On Monday Fox News reported that the Obama administration granted U.S. citizenship to 2,500 Iranians during nuclear negotiations in 2015.
The sourcing for this claim was remarkable. Fox News cited an article from the Iranian semi-official news agency Fars News, which quoted Hojjat al-Islam Mojtaba Zolnour, an Iranian MP who oversees a national security committee. He is among the growing chorus in Iran’s political establishment critical of the deal struck between President Hassan Rouhani’s administration and world powers over Iran’s nuclear activities.
“When Obama, during the negotiations about the [nuclear deal], decided to do a favor to these men, he granted citizenship to 2,500 Iranians, and some officials started a competition over whose children could be part of these 2,500 Iranians,” Zolnour said.
It was a shot at Rouhani more than anything. Zolnour, an arch-conservative, was trying to score political points by undermining the president. As a wise man once said, “All politics is local.” Usually this sort of petty mudslinging for domestic purposes is ignored outside Iran.
Not this time, though. After seeing the report on Fox News, President Donald Trump tweeted the “news” as though it were an established fact - yet one more scandal of the Obama era”
“Just out that the Obama Administration granted citizenship, during the terrible Iran Deal negotiation, to 2,500 Iranians - including to government officials. How big (and bad) is that?”
As usual, though, it’s worth taking a second look.
First, let me be clear: I cannot unequivocally say that this report is untrue, but as a journalist, I have to consider the source. We must always remain skeptical of such a claim until evidence is provided to back it up. While several Iranian officials have relatives living and working in the United States, nothing has been presented thus far that would corroborate the claims made by Zolnour and the country’s propaganda machine.
For those of us familiar with Iranian politics, this sounds a lot like many of the baseless claims that routinely get thrown around by domestic rivals — in this case a hard-line cleric opposed to Rouhani and his diplomacy with Washington.
The Fars News Agency - pronounced “farce” in Persian - is a notorious peddler of propaganda of the hardest-to-believe variety. So egregious are many of its reports that the government maintains a certain degree of distance: No one in the regime wants to stand by its proclamations.
To illustrate Fars’s credibility as a news source, it once cited the satirical website the Onion, which ran a story about survey results that showed most “rural white Americans,” if given the choice, would rather vote for Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, than Barack Obama in the 2012 U.S. presidential election.
Fars has reported on aliens and time machines, and covered proclamations by religious authorities in Iran who routinely blame natural disasters on women not properly observing the Islamic hijab.
Unfortunately, not all its stories are so benign. In 2016 Fars pledged $30,000 to the bounty for anyone who carried out an assassination of the author Salman Rushdie.
Fars is also regularly used as a vehicle to slander foreign nationals imprisoned in Iran who are denied due process or the right to defend themselves. Me included.
For Trump that doesn’t seem to matter. Any friend of fictions he’s trying to sell to the American people is a friend of his. Still, it boggles the mind that he would uncritically accept information from such a quarter.
But Trump - just like Zolnour and his fellow thugs in the Iranian regime - has little interest in factual accuracy. He’s far more interested in assailing his domestic foes (in this case, his predecessor in office). And in this sense, we see a striking overlap between Trump and the mullahs. It’s a sort of call-and-response relationship.
They may hate each other, but both thrive on whipping up their domestic audiences with “revelations” about the sins of their political rivals. Insular Iranian hard-liners attack their counterparts who favor engagement with the West by accusing them of sucking up to the United States. Trump and his conservative allies use any hint of compromise with Iran (such as the nuclear deal) to brand the Democrats as traitors.
Would I be exaggerating by saying that Trump and the mullahs are made for each other?
Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Post’s correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.