What’s happening in Iran?

Since its inception, the Iraq War has dominated national headlines, essentially monopolizing the focus of media conglomerates and directing the subject of American political discourse. But there is another conflict quietly brewing in Europe and the Middle East that has been eclipsed in the U.S. media by Iraq’s ongoing drama and rising death toll.

The relationship between the Islamic theocracy of Iran, Western Europe and the United States is on that could be described as tense at best. At many times over the past several decades, it is one that has nearly erupted in violence.

The Iran conflict gained a temporary boost in media attention when, in January, acclaimed investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an article in The New Yorker magazine claiming the U.S. is conducting secret reconnaissance missions in Iran to identify nuclear weapon sites "that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids."

The Pentagon immediately released a statement denying these claims and allegations that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and two of his top deputies "will be part of the chain of command for the new commando operations."

"Mr. Hersh’s article is so riddled with errors of fundamental fact that the credibility of his entire piece is destroyed," the statement declared.

This set the stage for Vice President Dick Cheney’s blunderous Inauguration Day statement on the national radio talk show, "Imus in the Morning," that "the Israelis might well decide to act first [against Iran] and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards."

International strife with Iran over the use of its nuclear programs is far from new, though some European powers attempts to persuade the theocratic nation to halt their nuclear programs have raised the stakes on both sides of the issue recently.

Iran’s nuclear program, established decades ago, has been the subject of intense scrutiny for the past three years since the U.S. alleged Iran was seeking to build nuclear arms.

Iran has insisted that its nuclear programs are used solely to generate power.

On Nov. 14, 2004, under pressure from the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran conceded it would suspend its uranium enrichment program, only to announce 10 days later that it wished to amend the agreement.

Negotiations between Europe and Iran have been push and pull, at best, since then, with Europe attempting to entice Iran with promises of trade deals and help with a civilian nuclear program and Iran claiming nuclear power programs their sovereign right.

The U.S. has assumed a more heavy-handed role in the conflict, charging Iran with secretly seeking to build nuclear weapons, harboring terrorists, and saying they will not rule out the use of force against Iran if necessary. On Wednesday, during his annual State of the Union Address to Congress, President Bush reaffirmed his condemnation of Iran, calling the nation the "world’s primary state sponsor of terror."

Despite all of the diplomatic tension surrounding the issue, Iran has been the topic of few front-page stories from major U.S. news outlets over the past few months.

The U.S. media has been subject to fierce scrutiny over the last few years following their failure to expose the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and similar follies in which they took the word of the President and his administration at face value, making no attempt investigate the validity of these claims. To commit another error, such as underplaying an important international issue it seems, could be a grave and terrible blow to the integrity of U.S. journalism.

While the potential gravity of the situation in Iran may seem dubious, it remains a source of interest and contention for European and Middle Eastern citizens and journalists, and recent reports suggest that the U.S. role may be more heavy-handed than previously assumed.

In addition, international criticism of the American media is at an all time high, both at home and abroad.

A British journalist from a popular U.K. political tabloid newspaper, who asked to remain anonymous, said he has observed a recent negative reaction in Europe to what is seen as a palpable lack of skepticism on part of American journalists, especially when it comes to the claims of the current administration.

"I’m aware of a fair amount of general criticism these past years," said the journalist, European critics are observing "the American press being a little gung-ho."

"Certainly I’ve read a lot of criticism on that score," he said.

Nonetheless, coverage of the Iran conflict in the U.S. media has been relatively minimal.

John Harvey, national/international editor of the Oregonian admitted he thinks the issue deserves more attention from his paper, noting that the Iraq war can sometimes distract news organizations from other international issues.

"Because of Iraq we haven’t done as much as we should have," Harvey said.

Harvey said part of the problem lies in the overwhelming difficulty of trying to report from Iran itself.

"A lot of the problem with Iran is that it is a closed society," Harvey said.

Kyle Crichton, foreign editor of the New York Times, voiced similar difficulties with securing visas, gaining access to officials and legitimate resources and shaking the supervision of the Irani government, adding that much of the available information on Iran comes from either intelligence agencies, foreign diplomats and International Atomic Energy agents who make less than compelling informants.

"Much of the information comes from intelligence agencies. It’s hard to evaluate how good that information is," Crichton said.

This may be the one fundamental difference between European and American coverage of the conflict. While few U.S. media organizations send reporters to Iran, most major news organizations in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and even Russia have correspondents in Tehran.

"What you really need to know is what the political mood is in Tehran, what the social mood is." said the British journalist.

Without gauging the attitude and political climate of the region, he said, you are disserving your audience who deserve a multi-faceted, comprehensive report on the issue.

"I’m sorry but that’s not an accurate foreign affairs report of what’s going on," he said.

However, the British journalist did recognize the difficulty in establishing correspondence from Iran.

"It’s very, very difficult," he said.

Still, the administration has abstained from either taking action against Iran or participating in negotiations, and word on their precise intentions has been minimal, which may account for a lack of media attention on the issue.

The Bush Administration has yet to engage in negotiations with the Iranian government, in spite of Europe’s requests to do so, and has only discussed it sparingly or in passing in statements, public speeches and press conferences, though the President has referred to Iran as part of the "axis of evil," along with North Korea and Iraq, and has said the use of force to ensure Iran ceases its nuclear operations is not out of the question.

"[The administration will] disclose things that will help them accomplish what they want to accomplish," Crichton said, though he thinks "they’ve been very straightforward that this is going to be a very big issue."

Bryan Keefer, assistant managing editor of CJR Daily, the daily arm of the Columbia Journalism Review, observed a tendency of the Bush Administration to steer clear of promoting press interest in issues that could potentially tarnish their image.

"The Bush Administration doesn’t like their dirty laundry getting aired," Keefer said.

But Keefer stopped short of attributing the seeming lack of U.S. media interest to executive spin, projecting that the story will likely gain momentum as the situation progresses.

"It wouldn’t surprise me if people are working the story," said Keefer, "they just haven’t come up with anything yet."

"I don’t know that there is enough out there that it is being spun," he continued.

Fearing a similar phenomenon, Crichton said he asked a number of his foreign correspondents if such an outcome could develop out of the Iran situation. His writers did not project the same fallout.

"They do not believe so," Crichton said.