I keep seeing articles in the US media recently, claiming that Iran is in violation of a 'nuclear deal'. For example:

The head of Iran's nuclear program said on Monday that Tehran was now operating double the amount of advanced centrifuges than was previously known in violation of its atomic deal with world powers.

NBC News - Iran spins more centrifuges on U.S. Embassy crisis anniversary

Iran announced new violations of its collapsing nuclear deal with world powers as it also marked Monday the 40th anniversary of the 1979 student takeover of the U.S. Embassy ... The head of Iran's nuclear program, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the Middle Eastern nation is now operating 60 IR-6 advanced centrifuges in violation of its 2015 landmark atomic deal with world powers

USA Today - Iran announces nuke deal violations 40 years after U.S. Embassy takeover, hostage crisis

However, didn't Donald Trump withdraw the US nuclear deal with Iran? In that case, in what sense can they be viewed as violating a deal that the US chose to cancel?


The deal was not only between the USA and Iran, as other countries were signatories:

  • China
  • France
  • Germany
  • European Union
  • Russia
  • United Kingdom

The situation with those countries is complicated, as neither they nor Iran have withdrawn from the treaty. Those countries are not trading with Iran due to USA sanction regimes; the pact is formally in place even if the U.S. has withdrawn.

Even if we ignore the above point and consider the nuclear deal extinct, the provisions of the deal could be considered a "measuring unit" to give some context to the public. For example, saying that "Iran has 1000 centrifuges" can be factual but not very informative; saying that "Iran has 1000 centrifuges while by the pact they agreed to have 500" gives more information and would definitely be different from "Iran has 1000 centrifuges while by the pact they agreed to have 999".

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    The JCPOA is not a treaty. It's non-treaty nature is very relevant to exactly how the Trump administration was able to quickly withdraw from it. – Joe Nov 4 at 21:01
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    It's not a treaty in terms of how it was implemented in the US legal framework, but it is a treaty in the colloquial sense of an international agreement signed by two or more countries. The treaty / non -treaty distinction is a peculiarity specific to the US, and I doubt that e.g.Iran's internal legal structures make the same distinction. – PhillS Nov 4 at 21:14
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    @Joe: I agree with PhiliS. See more discussion in the 2nd part of my answer on another question politics.stackexchange.com/a/32810/18373 – Fizz Nov 4 at 21:43
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    Although not by their own choice, the other signatories are failing to carry out their obligations under the agreement. – Patricia Shanahan Nov 5 at 4:29
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    @PatriciaShanahan - Yes. If Iran agreed to the terms of the agreement in exchange for concessions and lifting of sanctions, and the US backed out and is now forcing other nations to bend to the US's wishes, from Iran's perspective, why should they be the only nation that has to abide by the agreement? I think it's unrealistic to think that any nation would accept that. Furthermore, when you look at conditions like the amount of uranium they can stockpile/have on hand, a mechanism was built for them to export enough to stay under the limit. That mechanism has been shut off, for example. – PoloHoleSet Nov 5 at 15:12

American media is, unsurprisingly, biased with a pro-American viewpoint. Thus, we see that Trump "withdraws" from the agreement where Iran "violates" the agreement. In fact, it is more correct to say that America violated the agreement, as the word violation suggests acting in bad faith. By every account, Iran had held to the terms of the deal in good faith until the Trump administration decided to sabotage the whole thing. Iran is no longer bound to honor the agreement because it has already been dishonored by the other side.

American media works constantly to skew the perspective to present Iran in the worst light, and the US in the best light. They do this with the words that they choose, strategically applying euphemisms to influence public opinion.

