Friday, July 3, 2015

On Iran's Nuclear Program, Ghosh's "Gotcha" is Nothing But Smoke

Bobby Ghosh

"Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs."
-Albert Einstein


Bobby Ghosh, former TIME contributor and currently managing editor at Quartz, decided on Tuesday to produce some absurd, mouth-breathing click-bait - the kind of deliberately sloppy disinformation that serves only to further chum the waters of public opinion with the false narratives and grotesque stereotypes that have long been the stock-in-trade of agenda-driven, attention-seeking commentators about Iran and its nuclear program.

Here's the headline:


There's a quick answer to this leading - and deceiving - question: No, no he did not.

There's a longer answer, too, which we'll get to in a minute.

Ghosh, in his desire to expose what he thinks is a "gotcha" moment from a recent Iranian media interview with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, eagerly and disingenuously conflates uranium enrichment with nuclear weapons development. In doing so, he reveals himself to be more interested in delivering page views to his website and dishing out conventional wisdom than in reporting truthfully and critically about an important international issue.

Ghosh notes that, during a interview with Iranian media about the pending nuclear deal with six world powers, Rouhani said that "if the other side breaches the deal, we will go back to the old path, stronger than what they can imagine." Ghosh omitted Rouhani's initial comment, "If we reach a deal, both sides should be committed to it."

What gets Ghosh's goat is Rouhani's reference to "the old path," that is, the allusion to Iran's previous state of nuclear development, as opposed to its current restricted program under the interim deal and what results from a potential negotiated multilateral agreement.

Conceding that Iranian officials have long "sworn, over and over again, that [Iran] has never pursued nuclear weapons," Ghosh then gets to the crux of his claim:
If we're to believe the regime's claim, then Rouhani's threat makes no sense. The "old path" would simply be more "peaceful" nuclear research, allowing the sanctions to continue devastating the Iranian economy. That's not so much a threat as a flagellant's cry for help: "If you go back on your word, I’ll hurt myself."
To jump to such a conclusion requires a remarkably mistaken understanding of both the history of Iran's nuclear program and either the ignorance or dismissal of the massive concessions it has already made during ongoing international talks. Ghosh apparently suffers from both.

In an emblematically Ghoshian column on why the Iranian government is eviler than the Cuban government, Ghosh wrote on December 18, 2014, that Iran "was caught trying to build nuclear-weapons technology as recently as 2002, when its secret facilities at Arak and Nataz [sic] were discovered. Thereafter, under pressure from the US and the international community, the Tehran regime backed down from its policy of developing dual-use nuclear technology (for energy and weapons) and promised not to build bombs."

There's a lot wrong here, but I'll try to be quick (not my strong suit).

The facilities at Arak and Natanz were never "secret" nor do they "build nuclear-weapons technology." In 2002, they were both under construction and non-operational. Iran was, at that point, not obligated to declare their existence to the IAEA. Arak was designed as a power plant, Natanz is an enrichment site. Upon declaration, both have been subject to IAEA safeguards for over a decade. Iran's interest in developing an uranium enrichment industry has been open knowledge (and publicly acknowledged) since shortly after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

The Iranian government never "backed down" from a "policy of developing dual-use technology" and "promised not to build bombs" as Ghosh claims. Such a claim is bizarre. Beyond the fact that, as an original signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran has in effect "promised not to build [nuclear] bombs" since 1968 and Iranian officials have - since at least the early 1990s - constantly and consistently condemned and prohibited any domestic development of nuclear weapons (not only after 2002), it is literally impossible for any nation with an ongoing enrichment program to stop the acquisition of "dual-use" nuclear infrastructure since every single enrichment program on Earth is inherently dual-use: enriched uranium can be used for both energy or weaponry.

With this false narrative, Ghosh has, however, set up a convenient straw man with which to bandy about his erroneous assumptions of Iran's nuclear past. This brings us back to his recent article.

In trying to hash out what Rouhani's "old path" statement means, Ghosh establishes two options - the bluff or the blackmail - one of which, he claims, must be true. The bluff is that, in Ghosh's words, "There’s no “old path,” and Tehran is simply trying to frighten the P5+1 into relenting on the remaining sticking points at the negotiating table in Vienna."

The blackmail, on the other hand, is a damning admission by the Iranian leader of a clandestine nuclear weapons program Iran has long denied having. "The alternative," Ghosh writes, "is that Rouhani has unwittingly revealed that Iran was indeed pursuing nukes. That would be a real threat, especially if he is also sincere in pursuing this path 'stronger than what they can imagine.'"

But there is a third option, unacknowledged by Ghosh, which is the most obvious and most accurate: Rouhani is not talking about a nuclear weapons program to return to, but rather the reestablishment of full-scale uranium enrichment, which has been curtailed by Iran's obligations under the terms of its diplomatic agreements since January 2014.

Ghosh doesn't tell his readers that, in the same interview he cites as "fascinating" and "belligerent," Rouhani said of his international interlocutors, "If they claim that they want to prevent the development of nuclear weapons in Iran, they should know that Iran has never sought to build nuclear weapons." Obviously, such a statement - in the very same interview - severely undermines the credibility of Ghosh's blackmail or blunder claim that Rouhani has either purposely or accidentally revealed something alarming about its nuclear work.

Under the terms of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action, agreed to by Iran and the six powers - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States - known as the P5+1, Iran has halted all enrichment above 5%, diluted or disposed of its entire stockpile of 19.75% low-enriched uranium (LEU), converted the vast majority of its remaining stockpile of LEU to a form incapable of being weaponized, suspended upgrades and construction on its safeguarded nuclear facilities at Natanz, Fordow, and Arak, and allowed unprecedented access to its program by IAEA inspectors.

At every single juncture, Iran has complied fully with the demands of the plan.

All Rouhani was saying, therefore, is that these commitments - which were negotiated and agreed to by Iran, not imposed forcibly by foreign countries - would no longer be binding and Iran would resume its previous course of action, or "the old path." This previous course of action, still, was anything but a mysterious, opaque, nefarious development of dubious and deadly technology. Rather, even before current talks began, Iran's was the most heavily-scrutinized nuclear program on the planet and had been for years.

Rouhani's statement, therefore, was actually a fairly innocuous clarification of the fact that, if the P5+1 reneges on its own negotiated commitments, Iran will no longer abide by the deal either. That's hardly cause for Ghosh to collapse on his fainting couch.

