Minefield for journalists
Is Iran supplying advanced weapons to Iraqi insurgents and Shia militia who use them to attack American and British troops? Is Iran getting North Korean help to prepare a nuclear test? Have Iranian weapons experts been helping Hamas in their fight with Fatah in Gaza? These are just some of the allegations that have been made against Iran and reported in various media over the past few weeks.
Forgive the metaphor but reporting the - so far rhetorical - escalation of tension between Washington and Tehran is a minefield for conscientious journalists, especially as we need to remember what happened in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.
Then a lot of claims were made by the US and British governments about Iraq's weapons’ capabilities and intentions which were reported widely and could well have helped swing public opinion behind confrontation with Iraq. As we know, no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and critics of the war have accused many journalists of being too credulous and not rigorous enough in reporting such claims.
In our editorial meetings we have discussed several times how we should cover the growing tension between the US and Iran - and there are some hard facts such as the US naval build up in the Persian Gulf - but we are aware of the need to be very careful which claims and counter-claims we report, and the need to tell listeners when we don't know things as well as when we do know.
This Wednesday (listen here), we decided to report that the Americans are stepping up pressure on Iran, and ask whether what we have been hearing from officials, former officials, analysts and journalists means the US is preparing the ground for an attack on Iran.
The former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, known for his hawkish views, had given an interview to BBC World Service saying the US may need to take - unspecified - action against Iran over its nuclear programme, while the former US National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, now more dovish than when he was in office, told the Today programme there are members of the Bush administration who want to take military action against Iran and maybe trying to provoke the Iranians over their role in Iraq to justify that action.
We used extracts from these two interviews to show there is a debate in Washington over its policy towards Iran, and then we asked the respected analyst, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, whether the US is preparing an attack. He said on balance he didn't think so because the groups advocating such action do not have enough influence on the White House. He also said Iran has a limited presence inside Iraq and that the US knows Tehran is still years away from developing nuclear weapons.
What we try our best to avoid when doing this kind of story is reporting claims we can not substantiate, whether made by journalists, officials or politicians, about what the US and Iran are up to without first assessing their credibility and then making clear that they are just that - claims - and explaining the political context within which the claims are being made so that listeners can make up their own minds.