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Inside Iran’s Influence Operation Jay Solomon

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From left: Ali Vaez, Ariane Tabatabai, Dina Esfandiary, Adnan Tabatabai, and Robert Malley. (Photo illustration by The Free Press)

We are living through a strange but wonderful moment in which many of the country’s best reporters no longer work inside legacy publications. Instead, they work in new newsrooms, including this one.

Among those reporters is Jay Solomon, who used to break stories for The Wall Street Journal. Now he writes about foreign affairs and national security for Semafor. We were especially struck by his recent scoop about Iran’s widespread influence operation—a scoop that already has House and Senate Republicans calling for an investigation—and we are grateful to Semafor for allowing us to share it with all of you. —BW

In the spring of 2014, senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials initiated a quiet effort to bolster Tehran’s image and positions on global security issues—particularly its nuclear program—by building ties with a network of influential overseas academics and researchers. They called it the Iran Experts Initiative.

The scope and scale of the IEI project has emerged in a large cache of Iranian government correspondence and emails reported for the first time by Semafor and Iran International. The officials, working under the moderate president Hassan Rouhani, congratulated themselves on the impact of the initiative: at least three of the people on the Foreign Ministry’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, who was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance.

The documents offer deep and unprecedented new insights into the thinking and inner workings of Iran’s Foreign Ministry at a crucial time in the nuclear diplomacy—even as Tehran’s portrayal of events is questioned, if not flatly denied, by others involved in the IEI. They show how Iran was capable of the kind of influence operations that the U.S. and its allies in the region often conduct.

The emails were obtained and translated by Iran International, a Persian-language television news channel headquartered in London—which was briefly based in Washington due to Iranian government threats—and shared with Semafor. Semafor and Iran International jointly reported on some aspects of the IEI. Both organizations have produced their own stories independently.

The communications reveal the access Rouhani’s diplomats have had to Washington’s and Europe’s policy circles, particularly during the final years of the Obama administration, through this network. One of the German academics in the IEI, according to the emails, offered to ghostwrite op-eds for officials in Tehran. Others would, at times, seek advice from the Foreign Ministry’s staff about attending conferences and hearings in the U.S. and Israel. The IEI participants were prolific writers of op-eds and analyses, and provided insights on television and Twitter, regularly touting the need for a compromise with Tehran on the nuclear issue—a position in line with both the Obama and Rouhani administrations at the time. The emails describe the IEI being initiated following Rouhani’s 2013 election, when he was looking to find an accommodation with the West on the nuclear issue. According to the emails, Iran’s Foreign Ministry, through its in-house think tank—the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS)—reached out to ten “core” members for the project, through which it planned to liaise over the next 18 months to aggressively promote the merits of a nuclear deal between Tehran and Washington, which was finalized in July 2015.

Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s special envoy on Iran, was placed on leave this June following the suspension of his security clearance. (Brendan Smialowski via Getty Images)

“This initiative which we call ‘Iran Experts Initiative (IEI)’ is consisted of a core group of 6–10 distinguished second-generation Iranians who have established affiliations with the leading international think-tanks and academic institutions, mainly in Europe and the U.S.,” Saeed Khatibzadeh, a Berlin-based Iranian diplomat and future Foreign Ministry spokesman, wrote to Mostafa Zahrani, the head of the IPIS think tank in Tehran, on March 5, 2014, as the project gained steam. Their communication veered between English and Farsi—which was translated by Iran International and independently verified by Semafor.

Khatibzadeh wrote again a week later, on March 11, and said that he had gained support for the IEI from two young academics—Ariane Tabatabai and Dina Esfandiary—following a meeting with them in Prague. “We three agreed to be the core group of the IEI.”

Tabatabai currently serves in the Pentagon as the chief of staff for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, a position that requires a U.S. government security clearance. She previously served as a diplomat on Malley’s Iran nuclear negotiating team after the Biden administration took office in 2021. Esfandiary is a senior adviser on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that Malley headed from 2018–2021.

Tabatabai and Esfandiary didn’t respond to requests for comment on the IEI. Esfandiary’s current employer, the International Crisis Group, confirmed her participation in the initiative. But the Crisis Group, which promotes conflict resolution globally, said the IEI was an informal network of academics and researchers that wasn’t overseen by the Iranian Foreign Ministry and that it received funding from a European government and some European institutions, which they declined to identify.

The emails discussing the IEI were part of a trove of thousands of Zahrani’s correspondence that Iran International obtained. These include passport copies, résumés, invitations to conferences, airplane tickets, and visa applications. It’s not clear how complete or comprehensive the documents are concerning the IEI.

