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 "is not required to allow visits to the Arak and Natanz sites under its current agreements with the IAEA."

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 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. 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 is 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, 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 makin 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.

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.

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. 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 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. 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. (This is actual an apt description of Israel's own nuclear arsenal.) Nothing could be further from the truth.

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 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has implemented the most robust inspections in its history with more than 100 unannounced and over 4000 man-day inspections in Iran." In 2012 alone, 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 - 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 are hardly any different. For a media venture 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.

*****

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Netanyahu's "3-5 Years" Prediction of Iranian Nukes Happened in 1995, Not 1992

I'm sure you've heard this a million times by now: As far back as 1992, Benjamin Netanyahu was warning that Iran was only "three to five years" away from obtaining a nuclear bomb, arguing that such a threat "must be uprooted by an international front headed by the US."

Ever since the Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson included this decades-old nugget of alarmism his rundown of erroneous nuclear predictions about Iran in November 2011, countless articles and analyses have repeated it. Here's what Peterson wrote:
1992: Israeli parliamentarian Benjamin Netanyahu tells his colleagues that Iran is 3 to 5 years from being able to produce a nuclear weapon – and that the threat had to be "uprooted by an international front headed by the US."
Unsurprisingly, this blast from the past was immediately seized upon as perfect proof of Netanyahu's poor track record and weak soothsaying skills when it comes to advocating for American military campaigns by promoting false claims of regional WMD development. It has been reproduced constantly ever since. For instance, in September 2012, Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times, "It was in 1992 that he [Netanyahu] said Iran was three to five years from nuclear capacity." This past February, the New York Daily News noted, "Netanyahu has long warned Iran is close to nuclear capability. He said in 1992 that Iran was "three to five years" from developing a bomb."

In fact, it is difficult to find any article published about Netanyahu's hysterical obsession with the nonexistent threat to Israel by Iran's nuclear energy program that doesn't include this quote. The claim was given new life following Netanyahu's recent speech before Congress and has resurfaced dozens of times since in major media outlets like The New Yorker, Ha'aretz, Al Jazeera, and The Intercept, to name just a few. This past week, Nick Kristof wrote in The New York Times that "beginning in 1992," Netanyahu has "asserted that Iran was three to five years from a nuclear capability." In most instances, the quote is sourced back to Peterson's 2011 article, which unfortunately does not provide links to its myriad references.

Since 2010, I too have been compiling false predictions of an ever-imminent Iranian nuke. As I've documented, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have long been an especially rich source of nonsense when it comes to warning of an Iranian bomb that is always seemingly just around the corner.

However, Peterson - despite being an excellent reporter and meticulous researcher - got the year wrong on this one. Based on the historical record, Netanyahu issued his infamous "three to five" year prognostication in 1995, not 1992.

Sure, this may be a minor point, but in a media landscape where false facts are routinely propagated, both intentionally and accidentally, it is all the more vital to demand accuracy and accountability. This one mistake - potentially merely the result of a typo - has now become part of the narrative.

Peterson's error can most likely be traced back to former National Security Council staffer, now a professor at Columbia, Gary Sick's September 23, 2009 article in The Daily Beast, entitled "How to Keep Iran in Check Without War." In discussing previous American and Israeli estimates about Iran's nuclear capability, Sick includes the precise Netanyahu "three to five years" quote and dates it January 1992.

Yet, it was actually on January 11, 1995 - not in 1992 - when Benjamin Netanyahu told a nearly empty Knesset chamber, "Within three to five years, we can assume that Iran will become autonomous in its ability to develop and produce a nuclear bomb, without having to import either the technology or the material," adding, "[The nuclear threat] must be uprooted by an international front headed by the US. It necessitates economic sanctions on Iran."

This was originally reported in a dispatch from Mideast Mirror (Vol. 9, No. 8) and was reproduced in the Jerusalem Post at the time. Later that year, Netanyahu repeated the claim in his book "Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat the International Terrorist Network," writing, "The best estimates at this time place Iran between three and five years away from possessing the prerequisites required for the independent production of nuclear weapons."

Nevertheless, as Peterson's article has become the go-to resource for many writing about this issue, the 1992 error has since proliferated (forgive the pun).

Netanyahu's 1993 column
(Yedioth Ahronoth Archives)
Of course, Netanyahu wasn't silent on the matter before 1995. For instance, in an April 17, 1992 interview with CNN's Linda Scherzer, Netanyahu warned that "terrorist states" like Libya, Syria and Iran would inevitably "graduate from car bombs to nuclear bombs," but provided no specific timeframe for when this might happen.

