source. Rather more amazingly, Israeli intelligence sources confirmed to the Times of London that the story was real. Now, it's perfectly reasonable for Israeli officials to want to play up the notion that they—with the help of the United States—are waging a successful shadow war against Iran's nuclear program. The problem is that if and when these stories are revealed as a bluff, the effect will be that Israel's bluster will not only be rendered hollow, but will be counter-productive to Israel's own hawkish posturing. Not only did these Israeli government officials hurt their own credibility, especially vis-a-vis the Iran issue, but they gave a leg-up to an unsavory conspiracy website.

And the bluff was indeed unmasked today when the American government threw cold water on the story: the White House denied the very report that Israeli officials have spent days pumping up. "We have no information to confirm the allegations in the report and we do not believe the report is credible," spokesman Jay Carney said in a briefing with reporters. "We don't believe those are credible reports." BuzzFeed reported the remark under the headline "White House Shuts Down Rumors Of Iran Nuclear Plant Explosion." Who can deny that both named and unnamed Israeli government officials fueled this rumor, forcing the story into non-conspiracy outlets? And now the White House deigns to respond to a website that claims the President of the United States is illegitimate. How awkward.