According to the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s communications, the IEI project ramped up after this initial outreach. On May 14, 2014, a kickoff conference was held at the Palais Coburg hotel in Vienna—site of the international nuclear talks. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was listed as an attendee, according to an email, as well as members of his nuclear negotiating team and eight representatives from Western think tanks. Lower-level Iranian diplomats had initially proposed the meeting be held in Tehran, but Zarif’s deputy advised against it for logistical reasons.

Zarif was fixated during the discussions in Vienna on elevating, or creating, a public figure who could promote Iran’s views on the international stage concerning the nuclear issue, according to the emails. He specifically mentioned an Iranian version of Robert Einhorn, an Obama administration diplomat and expert on nuclear proliferation, who regularly published scholarly pieces on Iran’s nuclear program and appeared at U.S. and European think tank events.

“You were very right by saying that it is a shame that Iran has not its very own Bob Einhorn—someone who can foster attention on Iran’s case the way Einhorn does for the U.S. or the P5+1 for that matter,” Adnan Tabatabai, a German academic who attended the IEI meeting in Vienna, wrote Zarif in English five days after it ended. The P5+1 was the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, and the diplomatic bloc negotiating the nuclear deal with Tehran. Adnan Tabatabai is not related to Ariane Tabatabai.

Adnan Tabatabai. (Photo via CARPO)

Adnan Tabatabai also offered Iran’s Foreign Ministry to ghostwrite pieces on its behalf. “Our suggestion could be that we, as a group, work on an essay (2000 words) regarding the ongoing talks,” Tabatabai told Zarif in the same email. “It could, for example, be published under a former official’s name, through the CSR or IPIS—of course after you and your team revised the piece.”

The foreign minister responded four days later, copying Zahrani. Zarif accepted the suggestion and recommended that “these articles or Op-Eds” be published under the names of various Iranian and non-Iranians abroad, as well as former officials. It’s unclear if, or how many, pieces were actually published through this process.

Adnan Tabatabai declined to comment about the IEI, saying the reporting by Iran International and Semafor was “based on falsehoods and factually wrong assumptions.” He also questioned the authenticity of the correspondence with Zarif. Iran International commissioned a forensic examination of the emails and found no discrepancies in the metadata that would indicate they were inauthentic.

The IEI quickly pushed ahead with one of the initiative’s primary objectives—publishing opinion pieces and analyses in top-tier media in the U.S. and Europe, specifically targeting policymakers. Less than a month after the Vienna gathering, Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, a close protégé of Robert Malley’s who is listed as part of the IEI, sent an article on defusing the nuclear crisis to Zahrani of IPIS, ahead of publication. “I look forward to your comments and feedback,” he wrote in Farsi on June 4, 2014, attaching a piece entitled “The Conceptual Perils of Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran.”

The emails show that the article was shared by Zahrani with Foreign Minister Zarif the day it arrived. It was then published 12 days later in The National Interest under the title “False Dilemmas in the Iran Talks,” with some minor wording changes. It’s unclear if Zarif made any fixes, as no reply email from him is in the chain. While many think tanks and media outlets have policies against sharing articles before publication, ICG said in a statement to Semafor that it routinely and actively solicits the views of the primary actors involved in a conflict and shares relevant text with policymakers.

Ariane Tabatabai. (Photo via NATO Parliamentary Assembly)

Ariane Tabatabai, the current Pentagon official, on at least two occasions checked in with Iran’s Foreign Ministry before attending policy events, according to the emails. She wrote to Zahrani in Farsi on June 27, 2014, to say she’d met Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal—a former ambassador to the U.S.—who expressed interest in working together and invited her to Saudi Arabia. She also said she’d been invited to attend a workshop on Iran’s nuclear program at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. “I am not interested in going, but then I thought maybe it would be better that I go and talk, rather than an Israeli like Emily Landau who goes and disseminates disinformation. I would like to ask your opinion too and see if you think I should accept the invitation and go.”

Zahrani replied the same day: “All things considered, it seems Saudi Arabia is a good case, but the second case [Israel] is better to be avoided. Thanks.” Tabatabai answered a few hours later: “Thank you very much for your advice. I will take action regarding Saudi Arabia and will keep you updated on the progress.” There’s no evidence Tabatabai went to the conference in Israel, though her books and research reports suggest she’s interviewed a number of senior Israeli officials.

Ariane Tabatabai told Zahrani that she was slated to give testimony before the U.S. Congress on the nuclear deal. On July 10, 2014, she wrote that she had been asked to appear before multiple congressional committees alongside two Harvard academics—Gary Samore and William Tobey—who she viewed as hawkish on Iran. “I will bother you in the coming days. It will be a little difficult since both Will and Gary do not have favorable views on Iran,” she wrote.