What Ghosh also doesn't point out is that there is clear historical precedent for Rouhani's statement.

A dozen years ago, Iran's then-nascent uranium enrichment program was the subject of intensive diplomacy between Iran and the EU-3, shorthand for Britain, France and Germany. It was on Rouhani's watch - he was secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and lead negotiator at the talks - that Iran voluntarily suspended uranium enrichment in 2003 and accepted intrusive inspections above and beyond what was legally required by its safeguards agreement as talks progressed. During this period, the IAEA affirmed the peaceful nature of the program.

In mid-2004, with Iran fully complying with its obligations under Saadabad Agreement of October 2013, the negotiations were strained by the prospect of a new European-drafted IAEA resolution against Iran. President Mohammad Khatami told the press, in terms strikingly similar to Rouhani's recent statement, that Iran's voluntary suspension of enrichment would thus be endangered if the resolution passed.

"If the draft resolution proposed by the European countries is approved by the IAEA, Iran will reject it," Khatami said on June 18, 2004. "If Europe has no commitment toward Iran, then Iran will not have a commitment toward Europe."

A month later, Khatami insisted that "nothing stands in the way" of Iran "building and assembling centrifuges designed for uranium enrichment," reported the Associated Press.
Throughout the first half of 2005, Iranian officials were still intent on resolving the nuclear impasse through diplomacy with Europe, but explained that the resumption of "full-scale enrichment" was the ultimate goal of the talks, along with assurances that the program would remain forever peaceful.

Following the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2005, outgoing president Khatami made the Iranian position clear. "We will never overlook our legal and national right for possessing nuclear technology and fuel cycle to generate electricity. Iran will never change its national policy in this respect," he said, adding, "We have made it clear that suspension of uranium enrichment will not be forever. We have displayed our good faith. Now, it is the turn of the European friends to do in line with the commitments they have made about the matter."

Regardless of the offer soon to be put forward by the EU-3, Khatami reiterated that Iran would resume its conversion activities and eventually enrichment as well, in line with its inalienable rights to development domestic, civilian nuclear technology. "I hope that the Europeans' proposals will, as agreed, allow for the resumption of [nuclear activities]," Khatami told reporters in late July 2005. "But if they do not agree, the system has already made its decision to resume [uranium conversion] at Isfahan."

Uranium conversion restarted in early August 2005.

It was only after Iran's European negotiating partners, at the behest of the Americans, reneged on their promise to offer substantive commitments and respect Iran's inalienable right to a domestic nuclear infrastructure that talks dissolved and Iran resumed enrichment. The proposal eventually brought to Iran by Western negotiators on August 5, 2005 has been described as "vague on incentives and heavy on demands," and even dismissed by one EU diplomat as "a lot of gift wrapping around an empty box."

The resumption of full-scale enrichment by Iran had nothing to do with nuclear weapons, as the IAEA has affirmed consistently in quarterly reports over the past decade that no fissile material has ever been diverted to military purposes. Lingering questions about Iran's past work have long been debunked as unfounded allegations for which no credible evidence actually exists.

Rouhani's statement about "the old path" - that is, the legal and inalienable right of Iran to enrich uranium under international safeguards and supervision - therefore reveals nothing not previously known.

On the other hand, Ghosh's reaction to Rouhani's statement reveals the extent to which Ghosh himself will go to demonize and propagandize about Iran and its nuclear program. If he can't get the small stuff like this right, why are we listening to him about anything at all?

*****

Disclosure: I am an (often erstwhile) editor for the online magazine Muftah, which has recently announced a new partnership with Quartz, where Mr. Ghosh is managing editor.

*****

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Von Hippel's "Really Good Idea" to Resolve the Nuclear Impasse Was Actually Iran's Idea First


Yesterday in The National Interest, Frank von Hippel, co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, floats the possibility of opening Iran's domestic uranium enrichment program to international investment. Doing so, Von Hippel contends, would automatically "add a multinational layer of supervision to the program," as countries that "buy shares in its enrichment program" would do so "in exchange for having full access to all the associated facilities and a say in how they are managed."

For those who still insist on pretending that Iran's legal, safeguarded nuclear energy program is "a threat to regional stability" that will be summarily unleashed from the tethers of agreed-to restrictions after the imminent multilateral deal allegedly sunsets a decade from now, Von Hippel's suggestion should inspire confidence. With foreign investment and multinational involvement in the entire nuclear fuel cycle, coupled with the IAEA's strict monitoring and inspection regime which has already long been in place, the potential for Iran's program to ever be secretly militarized is virtually nil.

Furthermore, according to Von Hippel, offering such foreign stake in this Iranian industry "would mitigate the pressure on Saudi Arabia and other regional rivals of Iran to assert their own rights to 'peaceful' enrichment programs. Indeed, the door should be open for them to buy a share in the multinational program as well."

The article's headline calls Von Hippel's proposal to open up Iran's enrichment program to multinational partnerships, "A Really Good Idea."

And it is.

Except, while certainly a good idea, this isn't actually a new idea. In fact, this very offer was made over a dozen years ago - by Iran.

It is true that Von Hippel, whose National Interest post is a pared down version of a longer, more detailed (and less alarmist) article he co-authored in the June 19 issue of Science magazine, does make passing reference to the fact that "[s]enior Iranian officials have expressed openness to discussing multi-nationalization." But this is a gross understatement considering Iran's leadership and consistency on this issue.

Since its early stages, in fact, Iran has offered specifically to restrict its enrichment program and to open it up to international cooperation, thereby making in it literally impossible for the diversion of fissile material to weaponization efforts to take place unnoticed. As I have noted before, Iran was already making such gestures nearly a quarter century ago, only to be rebuffed, denied, ignored and dismissed by the United States.

In October 1992, for instance, in response to American concern over indications that Iran was pursuing a domestic enrichment program, Iran not only "repeatedly denied any non-peaceful intentions, stating that it accepts full-scope IAEA safeguards," but also "indicated it is prepared to accept enhanced safeguards measures on both nuclear cooperation agreements with Russia and China, as well as having no objections to the return of the spent fuel to the country of origin as a similar agreement had been concluded with Germany during the 1970s."

On July 1, 2003 - exactly 12 years ago today - Reuters reported that none other than Hassan Rouhani, then Secretary-General of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said Iran was "ready to accept the participation of other big industrialized countries in its [uranium] enrichment projects," specifically as a means to resolve any questions over whether its nuclear program was peaceful and civilian in nature.