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    As someone who is immersed in American media, I'd push back on the implication that accurately reporting the facts would somehow nessecarily be anti-American. It might be inconvenient for Trump, but the two are not the same. At some point you have to operate in the Real World, so lying to yourself serves you ill in the long run. – T.E.D. Nov 6 at 14:23
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    @T.E.D. where does klojj imply that accurately reporting the facts would be considered 'anti-American'? – Time4Tea Nov 6 at 14:30
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    @T.E.D. And I'd say it's naive not to think that the media from <country> is pro-<country>. Surely, the current populist trend in politics has the Western world more divided than it has been in a long time, but that doesn't eliminate bias all-together. – Jasper Nov 6 at 14:42
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    @Jasper The vast majority of American media is presently anti-current-American-administration and takes any opportunity they get to cast said administration in a bad light (and, to be fair, said administration gives them lots of opportunities to do that.) – reirab Nov 6 at 17:29
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    The only "acting in bad faith" that could really be said of the agreement in regards to the U.S. was Obama "signing" it in the first place, against the express will of Congress. Of course, the Iranians were fully aware that Obama did not have the support of Congress and that Obama did not have the authority to bind the U.S. to the agreement. This would be basic knowledge for any diplomat dealing with the U.S. (or at least any even remotely competent one.) They hoped they could put enough political pressure on future administrations to honor it anyway. They were wrong. – reirab Nov 6 at 17:33

The basic issue US media has with this situation is the same issue they have had a lot in the Trump era: accurately reporting what was done (in this case, the US broke its word on a treaty) would look a lot like a partisan political attack. This would violate the principle of "balance", which by training and ideology they just cannot make themselves do.

US mainstream media during the 20th century essentially grew up during a period of consolidation and monopolistic competition. This meant the consumer had some, but not a lot, of alternatives (usually 2 or 3), so everyone had to play for a general audience and build up loyalty with a "brand". They couldn't really shoot for a niche and survive. If a reader lost trust that what they were reading was going to be an attempt at truth, but instead simple political propaganda, they'd change channels or switch their subscription to the morning paper.

So mainstream US media developed a semi-formal code of political "balance". The idea was that on political issues they would try either not to weigh in at all, or failing that, give the side that the reporting made look bad some chance to respond. In practice this works out to a heavy bias in favor of centrism and normalcy.

Political operatives in the US started learning how to play this media desire for "balance" to their favor back in the 1970's to get themselves softer coverage (particularly the Tobacco companies and arguably the conservative movement).

The difference can be seen quite starkly any time a US ideologue foolishly agrees to be interviewed overseas. (See the relatively tame Frost Nixon interviews, or a lot of folks from the US far right interviewed lately by the BBC). Even relatively savvy US political operatives don't know how to deal with a proper adversarial press interview, because they get so little experience with that in their native country.

This "balanced" reporting works pretty well in normal times for normal stories where normal things are being done and both sides are acting in good faith performing actions that can reasonably be argued are not to the detriment of the honor or interests the political unit they are leading. However, it fails spectacularly when that condition does not apply.

From a Krugman op Ed (during a government shutdown crisis, but I think the point is timeless):

this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault.

With today's proliferation of media and pseudo-media outlets, conditions may be changing. A lot of newer media outlets are starting to reject what they call false balance. A bit of that is starting to leak into more mainstream outlets, but organizational culture there does not change easily.

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    I have to say that the picture you paint of US media in general espousing balanced reporting doesn't match at all with my experience of it. As someone who grew up in the UK and moved to the US a few years ago, there seem to be many US media outlets that are extremely biased politically. Political bias seems much more common in the media here than in the UK or Europe. In fact, it was one of the things that really hit me in the face when I first moved here. – Time4Tea Nov 6 at 18:54
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    @Time4Tea - By and large those will be non-mainstream sources, like I was talking about in the final paragraph (Admittedly, throwing the likes of MSNBC and Fox News under the rubicon of "non-mainstream" is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but they are relatively new and non-traditional sources.) – T.E.D. Nov 6 at 19:48

Note that Iran themselves point out how they are gradually disengaging from the deal, e.g. news from Oct 16:

On Wednesday, the spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s national security committee, Hossein Naghavi-Hosseini, said: “In the fourth step of reducing JCPOA commitments, we will probably impose limits on inspections, which means the International Atomic Energy Agency’s surveillance on Iran’s nuclear activities will be reduced.”

“We will certainly take the fourth step of reducing commitments to the JCPOA; Europeans have not honoured their part of the commitments and we have not seen any practical step taken by the other side.”

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