Tabatabai shared a link with Zahrani to an article she’d published in the Boston Globe that outlined the “Five Myths about Iran’s Nuclear Program.” The piece explained why Iran needs nuclear power and highlighted a fatwa, or religious edict, that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei allegedly issued forbidding the development of nuclear weapons as un-Islamic. Some Western officials have questioned the legitimacy of the fatwa.

On January 20, 2014, Iran agreed to halt parts of its nuclear program in return for some sanctions relief. (Kazem Ghane via Getty Images)

The Iranian officials behind the IEI—Zahrani and Khatibzadeh—boasted to their superiors in internal emails about the initiative’s successes. They tracked how often the academics in the IEI wrote or were cited in the media during the week after a preliminary nuclear agreement was reached between Tehran and world powers on April 2, 2015, in Lausanne, Switzerland. The media data was shared with others in the Iranian Foreign Ministry in Tehran.

“Following our phone conversation, I attached here for your review only a few of the most significant works some of our friends published during the week after the Lausanne framework agreement was reached,” Khatibzadeh wrote in Farsi. “We were in constant contact and worked vigorously around the clock. Some friends performed as resourceful as a media outlet all by themselves.”

On April 14, 2015, Khatibzadeh emailed Zahrani, who then forwarded the message to Zarif and one of the foreign minister’s deputies on the nuclear negotiating team, Majid Takht-Ravanchi. Khatibzadeh attached 10 separate Word documents to the email, each referencing the media footprint of each IEI academic. These included Ariane Tabatabai, Ali Vaez, and Dina Esfandiary, all of whom have worked closely with Malley over the past decade.

Khatibzadeh, the future Foreign Ministry spokesman, boasted in the email: 

“These are in addition to hundreds of tweets, posts and. . . on the internet that were definitely unique and trend-sending in their own right. It should be noted that these works were not only published in English, but also in several other international languages.”

The list shared by Khatibzadeh showed that in one week, Ariane Tabatabai published four articles, including in Foreign Policy, and gave interviews to The Huffington Post and Iran’s Fars News agency, which is linked to the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, mostly supporting Tehran’s views on the nuclear talks. In an article for The National Interest co-written with Dina Esfandiary, they argued that Iran was “too powerful” to be contained and that “Tehran doesn’t need an agreement to be empowered and to strengthen its foothold in the region.”

Ali Vaez was also extremely prolific in his media outreach. The ICG analyst was cited in virtually all of the U.S.’s major newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, from the initiation of the IEI in March 2014 to the finalization of the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry, the IPIS think tank, and Zarif, Zahrani, and Khatibzadeh didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Covering Iran, either as an academic or a journalist, is a minefield. Access to both the country and Iranian officials is tightly controlled. And even opportunities come with serious caveats. During my visits to Iran as a reporter, I needed to provide my questions and story ideas to the Foreign Ministry ahead of arrival and hire a government-appointed fixer. This individual provided translations, but also clearly monitored my movements and meetings. I assumed Iran’s intelligence services were closely tracking me.

Tehran also aggressively pushes its information operations overseas, sometimes with success, sometimes not. An Iranian academic and permanent U.S. resident who used to contact me with his insights on Tehran’s nuclear program, a man named Kaveh Afrasiabi, was arrested in a Boston suburb in 2021 for allegedly working as an unregistered agent for the Iranian regime. He’s allowed to return to Tehran as part of the prisoner swap agreement reached this month between the Biden administration and Iran, though Afrasiabi said he plans to stay in the U.S.

The Iranian regime is also factionalized, and navigating these fissures is hazardous for diplomats and journalists. The Iran Experts Initiative was born from a Rouhani administration eager to end Tehran’s pariah status following eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency in which he courted Holocaust denial and promoted the eradication of Israel. Rouhani’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had developed extensive ties to Western politicians and academics during his earlier tenure as Tehran’s ambassador to the United Nations. Participants in the IEI, as well as most Western governments, saw Rouhani’s tenure and Zarif’s ascendance as an opening to try and integrate the Islamic Republic into the global economy and end the nuclear crisis. The Obama administration used both overt and covert channels to do this.

But Rouhani never represented the Islamic Republic’s more radical or hard-line face, particularly the Revolutionary Guards, or IRGC. And the election in 2021 of President Ebrahim Raisi, who’s been sanctioned by the U.S. for human rights abuses, largely closed the window on these channels. In fact, Raisi’s government has turned on Robert Malley and some IEI members in recent weeks, accusing them in state media of seeking to incite racial and ethnic unrest in the country. The Tehran Times, an English-language media outlet associated with Raisi’s office, has reveled in Malley’s suspension: it’s claimed in a string of columns that the diplomat’s disciplinary action is tied to the very types of outreach to Iran he and some of his colleagues pursued.