Following its voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment and implementation of the Additional Protocol as confidence-building measures during negotiations with the EU-3, Iran again raised the prospect of multinational collaboration. On March 23, 2005, the Iranians presented a four-phase plan to their European negotiating partners intended to end the nuclear impasse once and for all. It called for Iran to resume uranium enrichment, with EU cooperation, and for the Majlis (Iranian parliament) to begin the process of approving legislation that would permanently ban the "production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons."

Iran's offer came on the heels of the IAEA's own expert endorsement of multinational investment in enrichment programs.

This was not merely the stance of the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami, either. In his first address before the United Nations General Assembly in September 2005, newly-inaugurated Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that, as a "confidence building measure and in order to provide the greatest degree of transparency, the Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of uranium enrichment program in Iran. This represents the most far reaching step, outside all requirements of the NPT, being proposed by Iran as a further confidence building measure."

In early November 2005 it was widely reported that "the Iranian government is allowing the country's atomic energy agency to seek local or foreign investors for its currently suspended uranium enrichment activities." Such investment, directed toward the Natanz facility then under construction in central Iran, would be sought "from the public or private sectors."

Days later, Iranian state-run television stated that Iran would offer the international community "a 35% share in its uranium enrichment programme as a guarantee" that its nuclear program "won't be diverted toward weapons." This investment would allow "foreign countries and companies a role in Iran's uranium enrichment programme," providing the opportunity for such entities and organizations to "practically contribute in and monitor the uranium enrichment in Natanz." Gholamreza Aghazade, an Iranian vice president and head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, told the press that this offer was "maximum concession" Tehran could offer for transparency. "The 35% share is not only investment," he said. "They will have a presence in the process (of uranium enrichment) and production (of nuclear fuel)."

"It's the best kind of international supervision totally negating any possibility of diversion (toward weapons)," Aghazade explained.

Later that month, on November 18, 2005, in yet another publicly presented proposal, the Iranian government repeated the offer set forth earlier that year, reiterating its willingness to officially ban nuclear weapons development through legislation, cap its level and scope of enrichment, immediately covert its enriched uranium to fuel rods "to preclude even the technical possibility of further enrichment" towards weapons-grade and "to provide unprecedented added guarantees" to the IAEA that its program would remain peaceful. The proposal, issued by Iran's permanent mission to the United Nations, reiterated Iran's "[a]cceptance of partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of uranium enrichment program in Iran which engages other countries directly and removes any concerns."

Iran's offers were routinely rejected by the United States government, which maintained the absurd position that Iran capitulate to its demand of zero enrichment on Iranian soil. "We cannot have a single centrifuge spinning in Iran," declared George W. Bush's undersecretary of state for arms control Robert Joseph in early 2006.

In an April 5, 2006 oped in the New York Times, Iran's then UN ambassador Javad Zarif laid out a number of proposals for resolving the nuclear standoff. In addition to affirming Iran's continued commitment to the NPT, acceptance of limitations on enrichment, and its stance against "the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons," Zarif stated Iran's willingness to "[a]ccept foreign partners, both public and private, in our uranium enrichment program." He continued:
Iran has recently suggested the establishment of regional consortiums on fuel-cycle development that would be jointly owned and operated by countries possessing the technology and placed under atomic agency safeguards.
In an article for the Los Angeles Times at the end of that same year, Zarif reminded readers of these overtures, none of which were ever responded to by the United States.

Multinational investment in Iran's enrichment program was endorsed by nuclear experts and MIT researchers Geoff Forden and John Thomson in various articles and reports in 2006 and 2007, as well as by former American diplomats Thomas R. Pickering and William Luers and nuclear expert Jim Walsh in an essay for the New York Review of Books in early 2008. Wholly in line with what Iranian officials had been saying for years, Pickering, Luers and Walsh wrote that a "jointly managed and operated on Iranian soil by a consortium including Iran and other governments... provides a realistic, workable solution to the US–Iranian nuclear standoff." Such a program, they wrote, "will reduce the risk of proliferation and create the basis for a broader discussion not only of our disagreements but of our common interests as well."

"Given the enhanced transparency of a multilateral arrangement and the constant presence in Iran of foreign monitors that such a plan would require," the authors added, any "diversion of material or technology to a clandestine program" would be easily detected. Senators Chuck Hagel and Dianne Feinstein both responded positively to the proposal. The Bush administration dismissed it out of hand.

Iranian officials again endorsed the concept of opening its nuclear program to international investment and collaboration in during a March 2008 conference in Tehran.

In a comprehensive package proposed to the United Nations on May 13, 2008, Iran's foreign minister Manuchehr Mottaki wrote that Iran was still ready to consider, among a great many other things, "Establishing enrichment and nuclear fuel production consortiums in different parts of the world - including in Iran."

Reporting on the proposal shortly thereafter, The Guardian's Julian Borger noted that while the consortium idea was gaining traction in American "foreign policy circles," it was still "resisted by the US, French and British governments." An unnamed "British official" told Borger, "We would be ready to discuss it, as soon as Iran does what it knows it has to," that is, suspend its enrichment program, an obvious and long-known nonstarter for post-2005 negotiations.

By resurrecting the notion of multinational investment in Iran's enrichment program, Von Hippel does the conversation over nuclear negotiations a great service. Despite past difficulties regarding Iran's stake in the Eurodif consortium and a history of American deception and deliberate denialism in breach of its NPT obligations, the prospect of international acceptance and cooperation in Iran's nuclear industry is still an excellent way out of this manufactured crisis.

But by leaving out the fact that Iran itself has long been the leading champion of such a proposal unfortunately doesn't give credit where credit is due.

*****

Friday, May 29, 2015

Crossed Wires? Reuters & Associated Press Present Conflicting Information on Proposed Iran Inspections


A Reuters wire service dispatch published today on lingering IAEA questions about alleged past Iranian research ends with the following statement:
Iran has ruled out any nuclear inspector access to its military bases, a position rejected by the Western powers.
While the merits of the allegations about Iran's previous work remains suspect, this particular claim - that Iran is refusing to admit any inspectors access to non-safeguarded, non-nuclear sites - is curious in light of a report published this past Sunday by the Associated Press, another major international newswire.

