Politics vs. data in the coverage of Trump and the Iran deal

Some of the coverage of President Trump’s announcement about withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear agreement suggests it’s a big problem, while other news articles suggest, to varying degrees, that it’s a step in the right direction. Rather than substantiating either perspective with precise data, the outlets conveyed each through dramatic language, one-sided coverage and vague information, leaving much to readers’ imaginations. In essence, politics took the place of data, not just among politicians, but also in media reports.

The Knife observed the same elements in some of the primary sources, such as in Trump’s announcement, Treasury Department files, as well as in a joint statement by U.S. allies. Those were also spun, vague and full of implication. Here’s a look at two main takeaways from the coverage, how it compares to the sources and what data may be missing.

What’s missing from Trump’s speech?

Here’s a key part of Trump’s speech identifying why the U.S. is withdrawing from the agreement: 

In fact, the deal allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium and — over time — reach the brink of a nuclear breakout.

The deal lifted crippling economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for very weak limits on the regime’s nuclear activity — and no limits at all on its other malign behavior, including its sinister activities in Syria, Yemen, and other places all around the world.

Trump may or may not be correct in his claim; however, it’s difficult to verify since he doesn’t provide supporting data. For instance, the statement above doesn’t clarify how the agreement’s limits were “weak” and how that translates into allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

In his speech, Trump provided a specific data point (that Iran has allegedly continued enriching uranium), but it’s not clear whether that breaches the terms of the agreement. According to the deal, Iran maintains the ability to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reportedly verified that Iran has limited its enrichment levels, eliminated enriched uranium stockpiles that could be “purified to weapons-grade,” and that it destroyed a reactor capable of producing plutonium, Bloomberg reported. Subsequent IAEA reports also find Iran in compliance.

Trump’s speech also provided no specifics as to how the deal fails to “halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” except for his claim that there is “definitive proof” that Iran’s promise to pursue nuclear power peacefully was a “lie.” In making this assertion, Trump cited Israeli intelligence that allegedly shows Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

Yet Trump’s announcement and the subsequent media coverage provided little data to contextualize the claim that Iran lied, or that it “conclusively” violated the terms of the agreement. Trump also didn’t mention that Israel provided no evidence that Iran has violated the current nuclear deal since it was implemented in 2016. In fact, Fox included this in its article:

But even Trump’s secretary of state and the U.N. agency that monitors nuclear compliance have agreed that Iran, so far, has lived up to its side of the deal.

The other articles The Knife analyzed also included this information, as did the joint statement from the leaders of France, Germany and the U.K., which said, Iran “continues to abide by the restrictions set out” by the agreement. And the latest report by the IAEA gave Iran its seal of approval on Feb. 22:

Iran is subject to the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime under the JCPOA, which is a significant verification gain. As of today, the IAEA can confirm that the nuclear-related commitments are being implemented by Iran.

Trump didn’t include that information in his speech. He didn’t reference the IAEA’s May 1 statement on Iran either, which provides some balance to the allegations that Iran continued pursuing a nuclear weapons program after it entered the JCPOA in 2015:

The Agency’s overall assessment was that a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device were conducted in Iran prior to the end of 2003 as a coordinated effort, and some activities took place after 2003. The Agency also assessed that these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities. The same report stated that the Agency had no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.

Even with some of Trump’s more specific criticisms of Iran — for example, that it supports conflicts and militias in the Middle East — it’s not clear from his speech where the failures in the agreement are, and what would be necessary to address them, if that were a possibility at this juncture.

What’s missing from the media coverage

The US and its allies

The New York Times, which was 81 percent spun, wrote that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the U.S. “isolated” the country among its western allies. It then wrote:

Mr. Trump’s announcement, while long anticipated and widely telegraphed, plunges America’s relations with European allies into deep uncertainty. They have committed to staying in the deal, raising the prospect of a diplomatic and economic clash as the United States reimposes stringent sanctions on Iran.

It also raises the prospect of increasing tensions with Russia and China, which also are parties to the agreement.

The Times’ rendition is more dramatic than what France, Germany and the U.K. reportedly said, which is that they took note of Trump’s announcement “with regret and concern,” and their governments “remain committed to ensuring the agreement is upheld.”