“Malley’s suspicious interactions with his aides of Iranian descent contributed to his downfall,” the Tehran Times wrote in a column published last month. The State Department has declined to comment on the reasons behind his suspension. The FBI is also investigating Malley, suggesting the diplomat’s actions may be more serious than just the mishandling of classified information.

Malley is hardly the first U.S. official to be ensnared in the machinations of the Islamic Republic. The opacity of Tehran’s system and the expansive work of its intelligence services can mask the government’s true intentions. The IEI emails offer a unique look into the Iranian system.

None of Malley’s associates who Iranian diplomats cited as being part of the Iran Experts Initiative spoke directly to Semafor. But Vaez’s and Esfandiary’s current employer, the International Crisis Group, has a significantly different understanding of the IEI and Tehran’s role in it.

Elissa Jobson, Crisis Group’s chief of advocacy, said the IEI was an “informal platform” that gave researchers from different organizations an opportunity to meet with IPIS and Iranian officials, and that it was supported financially by European institutions and one European government. She declined to name them.

“To spell it out a bit more, it was a means to facilitate research discussions and not a more formal entity where participants could be directed by anyone,” she said. “The fact that participants were from a host of different think tanks demonstrates that it was merely an informal platform.” ICG also notes that all the work its staff publishes is vetted and agreed upon in-house; they dispute that Iran—or any government—could have directed any members of their team to take a position at odds with the organization’s official view.

Another European think tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations, confirmed that one of its senior fellows, Ellie Geranmayeh, also took part in the Iran Experts Initiative. An ECFR spokesman said a European government backed the IEI, but didn’t identify it, and stressed that that the think tank always covers the “core costs” of its staff’s research trips. “As part of its efforts to inform European policy, ECFR regularly engages with experts and think tanks across the world, including through research visits and workshops,” the spokesman said.

Malley didn’t respond to requests for comment. Both the State Department and Pentagon declined to comment on the substance of the correspondence related to the IEI, but said they support Ariane Tabatabai and the vetting process involved in the approval of her security clearance. “Dr. Tabatabai was thoroughly and properly vetted as a condition of her employment with the Department of Defense. We are honored to have her serve,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

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Requiem for The New York Times – Read by Eunice Wong Chris Hedges

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Text originally published April 12, 2024

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Requiem for The New York Times – by Mr. Fish

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NEW YORK: I am sitting in the auditorium at The New York Times. It is the first time I have been back in nearly two decades. It will be the last. The newspaper is a pale reflection of what it was when I worked there, beset by numerous journalistic fiascos, rudderless leadership and myopic cheerleading of the military debacles in the Middle East, Ukraine and the genocide in Gaza, where one of the Times contributions to the mass slaughter of Palestinians was an editorial refusing to back an unconditional ceasefire. Many seated in the auditorium are culpable. 

I am here, however, not for them but for the former executive editor they are honoring, Joe Lelyveld, who died earlier this year. He hired me. His departure from the Times marked the paper’s steep descent. On the front page of the program of the memorial, the year of his death is incorrect — emblematic of the sloppiness of a newspaper that is riddled with typos and errors. Reporters I admire, including Gretchen Morgenson and David Cay Johnston, who are in the auditorium, were pushed out once Lelyveld left, replaced by mediocrities.

Lelyveld’s successor Howell Raines – who had no business running a newspaper – singled out the serial fabulist and plagiarizer, Jayson Blair, for swift advancement and alienated the newsroom through a series of tone deaf editorial decisions. Reporters and editors rose up in revolt. He was forced out along with his equally incompetent managing editor. 

Lelyveld came back for a brief interim. But the senior editors who followed were of little improvement. They were full-throated propagandists – Tony Judt called them “Bush’s useful idiots” – for the war in Iraq. They were true believers in the weapons of mass destruction. They suppressed, at the government’s request, an expose by James Risen about warrantless wiretapping of Americans by the National Security Agency until the paper found out it would appear in Risen’s book. They peddled for two years the fiction that Donald Trump was a Russian asset. They ignored the contents from Hunter Biden’s laptop that had evidence of multimillion dollar influence peddling and labeled it “Russian disinformation.” Bill Keller, who served as executive editor after Lelyveld, described Julian Assange, the most courageous journalist and publisher of our generation, as “a narcissistic dick, and nobody’s idea of a journalist.” The editors decided identity, rather than corporate pillage with its mass layoffs of 30 million workers, was the reason for Trump’s rise, leading them to deflect attention from the root cause of our economic, political and cultural morass. Of course, that deflection saved them from confronting corporations, such as Chevron, which are advertisers. They produced a podcast series called Caliphate, based on invented stories of a con artist. They most recently ran a story by three journalists — including one who had never before worked as a reporter and had ties with Israeli intelligence, Anat Schwartz, who was subsequently fired after it was disclosed that she “liked” genocidal posts against Palestinians on Twitter — on what they called “systematic” sexual abuse and rape by Hamas and other Palestinian resistance factions on Oct. 7. It also turned out to be unsubstantiated. None of this would have happened under Lelyveld.

