Language Creep: Iran and the Nuclear 'Threat'

The Editors, 27 November 2011

Categories: Iran | War | The Guardian | Middle East | The Telegraph | BBC News | The Daily Mail |

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The IAEA report on the state of Iran's nuclear programme released on 9 November didn't quite present western governments with the doomsday scenario they had hoped for. The run-up to the report's publication became a platform for voices to be raised in the media calling for yet another war, as though the 'threat' of Iran developing a nuclear weapon was suddenly ever more imminent. The Daily Mail reported a 'serious threat', as '[Iran]'s nuclear development spirals out of control'.

Upon release, however, the report did not match up to the hype previously proffered by commentators, leaving the BBC and other outlets able only to say that Iran had conducted research 'relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device'.

Yet, in terms of public opinion, it would make little difference if Iran developed nuclear weapons or not. As a result of the media campaign which has stretched on for years, for many people Iran is now synonymous with nuclear weapons development. In fact, almost two years ago 71% of adult Americans asked by CNN said that they believed Iran has nuclear weapons.

Even when the news hasn't been hyped-up about the 'Iranian threat', there have been subtle attempts at framing the country as a nuclear state, such as when Tony Blair appeared at the Chilcot inquiry earlier this year. The BBC reported that:

Asked whether what had happened in Iraq had made the risk from Iran and other countries developing nuclear weapons worse, rather than better, he said: 'I don't think so.'

In an article for the Guardian following the release of the report earlier this month, Julian Borger admitted that there was 'no smoking gun' in the IAEA evidence, yet the article ran with the title 'Iran nuclear report: IAEA claims Tehran working on advanced warhead'.

Despite this lack of a 'smoking gun' - forcing the media to prefix their threat reports with 'relevant to the development of' and similar disclaimers - we can see the hyperbolic language now creeping back in. On the 11 November the BBC reported that Iran was 'carrying out research aimed at developing nuclear weapons capacity'. Adrian Bloomfield at the Telegraph reported(incorrectly) the next day that the IAEA said 'for the first time that the Islamic republic appeared to be building a nuclear weapon.'

Officials now feel comfortable enough to flout the truth in their public statements. On 22 November George Osborne spoke to the BBC about British sanctions on Iran's banks, citing, involvement in 'the development of Iran's weaponised military nuclear weapon programme.' The assumption behind Osborne’s statement (an inarticulate string of vaguely threatening words) is that a nuclear weapons programme does actually exist and this claim goes completely unchallenged by his interviewer and the BBC website report.

Fear of an Iranian attack is greatly exaggerated beyond reality. When Iran recently announced it would retaliate if attacked (a stance one can be certain France or Britain for example would be sure to take) it was pitted as the aggressor, responsible for 'increasing tensions'. On the other hand, Iran has good reason to fear attack from the US and its allies, who have been interfering in Iranian political affairs for decades. Furthermore, the US has threatened Iran with nuclear weapons on at least two post-WW2 occasions, 1946 and 19801.

The BBC have today (27 November) reported that the IAEA report suggested that 'Iran was working towards acquiring a nuclear weapon'. Such a proclamation verges on pure fantasy, considering that the report made no such suggestion, and is merely another example of how language has drifted towards accordance with government policy and away from the conclusions of the IAEA report.

For more, see our article The Media Beats the War Drum for an Attack on Iran, the Eye on the News entries for Iran, or our Editor's blog post about holding journalists to account for their reporting on the matter.


1. Curtis, Mark (2003). The Great Deception: Anglo-American Power and World Order. London: Pluto Press, p. 140-141

Categories in which this article appears: Iran | War | The Guardian | Middle East | The Telegraph | BBC News | The Daily Mail |

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