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Opinion Trump keeps lying about Iran, but the truth is bad enough

Iranian riot police stand guard as protesters gather in front of Tehran's Amirkabir University of Technology on Saturday. (Str/Afp Via Getty Images)

From its very beginning, the Islamic Republic of Iran has had trouble with the truth.

As I write this, regime officials are ruthlessly suppressing protesters who are demanding accountability for the downing last week of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752. Those are the very same officials who emphatically denied that Tehran had anything to do with the plane’s demise — until they couldn’t get away with it any longer.

The world has long known that the regime in Tehran routinely uses disinformation, propaganda, censorship and intimidation to hide its abuses.

In just the last week, the Iranian regime’s disregard for human lives and general ineptitude led to the deaths of more than 200 people; more than 50 died at a public mourning ceremony for Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander killed by a U.S. drone on Jan. 3, and another 176 perished when Flight 752 was shot down.

Meanwhile, Iran’s state-controlled media kept trying to change the subject. On Friday, a company affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard Corps released a short film depicting an Iranian attack against Washington — including the destruction of the U.S. Capitol and the killing of President Trump.

The fact that Iran was finally forced to come clean represents at least a small victory for the forces of truth. Journalists used open-source intelligence to scrutinize the circumstances of the shoot-down. Western intelligence officials — not only American ones — provided clues that gradually forced Tehran’s hand.

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It’s nothing to celebrate, but it is an important reminder that the truth always comes to light. Perhaps now more quickly than ever before.

After all, the events of the past few days have shown only too clearly that the Trump administration has its own problems with the truth. The White House, the State Department and the Defense Department are all still failing to provide a coherent explanation of the threats that led to the decision to kill Iran’s top general. That should be troubling to all Americans — even if their own government’s obfuscation isn’t a problem on the same scale as that of the Iranian regime.

The media has gotten better at covering U.S. military campaigns, but the Trump administration's conflict with Iran is a new test for the public and the press. (Video: The Washington Post)

Over the weekend, top advisers repeated Trump’s claim that Soleimani was planning attacks against four U.S. embassies. Remember, we still haven’t seen the evidence that the Iranian regime intended to blow up our embassy in Baghdad. Neither has Congress.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeoc claims the United States targeted and killed Soleimani, the Quds Force commander, because of imminent threats that by his own admission are unsubstantiated. “We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real,” Pompeo said.

At fateful moments such as this one, Americans have historically looked to their government to help make sense of developments on the other side of the world. The best way to do that is through an honest and public accounting of the available intelligence that informs our response.

More than a week after killing Soleimani, the administration still refuses to tell Americans what the threat was to justify such an extraordinary action. Instead, it would seem, the White House is are embellishing the story even further. This is part and parcel of the Trump team’s dishonest and faulty Iran policy.

When it comes to Iran, the administration’s first instinct is to exaggerate, obfuscate — or just make stuff up.

This is driven by the fixation of several top Trump advisers who have been angling to attack Iran for years, though they all contend publicly that they don’t want war. While that might be the biggest fiction of their policy, it’s the many others over the past three years that have helped to exacerbate tensions.

There are the big lies that are easily disproved, such as Trump’s oft-repeated claim that the Obama administration gave Iran $150 billion to fund terrorism — “pallets of cash to fund Iran’s malign behavior,” as the saying goes.

The reality, though, is that when the nuclear deal went into effect in 2016, Iran received a fraction of that amount. It was their own money; oil revenue to which we had blocked access. Furthermore, there’s no indication that those funds altered Tehran’s behavior. That happened after Trump exited the nuclear deal in 2018.

Or consider this tweet by Rep. Paul A. Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, that purported to show a meeting between President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani. Just one problem: The meeting never happened.

When confronted, Gosar’s response was “No one said this wasn’t photo-shopped.”

Such shameless spreading of fake information to bolster a political position is nefarious and extremely dangerous. The outright lies are one thing. But we must also beware — especially in the media — the subtler distortions of truth that get repeated so often that they become fact. Right now, it’s the still unproven claims that Iran intended to attack one or more of our embassies.

If that sort of dishonesty at the highest levels of government is allowed to flourish, there will be little to set us apart from those regimes who use deceit as a primary tool.

Read more:

The airliner shoot-down is a make-or-break moment for Iran’s regime

Call your Iran policy by its true name

Trump’s threats against cultural sites show he doesn’t care about the Iranian people

In Iran, the future of change is local

U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read

Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.

What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.

Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.

How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.

What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.

Ask a question: What do you want to know about the strike and its aftermath? Submit a question or read previous Q&As with Post reporters.