Reality rarely penetrates the Byzantine and self-referential court of The New York Times, which was on full display at Lelyveld’s memorial. The former editors spoke — Gene Roberts being an exception — with a cloying noblesse oblige, enthralled with their own splendor. Lelyveld became a vehicle to revel in their privilege, an unwitting advertisement for why the institution is so woefully out of touch and why so many reporters and much of the public despise those who run it.

We were regaled with all the perks of elitism: Harvard. Summers in Maine. Vacationing in Italy and France. Snorkeling in a coral reef at a Philippine resort. Living in Hampstead in London. The country house in New Paltz. Taking a barge down the Canal du Midi. Visits to the Prado. Opera at The Met.

Luis Buñuel and Evelyn Waugh skewered these kinds of people. Lelyveld was part of the club, but that was something I would have left for the chatter at the reception, which I skipped. That was not why the handful of reporters in the room were there.   

Lelyveld, despite some attempts by the speakers to convince us otherwise, was morose and acerbic. His nickname in the newsroom was “the undertaker.” As he walked past desks, reporters and editors would try to avoid his glance. He was socially awkward, given to long pauses and a disconcerting breathy laugh that no one knew how to read. He could be, like all the popes who run the church of The New York Times, mean and vindictive. I am sure he could also be nice and sensitive, but this was not the aura he projected. In the newsroom he was Ahab, not Starbuck.

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I asked him if I could take a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard after covering the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, wars that capped nearly two decades of reporting on conflicts in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

“No,” he said. “It costs me money and I lose a good reporter.”

I persisted until he finally told the foreign editor, Andrew Rosenthal, “tell Hedges he can take the Nieman and go to hell.”

“Don’t do it,” Andy, whose father was the executive editor before Lelyveld, warned. “They will make you pay when you come back.”

Of course, I took the Nieman. 

Halfway through the year Lelyveld called.

“What are you studying?” he asked.

“Classics,” I answered.

“Like Latin?” he asked.

“Exactly,” I said.  

There was a pause.

“Well,” he said, “I guess you can cover the Vatican.”

He hung up.

When I returned, he put me in purgatory. I was parked on the metropolitan desk without a beat or assignment. On many days I stayed at home and read Fyodor Dostoevsky. At least I got my paycheck. But he wanted me to know I was nothing.

I met with him in his office after a couple of months. It was like talking to a wall.

“Do you remember how to write a story?” he asked, caustically.

I had not yet, in his eyes, been suitably domesticated.

I walked out of his office.

“That guy is a fucking asshole,” I said to the editors at the desks in front of me.

“If you don’t think that got back to him in 30 seconds you are very naïve,” an editor told me later.

I did not care. I was struggling, often through too much drinking at night to blot out my nightmares, with trauma from many years in war zones, trauma in which neither Lelyveld nor anyone else at the paper took the slightest interest. I had far greater demons to battle than a vindictive newspaper editor. And I did not love The New York Times enough to become its lapdog. If they kept it up, I would leave, which I soon did.

I say all this to make it clear that Lelyveld was not admired by reporters because of his charm or personality. He was admired because he was brilliant, literate, a gifted writer and reporter and set high standards. He was admired because he cared about the craft of reporting. He saved those of us who could write — a surprising number of reporters are not great writers — from the dead hand of copy editors. 

He did not look at a leak by an administration official as gospel. He cared about the world of ideas. He made sure the book review section had gravitas, a gravitas that disappeared once he left. He distrusted militarists. (His father had been a conscientious objector in World War II, although later became an outspoken Zionist and apologist for Israel.) This, frankly, was all we wanted as reporters. We did not want him to be our friend. We already had friends. Other reporters.

He came to see me in Bosnia in 1996 shortly after his father died. I was so absorbed in a collection of short stories by V.S. Pritchett that I lost track of the time. I looked up to find him standing over me. He did not seem to mind. He, too, read voraciously. Books were a connection. Once, early in my career, we met in his office. He quoted from memory lines from William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Adam’s Curse”:

…A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,   

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.   

Better go down upon your marrow-bones   

And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones   

Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;   

For to articulate sweet sounds together

Is to work harder than all these, and yet   

Be thought an idler by the noisy set

Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen   

The martyrs call the world.

“You still have to find your voice,” he told me.