That report, filed from Tehran by AP correspondent Ali Akbar Dareini, bears the following headline:


Dareini writes that, contrary to a previous statement by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei refusing IAEA access to military facilities, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told state television that "Iran has agreed to grant managed access to military sites." This approach was confirmed by Ahmad Shoohani, a member of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, who explained, "Managed access will be in a shape where U.N. inspectors will have the possibility of taking environmental samples from the vicinity of military sites."

So which one is it? No military site visits, as reported by Reuters today, or "managed access" to certain sites, as reported by the Associated Press five days ago? It seems pretty clear that it's the latter.

Is it Reuters policy to ignore AP reports or did the report's author Michael Shields and editor Mark Heinrich just make a mistake? Perhaps the real question at this point is, when will Reuters update the piece and issue a correction? Time will tell.

*****

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Washington Post and the "Nuclear Weapons Program" That Wasn't


Back on April 27, the Washington Post updated an article about a new poll showing that, despite ongoing multilateral talks, over one-fifth of Republicans currently support a military attack on Iran. The short piece referenced John McCain's infamous 2007 "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran" quote (sung by a terrible old man to the tune of "Barbara Ann"), but soon after it was published the Post issued the following humble correction and clarification:


Kudos to the Post for forthrightly addressing and correcting such an appalling mistake. It's comforting that the author is as embarrassed and remorseful as he seems. He should be. Yeeesh. (Still, it's questionable whether The Beach Boys should ever be described as oldies, in the "Golden Oldies" sense, and even more suspect to place The Beatles in that - or any - category.)

Unfortunately, the article, written by Aaron Blake for the paper's "The Fix" blog, contains another egregious error - and this one has yet to be remedied.

In describing the recent Quinnipiac poll in which bombing Iran is supported by 13% of Americans (including 21% of self-identifying Republicans) over continuing nuclear negotiations, Blake notes that, in official circles, "basically nobody is talking about the United States taking military action to rein in Iran's nuclear weapons program — at least at this point."

At this point, it should be perfectly clear to professional journalists and their editors that international intelligence assessments consistently affirm that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. What Iran does have, however, is a nuclear energy program with uranium enrichment facilities, all of which are under international safeguards, strictly monitored and routinely inspected by the IAEA. No move to divert nuclear material to military or weaponization purposes have ever been detected. This is consistently affirmed by U.S., British, Russian, and even Israeli intelligence, as well as the IAEA. In fact, the IAEA itself has said there is "no concrete proof" Iran's nuclear program "has ever had" a military component.

The poll, albeit misleading and speculative, is more careful in its language than Blake's summary. Here's the full question posed to respondents: "Would you prefer military intervention against Iran's nuclear program or a negotiated settlement to reduce its nuclear potential?"

The conflation of Iran's nuclear energy program with a nonexistent nuclear weapons program, as Blake demonstrates here, has plagued the news media for years and served to grossly misinform the public on the realities of Iranian intentions and capabilities. Though you wouldn't know it from Blake's report, Iran has no "nuclear weapons program" for the United States - or anyone else - "to rein in."

Perhaps more disappointing is that Blake's offending phrase was published in the first place, especially considering that this precise issue of conflation, journalistic shorthand, and loose language has been specifically addressed before by Blake's own paper.

In December 2011, Patrick B. Pexton, then The Washington Post's ombudsman, challenged the paper's routinely irresponsible and alarmist reporting on Iran's nuclear program, writing that the IAEA "does not say Iran has a bomb, nor does it say it is building one," and warned that such misleading characterizations of such an important issue "can also play into the hands of those who are seeking further confrontation with Iran."

Others in similar roles at leading media organizations concurred. The following month, in January 2012, New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane responded to reader complaints that the paper's reporting on Iran's nuclear program was misleading and that the use of shorthand phrases legitimized and perpetuated false narratives. Brisbane agreed.

"I think the readers are correct on this...In this case, the distinction between the two [a nuclear energy program and a nuclear weapons program] is important because the Iranian program has emerged as a possible casus belli," he wrote.

Days later, National Public Radio ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos weighed in. "Shorthand references are often dangerous in journalism, and listeners are correct to be on the alert for them," he noted. "Repeated enough as fact - 'Iran's nuclear weapons program' - they take on a life of their own." Schumacher-Matos added that, at the behest of NPR's Senior Editor for National Security Bruce Auster, "NPR's policy is to refer in shorthand to Iran's 'nuclear program' and not 'nuclear weapons program'" and concluded, "This is a correct formula."

The next year, in June 2013, The Guardian's Readers' Editor Chris Elliott reached a similar conclusion, agreeing that the use of the term "nuclear weapons program" with regard to Iran is misleading and should be avoided.

In September 2013, after leaving the Post, Pexton chimed in again, doubling down on his assessment that speculating on Iranian intentions had no place in news reporting, especially when there is no evidence of a weapons program.

Offhand, erroneous descriptions repeated constantly in the media clearly go a long way toward turning an evidence-free speculation and hawkish talking point into an assumed fact. Throughout his own post, Blake's tone is that of disbelief that over a tenth of the America public would want to bomb Iran rather than support diplomacy. Perhaps the problem is that they've been reading - and believing - reports like the one Blake himself wrote.

Considering the Post's well-known editorial line on Iran and past disregard for the suggestions of its former ombudsman (a position the paper eliminated permanently following Pexton's departure in early 2013), there is little hope that Blake's phrase will be corrected.

But, hey, at least they eventually got the Beatles thing right. For chrissake, people.

h/t Nick Bilton

*****

Friday, May 8, 2015

Larry Mendte Gets It So Wrong:
How Persistent Iraq Mythologies Inspire Bad Analysis on Iran


Earlier this week, Kayvon Afshari, communications director for the American Iranian Council, appeared on Another Thing with veteran broadcaster Larry Mendte to discuss the state of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and the prospect, in the face of powerful opposition, of a final deal being reached in the coming weeks.

While Afshari's pro-diplomacy optimism was backed up by important facts not often heard in the media, Mendte made a number of comments that betrayed his role as an ostensibly objective and informed interviewer.

Right off the bat, for instance, Mendte describes the ongoing talks as a negotiation about an "Iranian nuclear arms deal." That's a bizarre - albeit revealing - way to begin, namely because that's not what this is. If anything, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a nuclear arms deal, one signed back in 1968 by Iran and ratified two year later, as it proscribes all non-nuclear weapons signatories to forever forgo the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

What Iran is negotiating with six world powers about is accepting verifiable limits and constraints on its peaceful, civilian, non-weaponized, non-military, safeguarded nuclear energy program in exchange for the lifting of international and unilateral sanctions and the normalization of its nuclear dossier.