On February 12, 1993, however, an Associated Press dispatch entitled "Newspaper Report: Iran Will Have Nuclear Bomb by 1999," summarized a report from Israeli daily Maariv, which quoted "experts who predicted Tehran would have an atomic bomb within six years."

One of these so-called "experts" was Likud Party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, who had recently written in Yedioth Ahronoth claiming Iranian leaders had "repeatedly" vowed to acquire an "Islamic bomb" with which to destroy Israel. By 1999, Netanyahu insisted, Iran would have such a weapon.

Netanyahu's claim, while not attributed to him personally, was echoed by others quoted by AP. Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Oded Ben-Ami said, "We know the Iranian nuclear capability poses a big threat and a great danger," while Daniel Leshem, an arms expert who used to work for Israeli military intelligence, claimed, "The Iranians are investing billions in developing an infrastructure for creating material for nuclear weapons" and that "by 1999 they will have a bomb."

These assessments, while clearly both speculative and undoubtedly incorrect, make sense in context. In the early to mid-1990s, Western intelligence agencies - echoed by Israel - routinely claimed Iran would acquire a nuclear weapon by the year 2000, not by mid-decade. Netanyahu's own 1993 warning of Iranian nuclear capability "by 1999" and his 1995 assessment of "three to five" years is therefore in line with these predictions.

Reporting and commentary on Iran's nuclear program is often rife with errors. Fact-checking is vital, though seldom done with diligence. The minor, perhaps arguably insignificant, error made by Peterson in 2011 is indeed a tough dragon to slay - that little erroneous tidbit is ubiquitous when it comes to articles on Netanyahu's history of lies.

But accuracy is important. Writers and editors should always check, and double check, their sources (and sometimes their sources' sources).

There is no doubt Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to make outrageous and factually incorrect statements. Similarly, articles will continue to be written using Netanyahu's past claims as evidence of his delusional propaganda and the danger he poses to millions of people in range of Israeli - American - bullets and bombs. Many of those articles will refer back to the Christian Science Monitor's timeline of predictions.

Thus, Peterson's error should be immediately corrected so that these future references are accurate. There's already enough disinformation published about Iran and its nuclear program. It's long past time the media starts getting things right, even the small stuff.

*****

Note: I too initially used Gary Sick's 2009 article as a reference for my December 2010 compendium of erroneous predictions about Iran's nuclear program, entitled "The Phantom Menace." In so doing, I originally rendered Netanyahu's "three to five years" quote as occurring in 1992, as Sick claimed. It was not until months later that I re-reviewed the sources and updated the article accordingly.

It should also be noted that, in September 2010, Paul Iddon correctly dated the quote in question to 1995, in a short post at Uskowi on Iran. Furthermore, in a rare case of due diligence in the mainstream press, Kurt Eichenwald correctly dates the same quote in his October 2013 Newsweek article, entitled, "The Phantom Menace." (sound familiar?)

*****

Friday, April 3, 2015

AP's Iran Infographic is Ignorant on IAEA Inspections


Accompanying an otherwise eyeroll-worthy article about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayahu's temper tantrum following yesterday's announcement of a nuclear deal framework between Iran, the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain, China, and Germany, the Associated Press has put together an infographic about what the emerging details of the deal mean.

Here it is:


Whoever put this thing together apparently doesn't know a whole lot about the constant inspections Iran's nuclear facilities are subject to under the nation's long-standing safeguards agreement with the IAEA. If one were to believe this graphic, Iran's nuclear sites were unmonitored until the interim agreement of November 2013 came into effect.

Here's a quick factcheck:

Associated Press: Tehran - A medical research reactor in Iran's capital would be opened to inspectors.

Fact: The Tehran Research Reactor is already a declared, safeguarded facility and regularly inspected by the IAEA.

Associated Press: Isfahan - Facility that turns uranium into a gas would be opened to inspectors.

Fact: The Uranium Conversion Facility is already a declared, safeguarded facility and regularly inspected by the IAEA.

Associated Press: Bushehr - Nuclear power plant would be opened to inspectors.

Fact: The Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant is already a declared, safeguarded facility and regularly inspected by the IAEA.