We were the sons of clergymen. His father was a rabbi. Mine was a Presbyterian minister. Our fathers had participated in the civil rights and anti-war movements. But that is where our family similarities ended. He had a deeply troubled childhood and distant relationship with his father and mother, who suffered from nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts. There were long periods when he did not see his parents, shuttled off to friends and relatives, where he wondered as a child if he was worthless or even loved, the subject of his memoir “Omaha Blues”.

We rode in my armored jeep to Sarajevo. It was after the war. In the darkness he talked about his father’s funeral, the hypocrisy of pretending that the children from the first marriage got along with the family of the second marriage, as if, he said, “we were all one happy family.” He was bitter and hurt.

He writes in his memoir of a rabbi named Ben, who “had zero interest in possessions,” and was a surrogate father. Ben had, in the 1930s, challenged racial segregation from his synagogue in Montgomery, Alabama. White clergy standing up for Blacks in the south was rare in the 1960s. It was almost unheard of in the 1930s. Ben invited Black ministers to his home. He collected food and clothing for the families of sharecroppers who in July 1931 after the sheriff and his deputies broke up a union meeting had engaged in a shoot-out. The sharecroppers were on the run and being hunted in Tallapoosa County. His sermons, preached at the height of the Depression, called for economic and social justice. 

He visited the Black men on death row in the Scottsboro case — all of them unjustly charged with rape — and held rallies to raise money for their defense. The board of his temple passed a formal resolution appointing a committee “to go to Rabbi Goldstein and ask him to desist from going to Birmingham under all circumstances and desist from doing anything further in the Scottsboro case.” 

Ben ignored them. He was finally forced out by his congregation because, as a member wrote, he had been “preaching and practicing social equality,” and “consorting with radicals and reds.” Ben later participated in the American League Against War and Fascism and the American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy during the Spanish civil war, groups that included communists. He defended those purged in the anti-communist witch hunts, including the Hollywood Ten, spearheaded by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ben, who was close to the communist party and was perhaps at one point a member, was blacklisted, including by Lelyveld’s father who was running the Hillel Foundation. Lelyveld, in a few torturous pages, seeks to absolve his father, who consulted the FBI before firing Ben, for this betrayal.  

Ben fell victim to what the historian Ellen Schrecker in “Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America” calls “the most widespread and longest lasting wave of political repression in American history.”

“In order to eliminate the alleged threat of domestic Communism, a broad coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, and other anticommunist activists hounded an entire generation of radicals and their associates, destroying lives, careers, and all the institutions that offered a left-wing alternative to mainstream politics and culture,” she writes.

This crusade, she goes on, “used all the power of the state to turn dissent into disloyalty and, in the process, drastically narrowed the spectrum of acceptable political debate.”

Lelyveld’s father was not unique in succumbing to pressure, but what I find fascinating, and perhaps revealing, is Lelyveld’s decision to blame Ben for his own persecution. 

“Any appeal to Ben Lowell to be prudent would have instantly summoned to his mind the appeals made to Ben Goldstein [he later changed his last name to Lowell] in Montgomery seventeen years earlier when, with his job clearly on the line, he’d never hesitated about speaking at the black church in defiance of his trustees,” Lelyveld writes. “His latent Ezekiel complex again kicked in.”

Lelyveld missed the hero of his own memoir.

Lelyveld left the paper before the attacks of 9/11. I denounced the calls to invade Iraq — I had been the newspaper’s Middle East Bureau Chief — on shows such as Charlie Rose. I was booed off stages, attacked relentlessly on Fox News and right-wing radio and the subject of a Wall Street Journal editorial. The message bank on my office phone was filled with death threats. I was given a written reprimand by the paper to stop speaking out against the war. If I violated the reprimand, I would be fired. Lelyveld, if he was still running the paper, would not have tolerated my breach of etiquette.

Lelyveld might dissect apartheid in South Africa in his book, “Move Your Shadow,” but the cost of dissecting it in Israel would have seen him, like Ben, blacklisted. He did not cross those lines. He played by the rules. He was a company man.

I would never find my voice in the straightjacket of The New York Times. I had no fidelity to the institution. The very narrow parameters it set were not ones I could accept. This, in the end, was the chasm between us.

The theologian Paul Tillich writes that all institutions are inherently demonic, that the moral life usually requires, at some point, that we defy institutions, even at the cost of our careers. Lelyveld, while endowed with integrity and brilliance, was not willing to make this commitment. But he was the best the institution offered us. He cared deeply about what we do and he did his best to protect it. 

The newspaper has not recovered since his departure.   

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Your Constitutional Right To Zyn Kiran Sampath

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According to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, they are a “sinister new threat to the health of young Americans.” Vox says they explain “the new ethos of conservative young men.” Business Insider frets that its users belong to “a subculture on the right that doesn’t just tolerate nicotine use, but venerates it.” 