This is not an "arms deal," as Iran has no "arms" to give up. The United States intelligence community and its allies have long assessed that Iran doesn't even have a nuclear weapons program, let alone nuclear weapons. Iranian officials, for decades, have consistently maintained they will never pursue such weapons on religious, strategic, political, moral and legal grounds. The IAEA has found no credible evidence that Iran has ever had a nuclear weapons program.

As the conversation gets underway, Mendte repeats the tired claim that Iran is just biding its time under intense and intrusive scrutiny until - years from now - when it will suddenly emerge with a deadly nuclear arsenal manufactured out of thin air:
The way I understand the deal, and I think some of the people that are critical of it, is that there'd be a decade-long moratorium and then, the president has admitted in an article, in an interview, that after that decade-long moratorium, Iran could start up a nuclear program just like that. As a matter fact, they could advance the program during that decade and then be able to start up, for 10 years. This just puts off the inevitable. Is that fair?
Obviously this is not "fair" and Mendte's understanding of the deal, or anything having to do with Iran or its nuclear program for that matter, is effectively nonexistent.

Afshari rightly points out to Mendte that Iran already has a nuclear program, one that is legal and guaranteed under the NPT, also noting, "It's not as though there's going to be no inspections after ten years. There's still going to be strict inspections, but they'll be loosened after that initial ten years."

Mendte is quick to jump in. "We had strict inspections in Iraq. That didn't turn out really well," he patronizingly tells Afshari, continuing, "The reason we went into Iraq, people forget, in the first place, is because the inspectors were thrown out and not allowed in. [There were] supposed to be UN inspections and he [Saddam Hussein] didn't allow it."

When Afshari replies that the analogy is a stretch as Iran has never kicked out inspectors and that Iraq's nuclear program was very different than Iran's, Mendte is undeterred, insisting on playing out his analogy. "There was a nuclear arms deal in place" before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he says, "and what I'm saying is that lead to the Iraq War. I mean, I know there [were] other factors including 9/11, including President Bush wanting to go after Iraq, but that was the catalyst: the fact that they left out UN inspectors, if you remember at the time."

While Afshari is a gracious guest and tries to steer the conversation back on track, he really shouldn't have been so accommodating to Mendte's version of history. Basically, he should have told him he was flat-out wrong. Beyond the fact that Mendte seems to have forgotten that Bush administration claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were false (and that there was no "nuclear arms deal in place" with Iraq), his claim about international inspectors is also completely bogus. How so, you ask?

Saddam never kicked inspectors out of Iraq.

This claim is a canard, a wholesale myth, a straight-up falsehood. It was built up by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq and dutifully reinforced by the mainstream media. In fact, between late November 2002 and mid-March 2003, weapons inspectors from the IAEA and the U.N. Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) conducted more than 750 inspections at 550 sites in Iraq.

In January 2003, UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix told reporters that inspectors had been "covering the country in ever wider sweeps" for months but "haven't found any smoking guns." An Associated Press dispatch from the time noted, "In almost two months of surprise visits across Iraq, U.N. arms monitors have inspected 13 sites identified by U.S. and British intelligence agencies as major 'facilities of concern,' and reported no signs of revived weapons building."

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei delivered a report to the U.N. Security Council on March 7, 2003, during which he spoke of increased Iraqi cooperation with international inspections and thoroughly dismantled Bush administration claims about aluminum tubes, high-strength magnets, and importing yellowcake from Niger. ElBaradei concluded, "After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapon program in Iraq" and clearly stated the intention "to continue our inspection activities."

Inspections ended abruptly eleven days later, on March 18, 2003, for one reason: the United States was about to start dropping bombs all over the place.

"In early March," Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" blog wrote in 2011, Blix "began getting warnings from senior U.S. and British officials about the safety of the inspectors. Then the company that supplied helicopters for the teams withdrew its equipment from Iraq."

News reports at the time leave no doubt as to what really happened.

"In the clearest sign yet that war with Iraq is imminent, the United States has advised U.N. weapons inspectors to begin pulling out of Baghdad, the U.N. nuclear agency chief said Monday," reported the Associated Press on March 17, 2003. The article continued:
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the recommendation was given late Sunday night both to his Vienna-based agency hunting for atomic weaponry and to the New York-based teams looking for biological and chemical weapons."
"Late last night... I was advised by the U.S. government to pull out our inspectors from Baghdad," ElBaradei told the IAEA's board of governors.
Within hours, the evacuation began. "U.N. weapons inspectors climbed aboard a plane and pulled out of Iraq on Tuesday after President Bush issued a final ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to step down or face war," AP reported the next day. "U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday ordered all U.N. inspectors and support staff, humanitarian workers and U.N. observers along the Iraq-Kuwait border to evacuate Iraq after U.S. threats to launch war."

"[A]t no time did Iraq throw out the inspectors," wrote Kessler, in an attempt to forever put these talking points to rest. "[I]nspectors voluntarily ended their mission because of the threat of military action by the United States and its allies.

Larry Mendte's regurgitation of Rumsfeldian propaganda - 13 years after the illegal and disastrous invasion of Iraq - should cast doubt on his credibility as a broadcaster. Let's hope a correction and mea culpa are forthcoming - not to mention an apology to Afshari.

*****

UPDATE:

May 10, 2015 - I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by Larry Mendte's inability to grasp basic facts. A quick look at some of his past rants on Iran makes clear he's long bought into the most bellicose and alarmist propaganda pushed by Iran hawks and is incapable of any semblance of critical thought. He sees the U.S. invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq as warnings to other nations, not as lessons to be learned about jingoism, faulty intelligence, war crimes, and imperial adventurism. He thinks Iran has a "nuclear weapons program." He thinks sanctions "brought Iran to the negotiating table." He says he knows that Iran wants a nuclear bomb.

Larry Mendte bloviates like he's in a Darrell Hammond sketch. With one exception: he should be taken far less seriously.


*****

Monday, April 6, 2015

Debunked and Busted: Gawker Shreds the Media's Bunker-Buster Hype

Whitman Air Force Base staff pose in front of a fake Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) bunker buster, December 18, 2007. (U.S. Air Force)

Following through on its ongoing commitment to encourage hysteria and beat the drums of war, The Wall Street Journal posted what appeared to be an alarming headline on Friday, just one day after the framework of a multilateral diplomatic accord between Iran, the United States, and five other world powers was announced.


