COMMENTS: Teheran Tensions

The day after ABC's Exclusive revealed that the CIA has been given the green light by President George Bush to mount covert operations against Iran, the escalating frictions between Iran and the United States were the Story of the Day. Yet only CBS led with Iran coverage, its own Exclusive on covert sabotage against the uranium enrichment program. NBC led, instead, with the President's warning about terrorist sabotage here at home. By accident, that was ABC's lead too. ABC meant to kick off with summer plans for airline travel but its videotape soundtrack failed temporarily so the President qualified for its lead by default.

As military and diplomatic and espionage action heated up between Teheran and Washington, the networks chose different angles. CBS' David Martin watched the USNavy sail into the Persian Gulf with a pair of aircraft carrier groups--17,000 sailors and Marines, and nine warships. He called it a "made-for-photo-op formation." ABC's Jonathan Karl noted that the ambassadors to Baghdad are scheduled to begin negotiations on Monday, the "first high-level one-on-one meeting between the United States and Iran in years." As the International Atomic Energy Agency reported "startling progress toward producing nuclear fuel," according to NBC's Andrea Mitchell, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "appeared to be almost pleading with Iran to negotiate."

The nuclear program was the topic of Sheila MacVicar's scoop for CBS. Because sanctions prohibit Teheran from purchasing equipment for the program legally, "it has turned to the black market," with clandestine procurement operations in Frankfurt and Dubai. The black market, in turn, makes it "vulnerable to industrial sabotage." Intelligence operatives including "former Russian nuclear scientists" and expatriate Iranians sell components "with flaws that are difficult to detect, making them unstable or unusable." In April 2006, for example, 50 uranium centrifuges were destroyed because their power supply had been tampered with. The upshot is that Iran appears "almost paranoid and predisposed to believe that any of its many technical problems" may be caused by saboteurs.

As NBC's Mitchell confirmed that report by Brian Ross on ABC yesterday that President Bush "has opted for secret non-lethal operations against Iran," ABC's Karl concentrated on Teheran's arrest of Americans accused of "trying to use soft power to overthrow the government." As Mitchell did yesterday, Karl profiled Haleh Esfandiari, a scholar from the Woodrow Wilson International Center, now being held in the Evin Prison in Teheran, "a dark place known for brutal interrogations." Karl called Esfandiari "the face of what is being called the New Iranian Hostage Crisis" even as her family, friends and colleagues contradicted the accusations against her as "preposterous." Mitchell added that another academic, Kian Tajbakhsh of Columbia University, is the latest to be locked up. Meanwhile US military forces, CBS' Martin reminded us, have "raided Iranian offices and taken Iranians prisoner" in Iraq.


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