A new front has opened up in the culture war, and the fight is over inch-long nicotine pouches called Zyns. The product was developed as a cleaner, healthier alternative to “Snus”—moist tobacco pouches tucked inside the gums. Zyn pouches offer all the nicotine without the sticky mess. In other words, Zyns are to Snus what Juuls are to cigarettes—and the latest wave in the push for ever more refined, automatic, and hassle-free nicotine delivery.

And they are popular. Nicotine pouches debuted in the U.S. in 2016 and sales grew by over 540 percent between August 2019 to March 2022. Brands like On! and Velo have played their part, but Zyn, the brand born in Sweden in 2014 and acquired by the tobacco behemoth Philip Morris in 2022, commands 75 percent of the market share as of 2023.

“Part of the appeal is the name.” says Wilson Nesbit, an economics student at Yale University. “It’s short. It’s sweet. And you can put it in a lot of words.” 

In other words, it’s memeable. “Monica Lezynsky,” Nesbit offers. “Zyn-Manuel Miranda. Qui-Gon Zyn.”

Nesbit lives on Lynwood Place, a small street just off Yale’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut. Lynwood is home to two churches, three fraternities, two secret societies, one Chabad house, and a boatload of nicotine. Hence the block’s new nickname, Zynwood. 

“It’s been known as Zynwood for two years,” says Nesbit, who lives with six boys in a house on the street. “The guys who lived here before us had a tent with the Zyn brand stamped across it.” More recently, he underwent an artistic project to solidify the community’s identity, collecting the empty Zyn tins from throughout the neighborhood—277 of them—and spelling out ZYNWOOD on the wall of their living room. 

The Zynwood sign. (Photo courtesy of Wilson Nesbit)

But Zyns aren’t just for college kids. Twentysomethings in corporate jobs now see them as a sophisticated way to get a nicotine hit.

“Vapes are unprofessional,” Andrew Schuler, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, former vaper, and Zyn user, tells me. “We need nicotine to cope with our jobs because they are extremely stressful,” says Schuler, who goes through three to four pouches a day. “But you’re not going to rip a clunky-looking, purple-colored vape at your desk.”

It’s also about optimization, he said. “Smoking a cigarette requires a break.”

“The guy who used to work at the desk next to me used to take meetings with a Zyn in his cheek,” says one friend, a former Goldman Sachs banker. 

For some, nicotine delivered via Zyns isn’t a nasty addiction, but something of a macho life hack. Arch-techbro Peter Thiel claims nicotine raises your IQ 10 points, while Tucker Carlson (Carlzyn?) proclaimed on Theo Von’s podcast, “Zyn is a powerful work enhancer” as well as “a man enhancer.” (Last December, the Nelk Boys podcasters gifted Carlson the world’s largest Zyn, delivered via helicopter.) But it isn’t neccessarily just right-wingers who use Zyn: a recent picture of Squad member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed a Zyn pack-shaped bulge in her white jeans. 

Tucker Carl-zyn with the world’s largest Zyn, and a regular-sized packet for scale. (Image via X)

In January, Chuck Schumer called for a crackdown on Zyns. “Amid federal action against e-cigs and their grip on young people, a quiet and dangerous alternative has emerged and it is called Zyn,” Schumer said, warning that Zyns “lock their sights on teens and use social media to hook them.”

As part of his crackdown, Schumer wants to investigate how Phillip Morris has marketed Zyn, and whether the firm has targeted minors. In 2023, Juul agreed to pay $462 million to settle lawsuits into the marketing of vaping products to children. But, rather than investing in social media influencers or extensive advertising campaigns, Zyn has relied on organic viral traction in the U.S. 

A spokesman for Zyn says the company’s marketing practices “are focused on preventing underage access and set the benchmark for the industry.” 

But even Nesbit says Schumer is right to worry about young people getting hooked on the pouch. “It’s an easy introduction for youths that haven’t used nicotine,” he told me over the phone from Zynwood. “Mitigating youth usage should be a top priority, but finding the right approach is another story.” 

Others see ingesting Zyns as a constitutional right, and Schumer as an enemy of freedom. As Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene recently exclaimed on X about his crackdown : “This calls for a Zynsurrection!”

Kiran Sampath is a researcher and reporter. Read her last piece about the temple in New Jersey that took 12 years and $96 million to build.

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South Korea Is Running Out of Kids. Is This America’s Future? Anna Louie Sussman

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In January, more than 150 schools in South Korea had no new first graders. (Photo by Busà Photography via Getty Images)

If you’ve been on TikTok in the last few weeks, you might have seen that American women are talking about 4B. The South Korean feminist movement gets its name from the “Four Nos” its adherents commit to: no dating, no sex, no marriage, no childbirth. In short, 4B, which began around 2019, encourages women to actively avoid men as much as possible. That it’s now trending in the U.S. raises an uncomfortable question: Are our gender politics starting to look like Korea’s? And if so, will the demographic consequences be as extreme?