Dick-swinging reports on big American bombs - namely the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) - are nothing new. Here are some others, dating back to 2008:

USA Today, September 15, 2008:


Bloomberg News, July 31, 2009:


Daily Mail, November 17, 2011:


The Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2012:


The Washington Post, February 29, 2012:


Bloomberg News, January 14, 2015:



The Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2013:


Jewish & Israel News Service, April 14, 2014:


In 2011, Bloomberg News even published an infographic in which giant bombs penetrate the Earth's core in order to kill an elephant.


Around the same time, CNN reported that the bunker busting bombs so often touted in the media were not designed to be used against Iranian facilities:


Today, however, the issue was put to rest by an excellent post on Gawker by William M. Arkin.

"Only armchair amateurs (and bloviating idiots) think some 30,000 pound bunker buster is a war-winning silver bullet, or that it is even usable," writes Arkin. "And 'massive;—in an industrial sense—is so far off from what war planners really think about these days." He continues:
MOP finds its origins in the 21,000-pound Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb, more affectionately known as the Mother of All Bombs, which starred for a moment more than a decade ago, when the mission was destroying Afghan caves and tunnels. It followed another weapon rushed forward to hit Saddam's bunkers in Gulf War 1, now almost 25 years ago.
So what's most important to understand is that these boutique bunker busters have always been in a rush to do something: panic, engineering challenge, hand-crafted, small amounts of money, and then OBE—overtaken by events.
Basically, after years of advancing, upgrading, improving, bulking up and so on, Arkin explains that the entire MOP program consists of "20 hand-crafted bombs that seem to play no more of a role than being fodder for people bloviating about Iran to cry war."

Nevertheless, expect similarly hysterical headlines to remain a staple of mainstream news coverage.

*****

UPDATE:

May 20, 2015 - Voilà! Zachary Keck of The National Interest to the rescue. To hell with the stupid old MOP... please welcome the HVPM (high velocity penetrating weapon)!


*****

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Vox Errata: On Nuclear Framework, Explanatory Journalism Site Has Some More 'Splaining To Do


As soon as the framework for a comprehensive nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers was announced in Lausanne, Switzerland on April 2, Vox.com content manager Max Fisher came out strongly in favor of the agreement's reported details. While his optimism is certainly welcome, his understanding of some key details leaves something to be desired.

Unfortunately, for someone who writes about the Iranian nuclear program as much as he does, Fisher seems not to have a very solid grasp on certain basic facts about the program. Sure, this is tricky, complex stuff, but if you're in the business of producing what you refer to as "explanatory journalism" - and your entire reporting model is based upon providing clear analysis to a presumably less knowledgeable public - you should probably know what you're talking about.

Here are just a few of his most recent errors.

'Covert Nuclear Facilities'

In his "plain English" guide to the framework parameters, as described by the United States State Department, Fisher notes that facilities at Natanz and Fordow will continue to operate, with uranium enrichment continuing at Natanz and non-uranium enrichment and research occurring at Fordow.

Fisher concludes that this is a good deal for those worried about Iranian nuclear capabilities. "International inspectors will have access [to these facilities]," he writes, "so they won't really function as covert nuclear facilities anymore."

But, apparently unbeknownst to Fisher, neither Natanz nor Fordow ever actually functioned as secret nuclear enrichment facilities. Ever.

Natanz

While much is often made of the 2002 revelation of Iran's supposedly clandestine enrichment plant at Natanz, rarely do we hear that the pilot facility was still under construction when it was declared by Iran to the IAEA. Per Iran's safeguards agreement with the IAEA at the time, however, "Iran did not have to declare that it was building a pilot plant until 180 days before it expected to introduce nuclear material into the plant," explained a May 2003 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Furthermore, as pointed out at the time by a research analyst at the Arms Control Association, Iran was "not required to allow visits to the Arak and Natanz sites under its current agreements with the IAEA."

Even David Albright, who has been a consistent voice of alarmism over Iran in recent years, was clear in his assessment in December 2002, shortly after the existence of Natanz was made public. "Under its safeguards agreement," he wrote with Corey Hinderstein, "Iran is not required to allow IAEA inspections of a new nuclear facility until six months before nuclear material is introduced into it."

In effect, the United States has long been proud of discovering a construction site that Iran was under absolutely no obligation to announce to the IAEA. Natanz was not operational until June 2006, at which point it had already been under IAEA safeguards for over three years. Not a single atom of enriched uranium has ever been produced at Natanz outside the purview of IAEA inspectors. Nevertheless, in a separate article published the same day, Fisher claims Natanz "was once used for covert enrichment."

Fordow

Similarly, the site at Fordow was never a functional enrichment site outside IAEA monitoring. As with Natanz, it was "clandestine" only to the effect that it wasn't officially declared by Iran to the IAEA before the US intelligence agencies said they already knew about it.

The site was announced by Iran to the IAEA on September 21, 2009, well in advance of the 180 days prior to the introduction of nuclear material as required by Iran's Safeguards Agreement. At the time, the facility was still under construction and did not actually begin uranium enrichment until early January 2012, roughly 28 months after it had been declared to the IAEA. Upon visiting the facility six weeks after it was announced, then-IAEA Secretary General Mohammed ElBaradei described Fordow as "a hole in a mountain" and "nothing to be worried about."

When the plant began operation, the IAEA confirmed that "all nuclear material in the facility remains under the agency's containment and surveillance." This was the case well before the November 2013 interim deal between the P5+1 and Iran and this remains the case to this day.

While Fisher has written elsewhere that both the Natanz and Fordow "sites are now publicly declared and will be monitored as part of any deal," meaning "their value (and threat) as covert facilities is gone," he appears to insinuate that recent negotiations - and namely Iranian concessions extracted by determined American negotiators - are responsible for this positive state of affairs. Yet Natanz has been safeguarded, monitored and inspected by the IAEA for over a decade, Fordow for over four years.