With such sloppy and misleading reporting, it's no wonder people like Michael Kaplow, program director at the Israel Institute, can write garbage like this about the supposed choices facing those negotiating with Iran:
Put more simply, option one is to allow Iran to resume its nuclear program in a hellbent manner and with no inspections or safeguards in place, and option two is to put inspections and safeguards in place to try and frustrate Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Leaving the dumbness of using the word "hellbent" to describe a decades-long process of slowly advancing a legal, safeguarded nuclear program that's never - ever - been found to have had military applications, Kaplow's suggestion that, were current talks to break up without a signed deal, Iran's program would "resume" with "no inspections or safeguards in place" is asinine.

Regardless of what happens in Switzerland over the next few months, Iran is not leaving the NPT, nor will it cease its cooperation and legally-binding Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. To claim otherwise is pure hysteria, based in ideology rather than fact.

Iran has the singularly most surveilled, inspected, monitored, and scrutinized nuclear program ever. IAEA inspectors are present in Iran every single hour of every single day of the year. They conduct routine inspections of safeguarded facilities, as well as unannounced and short-notice inspections of Iran's two enrichment sites at Fordow and Natanz.

With infographics like the one above, published by a mainstream news wire service and distributed worldwide, it becomes just a little clearer why informed analysis of Iran's nuclear program remains so hard to find.

*****

Monday, January 12, 2015

Aliyah Rose: All French Jews Have Considered Moving to Israel, says Goldberg

Jeffrey Goldberg on The Charlie Rose Show, January 12, 2015.

Speaking tonight to Charlie Rose about recent events in Paris, Jeffrey Goldberg said that "there is already tension between the Israeli government and the French government" over the issue of Jewish emigration.

During their conversation, Rose brought up comments made Sunday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a speech at Paris' Grand Synagogue. Netanyahu -- who reacted to the horrific massacre at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last week with predictable, opportunistic propaganda and then crashed the memorial march in Paris after French President Francois Hollande specifically asked him not to attend, petulantly elbowing his way to the front, before making an ass of himself a few more times -- spouted a recycled mish-mosh of some of his lamest hits: "The radical Islamists do not hate the West because of Israel; they hate Israel because it is an integral part of the modern world," he bellowed. "We cannot let Iran achieve nuclear capabilities. Israel stands with Europe, and Europe must stand with Israel."

But it was another part of Netanyahu's speech that has received the most attention. "Any Jew who chooses to come to Israel will be greeted with open arms and an open heart, it is not a foreign nation, and hopefully they and you will one day come to Israel," Netanyahu announced to the congregation of French Jews, before concluding his speech with the Zionist chant, "Am Yisrael Chai! Am Yisrael Chai!"

Previously, in a statement issued following the Paris attacks, Netanyahu was even less subtle about where he hopes the allegiances of people of Jewish descent lie: "To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home," he insisted.

When Rose, who noted that Goldberg is very close with Netanyahu, asked his guest how the Israeli leader's comments were received, Goldberg said that French officials are "bothered" when Israeli officials call upon French citizens of Jewish heritage to leave their home and emigrate to Israel.

"The problem for France is that many, many Jews are going to Israel," he continued. "I've been traveling back and forth for months [and] I haven't met a single Jewish person in France who says that at least the thought is not at the back of his or her mind."

Though Goldberg's claim aligns with a front page article in the New York Times, what he didn't mention is the reaction Netanyahu himself got at the Grand Synagogue after finishing his remarks on Sunday. As can be seen on a video posted by Reuters (and elsewhere), the crowd broke into a spontaneous rendition of La Marseillaise -- the French national anthem -- much to the visible chagrin of the Israeli prime minister.

Netanyahu's comments, and similar ones made in the past, were also criticized by Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director of the European Jewish Association, the largest advocate for Jewish organizations and communities in Europe.

Margolin expressed his irritation that "after every anti-Semitic attack in Europe, the Israeli government issues the same statements about the importance of aliyah [Jewish immigration to Israel], rather than employ every diplomatic and informational means at its disposal to strengthen the safety of Jewish life in Europe."

The rabbi said that "every such Israeli campaign severely weakens and damages the Jewish communities that have the right to live securely wherever they are," reported Ha'aretz, quoting from an interview with NRG, an Israeli website. The "reality is that a large majority of European Jews do not plan to emigrate to Israel. The Israeli government must recognize this reality and also remember the strategic importance of the Jewish communities as supporters of Israel in the countries in which they live." he added.

Israel's government "must cease this Pavlovian reaction every time Jews in Europe are attacked," demanded Margolin.

But Goldberg didn't think that stuff was important to mention.

