Notes on an Obama Smear

Amir Taheri’s most famous scoop.


When reading a newspaper article, often the most important fact is contained not in the body of the text but in the by-line. If you know who wrote a story, you can make a good guess as to its accuracy and intent. Take for example this inflammatory article that appeared in the New York Post on October 14th, purporting to be an interview with Jesse Jackson offering insight into the Middle East policies that Barack Obama would pursue as president. The article was written by the Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri. Here is the key passage in the article:


[Jackson] promised “fundamental changes” in US foreign policy – saying America must “heal wounds” it has caused to other nations, revive its alliances and apologize for the “arrogance of the Bush administration.”


The most important change would occur in the Middle East, where “decades of putting Israel‘s interests first” would end.


Jackson believes that, although “Zionists who have controlled American policy for decades” remain strong, they’ll lose a great deal of their clout when Barack Obama enters the White House.


Even on first glance, this passage is slightly suspicious, although it has lots of quotations it also has some blurry language (“Jackson believes” rather than “Jackson says”) and the single most salient bit of news (that “Zionists” will “lose a great deal of their clout when Barack Obama enters the White House”) is not a quote at all but a paraphrase.


It’s also worth noting that the story is incredibly convenient for the Republicans. Many older Jewish-Americans are worried about Barack Obama because of his Muslim-sounding name; these voters are immensely important in the swing state of Florida. What better time to publish an article saying that Obama is about to overturn long-held American policies in the Middle East, and also that he’s connected with Jesse Jackson (whose “Hymietown” remarks of the 1984, although long apologized for, haven’t been forgotten). Not surprisingly, this story was widely circulated in Jewish-American blogs.


Both the Obama camp and Jackson himself have challenged the factual accuracy of the article. The Obama camp has said that Jackson doesn’t speak for their Middle East policies while Jackson claims that he was misquoted and misrepresented.


I think Jackson is telling the truth, mainly because of the by-line: Amir Taheri.


Who is Amir Taheri?


He’s a fairly typical denizen of the right-wing subculture of American opinion journalism: a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, National Review, and many other like-minded journals.


But aside from his politics, Taheri is also a writer with a history of making things up. The most famous case is in 2006 when he wrote an article for the National Post stating that Iran was planning on requiring Jews to wear “yellow badges”, a move reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Like the Jackson story, this article was expertly designed to further a neo-conservative agenda, painting the Iranian regime as a modern-day counterpart to Nazi Germany. Taheri’s story was quickly and definitively refuted (see the report in Wikipedia as well as the excellent analysis by Jim Henley, which comes in two parts)  


If you go to the Wikipedia page on Taheri, you’ll see that there are several instances where he’s been credibly accused of fabricating information. Aside from the “yellow badges” story, here are the three other main examples:


Javad Zarif accusations


Dwight Simpson of San Francisco State University and Kaveh Afrasiabi accuse Taheri and his publisher Eleana Benador of fabricating false stories in the New York Post in 2005 where Taheri identified Iran’s UN ambassador Javad Zarif as one of the students involved in the 1979 seizure of hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran. Zarif was Simpson’s teaching assistant and a graduate student in the Department of International Relations of San Francisco State University at the time.


Nest of Spies


Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University has accused Amir Taheri of concocting nonexistent conpiracies in his writings, and states that he “repeatedly refers us to books where the information he cites simply does not exist. Often the documents cannot be found in the volumes to which he attributes them…. [He] repeatedly reads things into the documents that are simply not there.” Bakhash has stated that Taheri’s 1988 Nest of Spies is “the sort of book that gives contemporary history a bad name.”


The Sunni-Shiite terror network



In a 29 March 2008 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Taheri makes the statement that, “The truth is that Sunni and Shiite extremists have always been united in their hatred of the U.S.“, and alleges that Iranian Government supports Sunni groups such as Al Qaeda. Under Sunni groups, Taheri mentiones the Talysh nationalist movement in the republic of Azerbaijan the Rastakhiz party in Tajikistan. However, the Talysh are predominantly Shia with a Sunni minority in the mountainous regions. Rastakhiz (Islamic Renaissance Party) was incorported into the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) was an amalgam of nationalist and Islamist parties and movements. The war’s greatest destruction and toll in civilian deaths was in the south, where Kuliabis and their allies conducted campaigns of “ethnic cleansing” against local residents of Gharmi and Pamiri origin. The height of hostilities occurred between 1992 and 1993 and pitted Kulyabi militias against an array of groups, including militants from the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) and ethnic minority Pamiris from Gorno-Badakhshan. In large part due to the foreign support they received, the Kulyabi militias were able to soundly defeat opposition forces and went on what has been described by Human Rights Watch as an ethnic cleansing campaign against Pamiris and Garmis. The Pamiri people are Ismaili Shiites. In fact Iran does not support the Sunni movement of Tajikistan and is instead betting on a stabilized country linked to it by Persian culture. Iran and Russia, the most important foreign powers in the country, had developed common interests and Iran needs to preserve its cooperative relationship with Russia. Especially after the rise to power in Afghanistan of the mainly Pashtun Islamic Movement of Taliban (Islamic students) with Pakistani and Saudi support, Russia, Iran, and Uzbekistan became even more alarmed about the situation there. All were in different ways aiding the non-Pashtun (Tajik, Uzbek, and Shia Hazara) forces resisting the Taliban in north Afghanistan. Iran and Russia also had similar interests in the Caspian Sea, in limiting Western involvement in Central Asia, and in increasing their leverage over Afghanistan. Shi’ite Iran nearly went to war against the Taliban after the massacre of Afghan Shi’ites and nine Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998.



Given Taheri’s history of making things up, given Jackson’s denials, and given the incredibly convenient nature of what the story purports to report, I have no doubt that the original report was at best misleading and at worst false.

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