'Plutonium Plant at Arak'

If you read Vox.com, you'd really think Iran has something called a "plutonium plant at Arak." The main reason you'd probably think that is because that's exactly what Max Fisher and other explainers at the site claim as fact over and over again. Here's Fisher from the other day:


There is so much wrong with Fisher's understanding of Iran's Arak facilities it's difficult to know where to begin. Fisher even changed the original words of the State Department's "fact sheet" on the deal framework to match his misunderstanding before allowing himself to explain things to his readers. Basically none of Fisher's sentences in this section make any sense.

What Fisher routinely refers to as Iran's "plutonium plant" is actually the IR-40 heavy water research reactor, a nuclear reactor at the Arak complex that is still under construction and not yet operational. The half-built reactor is under IAEA safeguards and is visited regularly by inspectors. Nevertheless, it has long been used by Israel and its contingent of hawkish American supporters as an alternate way to fear-monger about Iran's nuclear program.

In simple terms, heavy water reactors are fueled by natural, rather than enriched, uranium. Heavy water, a (non-nuclear) form of water, acts as both a moderator and coolant in the fuel process. These reactors are said to pose a potential proliferation threat due to the amounts of plutonium produced as a byproduct of their spent nuclear fuel (which is more than what naturally occurs in spent fuel from light-water reactors), material that could then be separated from the irradiated fuel and further processed to weapons-grade levels.

So, to be clear, Iran has not been building a "plutonium plant," let alone a facility "for making and storing potentially weapons-grade plutonium." Rather, it has been building a certain type of nuclear reactor that happens to produce plutonium as a byproduct in its spent fuel, which - to be clear - all nuclear reactors do to some extent.

Still, the Arak reactor is not in itself a proliferation risk. Even though plutonium is produced as a byproduct of running the reactor, it must first be separated out from irradiated fuel and reprocessed to weapons-grade material before it poses any actual danger. Iran has no reprocessing plant, and has long agreed not to build one. The recently announced framework appears to reaffirm this decision by Iran.

Reading Fisher's explanation, it's clear he thinks that, once operational, the facility at Arak would have somehow made "weapons-grade plutonium," but now will only "make nuclear fuel" to power a reactor. He is wrong. (Rachel Maddow on MSNBC also voiced her similarly erroneous understanding of Arak's capabilities a few days ago.) The relevant facility at Arak is a reactor; it doesn't make fuel, it runs on fuel. Whenever it is eventually commissioned, it will be used for medical, scientific and agricultural research.

Beyond this, even before Iran's current negotiating team was in place following the election of President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013, "Iran encouraged United Nations nuclear monitors to use powerful new detection technologies to dispel international concern that the Persian Gulf country is seeking to build atomic weapons," reported Bloomberg News. "We always welcome the agency to have more sophisticated equipment, to have more accuracy in their measurements, so that technical matters will not be politicized," Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh told the press in Vienna at the time, adding that Iran "won't object to IAEA monitors using new technologies to determine whether plutonium is being extracted from spent fuel at its new reactor in Arak."

In his guide to the nuclear framework, Fisher went to weird lengths to confuse his readership about Arak. The State Department's own fact sheet notes, "Iran has agreed to redesign and rebuild a heavy water research reactor in Arak, based on a design that is agreed to by the P5+1, which will not produce weapons grade plutonium, and which will support peaceful nuclear research and radioisotope production." Fisher changed the the mention of "a heavy water research reactor" to "plutonium plant," which appears to be a deliberate decision to make Iran's safeguarded nuclear program sound undoubtedly nefarious.

Fisher also writes that, under the agreement, Iran "is barred from heavy-water reactor use." That's not true. Even though IR-40's reactor core will be redesigned and rebuilt, it will still be a heavy water reactor, albeit one that produces less plutonium byproduct than the original design would have yielded . What the framework fact sheet says, however, is specifically that "Iran will not build any additional heavy water reactors for 15 years." (emphasis mine)

'Inspections'

As part of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) agreed to in November 2013, Iran has granted IAEA inspectors regular access to non-safeguarded, non-nuclear sites such as centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities, and uranium mines and mills at Gchine, Saghand, and Ardakan. Fisher is pleased with this development, explaining that, "Inspectors, by gaining access to not just the core nuclear sites but also secondary things like uranium mills and centrifuge plants, will be in a really good position to make sure Iran isn't cheating on a deal or trying to build another secret facility somewhere."

Fisher's sentence construction here is both curious and revealing. He notes that "by gaining access" to "core nuclear sites" as well as other, non-nuclear sites, inspectors have a clearer picture of the entire Iranian supply chain for its nuclear program. But the nuclear sites in question have always been under safeguards and open to routine inspections since they were declared years ago, prior to any actual nuclear work being done there. This is nothing new; it is not a virtue of the JPOA or any other recent negotiated terms. You wouldn't know this by reading Fisher's work.

Furthermore, despite constant insinuations to the contrary, Iran has never refused IAEA inspectors admission to any of its safeguarded nuclear sites. All sites and facilities are under round-the-clock video surveillance, readily accessible to IAEA inspectors, open to routine inspection, and subject to material seals application by the agency.

Even before the JPOA was negotiated, Iran's was the most heavily-scrutinized nuclear program on the planet and had been for years. Though the IAEA has even deeper access as a result of the interim deal (which will presumably continue for the foreseeable future as part of any final deal), the regular inspection regimen was itself quite intensive and intrusive. Rarely is this noted in mainstream media reports, leading many to the outrageously incorrect conclusion that, prior to the current nuclear talks, Iran operated a wholly unmonitored, clandestine and opaque nuclear program. While this is actually an apt description of Israel's own nuclear arsenal, it is a totally inaccurate understanding of Iran's own program.

Nuclear expert Mark Hibbs has explained, "There are IAEA safeguards personnel in Iran 24/7/365," pointing out that inspectors enter and examine enrichment sites "frequently and routinely," where they carry out "two kinds of inspections: 'announced inspections' and 'short-notice announced inspections.'" The "announced inspections" are conducted with "24-hour notification" given to Iran, while "Iran's subsidiary arrangements in fact permit the IAEA to conduct a short-notice inspection upon two hours' notice." Each of Iran's enrichment facilities was already subject to two regular inspections every month. Additionally, two unannounced inspections were conducted every month at both Natanz and Fordow.

Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian, now a lecturer at Princeton University, has noted that, between 2003 and 2012, the IAEA "implemented the most robust inspections in its history with more than 100 unannounced and over 4000 man-day inspections in Iran." In 2012 alone (when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still president and long before any multilateral interim agreement was negotiated), IAEA investigators spent 1,356 calendar days in Iran, conducting 215 on-site inspections of the country's 16 declared nuclear facilities, and spending more than 12% of the agency’s entire $127.8 million budget on intrusively monitoring the Iranian program, which includes only a single functional nuclear reactor that doesn't even operate at full capacity.