*****

UPDATE:

January 13, 2015 - Speaking today in Jerusalem at the funeral of the four French Jews who were killed in a kosher supermarket in Paris last week, Netanyahu again repeated his plea for Jews worldwide to identify with the State of Israel, the 67-year-old settler-colonial state built atop the ruins and corpses of Palestine, instead of the countries of their births and ancestry.

"Jews have the right to live in many countries, and it is their right to live in perfect safety, but I believe that they know deep in their hearts that they have only one country, the state of Israel, that will accept them with open arms, like beloved children," Netanyahu said. "Today more than ever, Israel is our true home, and the more numerous we are, and the more united we are in our country, the stronger we are in our one and only state."

Israel president Reuven Rivlin said much the same thing. According to New York Times correspondent Jodi Rudoren, Rivlin addressed Jews in France, saying that "we yearn to see you settle in Zion," not "due to distress, out of desperation, because of destruction, or in the throes of terror and fear," but rather because "the land of Israel is the land of choice — we want you to choose Israel because of a love for Israel."

The "land of choice" is clearly reserved only for some, as the indigenous people of the land and their exiled, occupied, imprisoned, and massacred descendants continue not to have much of a choice at all.

*****

Monday, December 22, 2014

With A Little Help From Tehran Bureau, Bad Reporting and Nuclear Alarmism Returns to The Guardian

Tehran Bureau/Digarban/The Guardian article from December 17, 2014

Last week, the Iran-focused blog, Tehran Bureau, housed online by The Guardian, posted an alarming headline: "Senior cleric: Iran has knowledge to build a nuclear bomb." The accompanying article, co-authored by Tehran Bureau's new partner Digarban, was posted below a guaranteed-to-scare image simultaneously containing three beardy clerics, two Supreme Leaders, and an angry looking partridge in a pear tree.

The report announced:
An official site belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has quoted a senior conservative cleric as saying that Iran has attained the knowledge to build a nuclear bomb but doesn’t want to use it.
The IRGC site of Kurdistan province today quoted Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a leading cleric who often leads Friday prayers in Tehran, as telling a group of IRGC commanders in Iran’s Kurdistan province that Iran had the expertise to enrich uranium not just to the 5% and 20% levels required for civilian uses but to higher levels required for a bomb. “[We] can enrich uranium at 5% or 20%, as well as 40% to 50%, and even 90%,” he was quoted as saying. But he said the Islamic republic believed that the building of a bomb is religiously forbidden.
Furthermore, Tehran Bureau boasts, "Khatami's speech was widely covered by the Iranian press, but the remarks about Iran's nuclear bomb-making capabilities were not reported."

What an exclusive! What breaking news!

Except not really.

Before addressing the details of the disingenuous reportage, a larger point looms. Tehran Bureau's headline and lede claiming that, according to a senior cleric, Iran now has "the knowledge to build a nuclear bomb" are not only irresponsible and misleading, they are genuinely incorrect.

The reporting wholly conflates uranium enrichment with nuclear bomb-making; this is absurd. Obtaining enriched uranium at weapons-grade levels (90% or more) is but one component of manufacturing a nuclear weapon, but one that pales in relative comparison to mastering the detonation process, requisite missile technology, and making a bomb deliverable. It's like standing next to a pile of steel, plastic and glass, and claiming an ability to make a Ferrari.

Iran has the technical ability to enrich uranium up to roughly 19.75%; it began enriching to this level in February 2010, under strict IAEA monitoring. By early 2013, Iran had already begun voluntarily converting its stockpile of 19.75% LEU to reactor fuel, a process rendering such material incapable of weaponization. Conversion of all remaining 19.75% stocks was agreed to under the multilateral interim nuclear deal struck between Iran and six world powers in November 2013. Earlier this year, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had completed the conversion process, leaving no 19.75% LEU in the country.

As is often pointed out, the technical capacity to enrich uranium to nearly 20%, "accomplishes much of the technical leap towards 90% – or weapons-grade – uranium."

Last year, Rob Wile explained in Business Insider:
Uranium enrichment has a kind of momentum curve, where it takes much more effort to go from 0% enriched to 20% enriched than it does 20% enriched to 90% enriched. Here's the chart: The vertical axis represents "effort" as measured in things called Separate Work Units, which is basically the given quantity of uranium measured in kilograms needed to reach a given level of enrichment. The horizontal axis is enrichment percentage.

By virtue of having functional uranium enrichment facilities and technical expertise to spin centrifuges, Iran - like any other nation with that technology - can create weapons-grade material if it decided to. But this doesn't mean it can already "build a nuclear bomb."