None of the outlets included China’s and Russia’s responses to the announcement. China’s state-run news outlet Xinhua later reported that the country “regretted” the U.S. decision, but that it “will take an objective, fair and responsible attitude, [and will] maintain dialogues and consultations with all parties” to continue with the agreement. Similarly, Reuters reported that Russia’s foreign ministry said it was “deeply disappointed” with the decision.

The U.S. actions as it implements its withdrawal may indeed pose economic or diplomatic challenges for its allies, but that’s different to saying it “increases tensions” and that relations are “plunged into deep uncertainty.” Outlets could take a more data-based approach.

For example, they could provide expert opinions regarding which businesses could be most affected by the sanctions, and also provide alternate perspectives to the “worst case scenario” view held by some outlets. CBS News’ article, which fell outside the purview of this analysis, offers this:

Major companies like Boeing could see billions of dollars in commercial deals canceled because of the U.S. decision to reinstall sanctions on Iran, though the ultimate impact remains unclear due to the possibility of renegotiations and exemptions, experts say.

Outlets could also provide trade data that might elucidate how different countries or blocs trade with Iran. For instance, the EU reportedly exported nearly $13 billion (€11 billion) in goods to Iran in 2017, which represents a 66 percent increase from 2015, according to CNN. The outlet said that amount is “roughly 100 times larger” than U.S. exports to Iran during the same period. This data at least provides a scope of potential effects on the EU, compared to the U.S.

Given the current uncertainty, another way outlets can guide readers in understanding the potential effects of the withdrawal is by providing specifics about the sanctions, yet the outlets in this analysis rarely did.

The sanctions

The Times, The Washington Post and Fox did mention that the application of U.S. sanctions would be subject to certain 90- and 180-day wind-down periods. Fox added a little data in this regard:

… European companies will have between 90 days and 180 days to wind down their operations in Iran, or they will run afoul of the American banking system. The oil sanctions will require European and Asian countries to reduce their imports from Iran.

However, none of the outlets detailed what the sanctions affect. Without this information, it’s difficult to gauge the potential consequences to Iran, its industries and people, and also to those who do business with the country. Here’s a summary of most sanctions, based on a Treasury Department document. The sanctions reportedly affect U.S., “non-U.S. and non-Iranian persons” and entities. The outlets analyzed here also said foreign companies were subject to the same conditions and wind-down periods, lest they “run afoul” with U.S. banks. No further information was provided on this subject.

After the 90-day wind-down period, which ends on Aug. 6, sanctions are to be restored on:

  • the purchase/acquisition of U.S. dollar banknotes by Iran’s government;

  • Iran’s trade in gold or precious metals;

  • “the direct or indirect sale, supply, or transfer to or from Iran of graphite, raw, or semi-finished metals such as aluminum and steel, coal, and software for integrating industrial processes”;

  • “significant transactions related to the purchase or sale of Iranian rials, or the maintenance of significant funds or accounts outside the territory of Iran denominated in the Iranian rial”;

  • the purchase/subscription to/facilitation of “the issuance of Iranian sovereign debt”;

  • Iran’s automotive sector.

After the 180-day wind-down period, which ends on Nov. 4, sanctions are to be restored on:

  • Iran’s port operators, as well as its shipping and shipbuilding sectors (these include Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, South Shipping Line Iran, and their affiliates);

  • the purchase of petroleum, petroleum or petrochemical products from Iran, as well as petroleum-related transactions with the National Iranian Oil Company, Naftiran Intertrade Company, and National Iranian Tanker Company, among others;

  • “transactions by foreign financial institutions with the Central Bank of Iran and designated Iranian financial institutions under Section 1245 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (NDAA)”;

  • “the provision of specialized financial messaging services to the Central Bank of Iran and Iranian financial institutions described in Section 104(c)(2)(E)(ii) of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA)”;

  • “the provision of underwriting services, insurance, or reinsurance”;

  • Iran’s energy sector.

The Iran deal is complex in terms of players and history. When sources provide such spun and vague information, the media could supplement its coverage with data and context, so readers can understand the facts and don’t have to just take politicians’ statements at face value.

Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media