Ever since the U.S. and its partners inked an interim agreement with Iran in Geneva, many commentators on the right have been engaging in overwrought denunciations of the deal. The criticisms often rely on distorting the terms of the agreement. But the distortions of the deal's terms aren't only of the "Munich Katrinas" variety, and don't only emanate from the neoconservative right.
One example of such a distortion appeared in the liberal magazine the New Republic, authored by Robert Satloff, head of the pro-Israel think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). Satloff's criticisms were less strident, but no less misplaced. He used an apt analogy for the deal: a cop yelling at a perp to "freeze." Only he misinterpreted how the analogy played out in Geneva: "[T]he culprit wasn’t being told to 'keep moving, just more slowly,'" Satloff writes.
This was the premise of his entire piece: that Iran hasn't been made to stop progress on its nuclear program. It's understandable that he thought so, because he didn't apparently understand the Geneva deal: the initial version that went up online contained several factual errors. I wrote a polite note to the editors outlining the errors. A few hours later, the piece was updated, but only one of the errors was corrected; the text of the other two were simply altered to, in one case, fix the error and, in the other, to dismiss it by sleight of hand. These latter two updates, though they changed the meaning of Satloff's text, were only noted with a sentence after the correction that said, "This piece has also been updated for clarity." (I've published online my e-mail to TNR editors and a comparison of the original statements versus new versions.)
The problem remains: Satloff's errors were the basis upon which he asserted that the Iranians hadn't even halted progress. The headline of his piece, after all, was "Iran's Nuclear Program Is Still Growing, and America's Fist Is Shrinking." On Twitter, I complained to Satloff that his central thesis was undermined by the corrections—noted and otherwise—and he responded, "Absolutely wrong—central thesis is difference between 'freezing program' (didn't happen) and 'freezing progress.'"
That's a strange defense: The acknowledgement that the deal even froze progress at all was only made by Satloff in a parenthetical update to the original text, where he admitted, contra the notion that the perp would "keep moving, just more slowly," that Barack Obama had in fact said, "We have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program." I asked Satloff about the contradictions between his update and his original thesis, but got no clear response. Eventually, Satloff wrote, "Every day Iran enriches, even at low levels with restrictions, program improves. Deal makes it improve more slowly." So now we're apparently back to saying, contra the Obama administration, that Iran's program is still progressing.
Satloff can't have it both ways: he can't praise the Obama administration's level-headed explanations of the deal and decry the media's exaggerated ones, especially because Satloff's own interpretation doesn't jibe with the administration's. This much should be crystal clear now that Obama has been joined by Secretary of State John Kerry, who said in a video released yesterday online, "We're not just slowing down its progress; we're actually halting it and even rolling it back in some key areas."
Given its role in the run-up to the Iraq war, the New Republic ought to take heed: liberal magazines needn't support the Geneva accord simply by dint of being liberal, but they ought not to follow the conservative press into criticism of the deal by distortion.