Right now, South Korea is running out of kids. Last week, it was reported that the Education Ministry plans to reduce the number of teacher training places, citing the precipitous decline in students, which is so extreme that in January of this year more than 150 schools across the nation had no new first graders. Six years ago, the average number of children a South Korean woman had in her lifetime was 0.92, a figure rarely seen outside wartime; since then, it’s fallen all the way to 0.78, with a projection of 0.65 in 2025. In Seoul, the capital, it’s already at 0.59

When I visited Seoul in 2022 to report on why Koreans aren’t having babies, I often found myself wondering: Could this happen in America? Our nation’s fertility, though significantly below the replacement rate of 2.1, is currently higher, at 1.8. But, in the course of dozens of conversations with Koreans of reproductive age, I heard more extreme versions of sentiments I’d started to observe at home. 

Today, Americans who want a good old-fashioned heterosexual relationship struggle to find someone who shares their values. Analysis has shown a gigantic mismatch in the nation’s dating pool: for each single liberal woman, there exist 0.6 single liberal young men. Conservative young men have it even worse, with just 0.5 single conservative young women available to choose from. At the end of last year, the pollster Dan Cox found that this divide is particularly intense among American members of Gen Z, whose oldest members are now 27, the average age of a first-time mother in 2022. 

In Gen Z, Cox showed, women and men are much further apart on fundamental questions of gender equality than the generation before them: whereas 52 percent of millennial men say they’re feminists, compared to 54 percent of women, the equivalent figures for Gen Z are 43 percent and 61 percent. In 2019, a third of adult men under 30 said they face discrimination based on their sex; only five years later, that number has increased to almost half.

Recent data suggest this gender divide is global—and growing. In January, a Financial Times report showed the wide, and widening, divergence in political values between young women and men. This is true in South Korea and the U.S. but also in China, Germany, and the UK.

Americans haven’t given up on having a family to the extent that South Koreans have. In 2023, about 35 percent of Koreans said they don’t think having children after marriage is necessary, a figure that rose to more than 57 percent among 19- to 24-year-olds. By contrast, a recent Gallup poll found that the vast majority of Americans under 30 “either already have children (21 percent) or hope to someday (63 percent).” 

But young American women haven’t just been making TikToks about 4B out of curiosity—an increasing number are genuinely swearing off male partners, with the hashtag #celibacyjourney racking up tens of millions of views. A New York Times op-ed published in February described going “boysober” as “this year’s hottest mental health craze.” Meanwhile, men who identify as “involuntarily celibate” are retreating to online echo chambers that, one 2022 study suggested, now harbor eight times as many instances of degrading language toward women than they did in 2016. In the twelve months after December 2022, self-described misogynist Andrew Tate’s following on X increased from 3 million to 8.5 million.

Conservative politicians across the globe are capitalizing on these divides. Not long before I arrived in Korea, the president Yoon Suk-yeol had coasted into office in May 2022 on a wave of anti-feminist campaign promises, in what multiple observers described as an “incel election.” For the first time, young men describing themselves as anti-feminist were seen as an influential voting bloc, with Yoon promising to abolish the nation’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. (He has not yet succeeded.)

In the U.S., the Republicans also appear to be aggressively courting the male vote. Since the fall of Roe, the Republican Party has become actively hostile to women’s reproductive rights, pushing female voters left. And some of the party’s most influential members are now stoking a war between men and women.

In a breathtakingly offensive comment last January, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz called for the Republican Party to all but forget about female voters, saying that “For every Karen we lose, there’s a Julio and a Jamal ready to sign up for the MAGA movement.” Fox News host Jesse Watters has been even more explicit in singling out liberal single women as the GOP’s nemesis, alighting, somehow, on matrimony as an electoral strategy. 

“Single women are breaking for Democrats by 30 points,” he said after the 2022 midterms. “We need these ladies to get married,” he warned, following up with an order: “Guys, go put a ring on it.” 

And yet a recent poll found that 40 percent of Republicans said they don’t believe marital rape should definitely or probably be prosecuted, suggesting the party’s not overflowing with eligible bachelors. 

All signs point to an ever-widening rift between the sexes. And if women and men become sworn enemies, America is going to start running out of kids, too.

Anna Louie Sussman is a journalist covering gender, economics, and reproduction. She is a 2024 Alicia Patterson Fellow

For more on America’s gender divide, read Rikki Schlott’s piece, “When It Comes to Sex, My Generation Is Screwed,” and become a Free Press subscriber today:

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