The fine line between reporting and analysis has blurred in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. As reporters seek celebrity and write books, they not only describe but also judge and perhaps influence events. Some journalists do this well: New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon provided masterful insight into planning for the Iraq war in Cobra II. But Robin Wright of The Washington Post and Elaine Sciolino of The New York Times failed, writing books on Iran whose predictions and analysis with hindsight appear silly. With Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies, Slavin, USA Today senior diplomatic correspondent, falls into this latter category.
While Slavin hopes to flesh out the ups and downs of U.S.-Iran relations, her book instead becomes a mechanism by which former State Department policy planning director Richard Haass, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and former CIA official Flynt Leverett play out grievances. She also relies upon Trita Parsi, an Iran lobbyist who trades on his close ties to the Islamic Republic. In integrating their tales, Slavin displays little understanding of how the White House and the National Security Council work. Rather, she channels the State Department without adequate fact-checking or even an understanding of what is plausible and what is not.
Thus, she writes that the Bush administration spurned an Iranian offer to settle outstanding grievances in 2003, but as proof, she cites a document not authored by the Islamic Republic but rather by a freelancing Swiss diplomat, Tim Guldimann, and conveyed via unclassified fax and without letterhead. When Iranian officials saw what the proposal said, they did not agree with much of it and never mentioned it when they held bilateral talks with their U.S. counterparts; Slavin appears unaware that Armitage, whom she suggests found promise in the Iranian offer, subsequently disavowed it in an interview. Whether Armitage changed his story or Slavin cherry-picked quotes to support her thesis, the episode suggests she did not evaluate sources with the skepticism suitable to a journalist.
Slavin also displays a shallow understanding of Iranian power structures, showing little understanding of the mechanisms of the Supreme Leader's office and control and misunderstanding just how deeply committed the reformist bloc is to theocracy.
The author confuses both technical issues and chronology. She blames the U.S. decision to invade Iraq for the acceleration of Iran's nuclear program although the bulk of Iranian nuclear development occurred prior to 2003—indeed, under the "pragmatist" government of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the "reformist" government of his successor Muhammad Khatami.
Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies will be popular, for Slavin writes well and will please some with the moral equivalence of her narrative and by blaming the White House for deteriorating U.S.-Iranian relations.