IAEA inspectors have also had consistently open access to the gas conversion facility at Esfahan and the light water reactor at Bushehr, despite these facilities not being explicitly covered by Iran's Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

The agency has continued to verify - at least four times a year for the past dozen years – that Iran has never diverted any nuclear material for military purposes and has also affirmed "it has all the means it needs to make sure that does not happen with Iran's enriched uranium, including cameras, physical inspections and seals on certain materials and components."

And that was before the increased scrutiny provided by the JPOA.

'Breakout Time'

In his post on why the newly-announcement framework - as described by the State Department's own fact sheet - is such a good deal, Fisher explains the oft-used term "breakout time" to his readers this way:
If Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei woke up tomorrow morning and decided to kick out all of the inspectors and set his entire nuclear program toward building a nuclear warhead — to "break out" to a bomb — right now it would take him two or three months. Under the terms of the framework, his program would be so much smaller that it would take him an entire year to build a single nuclear warhead.
Fisher is wrong about this. "Breakout time" - an arbitrary measure in itself - is not the time it takes to build one nuclear bomb. Rather, it is the time it would hypothetically take Iran to acquire enough highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for one nuclear bomb. As Gary Sick has succinctly explained:
Note that "breakout" does not mean Iran will have a nuclear device. It is the starting point to build a nuclear device, which most experts agree would require roughly a year for Iran to do–and probably another two or more years to create a device that could be fit into a workable missile warhead. Plus every other country that has ever built a nuclear weapon considered it essential to run a test before actually using their design. There goes bomb No. 1.
So when officials, pundits, and interested parties talk about a one-year breakout time for Iran, what they are really saying is that if Iran decides to break its word and go for a bomb, it will take approximately one year to accumulate 27 kilograms of HEU. The hard part follows.
As is common in Fisher's reporting, uranium enrichment is presented as nearly synonymous with nuclear bomb-making. Fisher essentially conflates the two, thereby drawing conclusions that neither the IAEA nor Western and Israeli intelligence agencies have made. Acquiring uranium enriched to high enough levels for a nuclear bomb is only one component of manufacturing a nuclear weapon, which includes the mastery of the detonation process, requisite missile technology, and making a bomb deliverable.

For over a decade, it has been acknowledged that, in addition to the nine nuclear weapons states (Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea), perhaps "40 countries or more now have the know-how to produce nuclear weapons," according to former IAEA chief Mohammad ElBaradei.

Nuclear physicist Yousaf Butt had also noted that, "if a nation has a developed civilian nuclear infrastructure—which the NPT actually encourages—this implies it has a fairly solid nuclear-weapons capability. Just like Iran, Argentina, Brazil, and Japan also have a nuclear-weapons capability—they, too, could break out of the NPT and make a nuclear device in short order. Capabilities and intentions cannot be conflated."

'Modified Code 3.1'

Fisher writes that, under the proposed deal, "Iran has finally agreed to comply by a rule known as Modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements General Part to Iran's Safeguards Agreement, shorthanded as Modified Code 3.1. It says that Iran has to notify inspectors immediately on its decision to build any new facility where it plans to do nuclear work — long before construction starts."

This is true and Fisher should have left it at that. Instead, he went on to smugly editorialize about Iran's behavior and it's here that he revealed his misunderstanding of the actual issues at stake. He writes:
Iran in the past has either rejected this rule or stated that it would only notify inspectors a few months before introducing nuclear material at a facility — a "cover your ass" move in case the world caught them building a new nuclear site. Tehran's promise to comply may signal that it intends to stop building such covert facilities.
In truth, what Fisher refers to as "a 'cover your ass' move" is actually a legally binding stipulation of the original Code 3.1 under Iran's Subsidiary Arrangements to its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, which was implemented in 1976, two years after the initial safeguards.

In 1992, the IAEA modified the code to read that member states would have to notify the agency and provide design information at the planning stage for new facilities, rather than the previously obligatory "no later than 180 days before the introduction of nuclear material to the site." While most countries accepted the modified code, Iran did not and the original Code 3.1 remained legally in place until February 26, 2003, when Iran agreed to voluntarily implement the modified code, pending ratification by the Iranian parliament. The modified code remained in place for over four years, though it was never ratified.

Days after the adoption of an illegal sanctions resolution by the UN Security Council on March 24, 2007, an outraged Iran suspended its voluntary implementation of the modified code, and reverted to re-implementing the 1976 version of Code 3.1.

While the IAEA disputes Iran's legal authority to unilaterally revert to the original code, Iran isn't randomly rejecting official protocol and making up rules as it goes along, despite what Fisher would have his readers believe.

As to Fisher's claim about Iran building "covert facilities," that was already addressed above.

Obfuscatory Journalism

Two years ago, researchers at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies (CISSM) released the findings of an extensive examination of mainstream media's coverage of the Iranian nuclear program between 2009 and 2012. "The manner in which news media frame their coverage of Iran's nuclear program is critically important to public understanding and to policy decisions that will determine whether the dispute can be resolved without war," the report's authors wrote.

Among other things, the study found that when media "coverage did address Iranian nuclear intentions and capabilities, it did so in a manner that lacked precision, was inconsistent over time, and failed to provide adequate sourcing and context for claims," which in turn "led to an inaccurate picture of the choices facing policy makers."

It also found that "coverage generally adopted the tendency of U.S., European, and Israeli officials to place on Iran the burden to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program, failing to acknowledge the roles of these other countries in the dispute" and that such coverage often "reflected and reinforced the negative sentiments about Iran that are broadly shared by U.S., European, and Israeli publics," leading to "misunderstandings about the interests involved and narrowed the range of acceptable outcomes."

Unfortunately, Fisher's coverage of the Iranian nuclear program and the current negotiations is hardly any different. For a media venture like Vox, which says it is dedicated to "explanatory journalism," this is even more troubling.

With two months to go before the June deadline for a comprehensive nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1, Fisher and his Vox colleagues will inevitably publish more articles about the Iranian nuclear program.

Still, here's hoping that, before he explains anything else about the Iranian nuclear program, Max Fisher finally gets his facts straight.

*****