Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Egypt: Morsi Interview Controversy Highlights Iran's Press Rift

RFE/RL Copyright (c) 2012. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

Morsi Interview Controversy Highlights Iran's Press Rift 

By Golnaz Esfandiari June 25, 2012

One day after Muhammad Morsi was declared the winner of Egypt’s presidential election, Iran’s Fars news agency issued an alleged interview with him in which the president-elect expressed interest in strengthening ties with Tehran.

The controversial piece, in which Morsi was also quoted as saying that he wants to reconsider Egypt's peace treaty with Israel, was quickly picked up by major news outlets, including Reuters, "The Christian Science Monitor," and the Israeli daily "Haaretz."

It seemed to be quite a scoop for the semi-official news agency, which claimed its reporter spoke to Morsi a few hours before he was declared the victor. Fars, however, didn't get to enjoy the coup for long. The veracity of the interview was questioned by several news organizations, including BBC Arabic and Al-Arabiyah, which quoted a Morsi spokesman as denying that he spoke with Fars. Egypt's official MENA news agency would later also report that the interview was false.

But perhaps more significantly, Iran's official state-run news agency, IRNA, was also quick to cast doubt on the interview. The incident provides the latest example of how the ongoing power struggle in the Iranian establishment has apparently pitted IRNA, which is pro-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, against Fars, which is said to be affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Like BBC Arabic and Al-Arabiyah, IRNA reported that Morsi’s spokesman said in a statement that the president-elect had not conducted any interview with Fars before or after his victory. IRNA also claimed that an audio file of the alleged interview made available by Fars on its website was not Morsi's voice at all.

Fars, meanwhile, refused to back down, linking on its website to the extensive coverage the story received in regional and international media.

The hard-line news agency also attacked IRNA, branding the state news agency "antirevolutionary" for trying to denounce the interview and its "key and valuable points."

In recent months, Fars articles have attacked Ahmadinejad’s inner circle, which hard-liners describe as a deviant current in Iranian politics.

Not to be outdone, IRNA last week issued a list of what it called “continued gaffes by Fars,” which it said can lead to “security misunderstandings” inside the Islamic republic.

The list includes a Fars story about a large joint military exercise by Iran, China, Russia, and Syria that was allegedly to include 90,000 troops and hundreds of ships, tanks, and warplanes. Syria and China later denied the report.

IRNA also accused Fars of having fabricated a 2011 interview with former IAEA chief Mohammad ElBaradei. His office also denied the interview.

In February, Fars fabricated references to Iran's sensitive nuclear program in its coverage of Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi's acceptance speech at the Oscars.

Some Iranians refer to the agency as "False news" or "Farce news."

Meanwhile, in the United States, a reporter asked State Department spokersperson Victoria Nuland for her reaction to the alleged interview. Washington is wary of Iranian influence in the Middle East and is working to ensure that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty survives the political transition in Cairo.

"Well, obviously we look forward to talking to President-elect [Muhammad] Morsi and his whole government about Egypt's relationships in the neighborhood going forward [and] its upholding of all of its international obligations, including obligations vis-a-vis Iran," said Nuland. "But that said, I wouldn't believe everything that you read on Fars."

IRNA, it seems, has found a rare point of agreement with the U.S. government.