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Response to Op-Ed About VOA Persian

Today The Wall Street Journal published a shortened version of my response to criticism of VOA by Sohrab Ahmari in his January 7 op-ed “At Voice of America, Complaints About Its Iranian Coverage.” The full text of my letter to the editors follows below.

Sohrab Ahmari (At Voice of America, Complaints about Its Iranian Coverage 1/7/2013) is quite wrong to suggest that news coverage by Voice of America’s Persian Service is “often distorted by an editorial line favoring rapprochement with the mullahs.” In his opinion piece, Mr. Ahmari bases this premise on a pair of sound bites--ten seconds or less--taken out of context from an extensive interview with former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian. Mr. Ahmari’s assertion that opinions by Mr. Mousavian went unchallenged in the interview is simply not supported by the full transcript of the program, which shows a former Iranian official being obliged to defend his assertions, under pointed questioning by the VOA interviewer.

Mr. Ahmari correctly cites a quote from Mr. Mousavian asserting that Iran “is in full compliance” with the IAEA safeguard agreement but he does not tell his readers that the very next question by VOA journalist Siamak Dehghanpour was, in that case: “Should Iran let inspectors visit Parchin military complex?” Throughout the interview, Mr. Dehghanpour repeatedly pressed Mr. Mousavian, asking: “Given the history of mistrust and lack of confidence on both sides, how can Iran assure the U.S. that its intentions are peaceful, especially since Iran’s nuclear activities re-started covertly with individuals such as Abdul Qadir Khan in Pakistan?”

At one point Mr. Dehghanpour asks the former Iranian official: “Why not come clean?” and also: “Is the Supreme Leader genuinely worried that compromise will eventually lead to the end of the Islamic Republic?”

The Mousavian interview was followed by another with Dr. Ali Vaez, head of the Iran Project at The Crisis Group who supports the U.S.-led international sanctions, which he said, “Have remarkably affected Iran’s nuclear program itself.” Dr. Vaez offered a rebuttal to Mr. Mousavian’s arguments.

It is also not true, as Mr. Ahmari quotes an anonymous source claiming, that the terms of the interview were “dictated” by Mr. Mousavian. Mr. Ahmari could have asked, and we would have been pleased to tell him that there were no interview preconditions agreed to by VOA.

The Ofogh show that day featured a former top Iranian official forced to defend his assertions under pointed questioning, and then being contradicted by a subsequent interviewee. Our job is difficult and our coverage is not always perfect, but on the day Mr. Ahmari wrote about, it was “accurate, objective and comprehensive,” just as the VOA Charter from Congress requires.

The guest list for VOA’s Persian language programs is long and diverse, bringing many different voices and points of view to Iranian audiences. Guests on VOA Persian over the past year have included Wall Street Journal writers Bret Stephens and Matthew Kroenig, authors of the Foreign Affairs piece “Time to Attack Iran,” as well as Iran nuclear program critic David Albright, Sen. Norm Coleman, advisor to the Romney Campaign, and many noted Iranian critics of the regime in Tehran. Mr. Ahmari quotes Georgetown professor and former Senate candidate Rob Sobhani as finding himself “appearing far less frequently after 2009” and believing it was because he was “too negative toward the regime.” In fact Mr. Sobhani has been invited by Ofogh to appear four times in the last four months. He appeared once, twice said he was not available and once canceled at the last minute.

Finally, Mr. Ahmari’s unnamed source is completely wrong to say that VOA does not care about its audience. This is absurd. For 70 years, VOA has been a beacon of hope to people in repressed and information denied areas, and we are proud that more than one in five adult Iranians tune in to VOA every week, making it one of the most popular international broadcasters in the country.

David Ensor