- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland., Katelyn FossettKatelyn Fossett is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy. A native of Kentucky, she has previously written for the Inter Press Service and Washington Monthly. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University.
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.