Moreover, Tehran Bureau's paraphrased quote from Khatami is itself misleading. The source of the quote can be found here, although Tehran Bureau does not provide a link over to it, a highly unprofessional reporting practice.

Mohammad Ali Shabani, a doctoral researcher at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), notes that the focus of Khatami's speech before the IRGC gathering was not the nuclear issue, but rather Iran's Kurdistan province and Syria. While Khatami is by no means an expert on nuclear technology, when he did touch briefly on the subject, this is what he said, according to Shabani's translation:
[But] even if we could build a bomb, we would not do such a thing as our Guardian Jurist [Ayatollah Khamenei] deems use [of such weapons] impermissible (haraam). The West's concerns are not about a bomb, but Iran's capabilities; just as our nuclear scientists enriched uranium from 5% to 20%, undoubtedly they can [do so] to 40%, 50% and finally 90%, which is needed in order to build a bomb, and they [Iran's scientists] posses this knowledge. Our role model is our Dear Prophet, who even forbade the poisoning of an enemy city, and this is our evidence [basis] for not building a bomb.
This is a political statement, not a technical declaration. Nowhere does Khatami state that Iran can build a nuclear weapon. Tehran Bureau's reporting also omits the fact that such statements about such scientific capabilities and the nation's official, absolute prohibition on nuclear weapons are nothing new for Iranian officials.

For instance, in February 2010, then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that "right now in Natanz, we have the capacity to enrich uranium at high levels." He added, "We have the capability to enrich uranium more than 20 percent or 80 percent but we don't enrich (to this level) because we don't need it."

A couple years later, in April 2012, The Guardian itself reported on a nearly identical statement made by Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghadam, a minister of the Iranian parliament. The framing in both that piece and the latest report are very similar:
Iran has the technological capability to produce nuclear weapons but will never do so, a prominent politician in the Islamic republic has said.
The statement by Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghadam is the first time an Iranian politician has publicly stated that the country has the knowledge and skills to produce a nuclear weapon.
Moghadam, whose views do not represent the government's policy, said Iran could easily create the highly enriched uranium that is used to build atomic bombs, but it was not Tehran's policy to go down that route.
Moghadam told the parliament's news website, icana.ir: "Iran has the scientific and technological capability to produce [a] nuclear weapon, but will never choose this path."
The 2012 Guardian report sparked false conclusions and predictable reactions from Israeli officials,  who eagerly exploited the non-news for political posturing. The following year, a number of different reports published by The Guardian contained bad analysisdubious allegations and sloppy journalism.

Unfortunately, The Guardian, now in partnership with Tehran Bureau, is at it again.

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Iran's Ever-Ticking Nuclear Clock: Countdown to Nothing


Recycled rhetoric that sounds ominous, yet signifies nothing - least of all reality - is standard practice when fear-mongering about, well, anything. But especially about Iran's nuclear program, constant threats to bomb it, and the dire predictions of how soon Iran will have an atomic weapon.

Time is always running out on diplomacy, a military operation is always around the corner, and Iran is always just months away from decimating Israel and holding the world hostage with a single nuclear bomb that it isn't even making. The clock, we hear ad nauseum, is ticking.

With nuclear negotiations nearing their latest deadline in Vienna this weekend, we are hearing - once again - that it's "crunch time" for diplomacy and anything less than a comprehensive deal sets the stage for war.

While a fair and just nuclear deal would certainly be in the best interest of all parties involved, we've heard all this before. The "clock" has long been "ticking" when it comes to Iran, or so we've been told for over a decade now.

Starting with an AP story published today, here's a little trip down memory-hole lane and here's hoping that, come Monday and the inking of a multilateral agreement, this talking point's time will finally be up.

Associated Press - November 22, 2014:


Associated Press / The Columbus Dispatch, November 9, 2014:


New Europe - October 16, 2014:


Council on Foreign Relations, September 17, 2014:


Newser, July 15, 2014:


AFP, July 1, 2014:


The Globe and Mail, June 10, 2014:


SBS, February 19, 2014:


CNN, January 13, 2014:


The New York Times, November 25, 2013:


The Jerusalem Post, November 4, 2013:


Roll Call, August 2, 2013:


American Enterprise Institute, July 10, 2013:


Ha'aretz, April 21, 2013:



BBC News, April 7, 2013:


The Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2013:


The Hill, March 5, 2013:


The Telegraph, December 26, 2012:


James G. Zumwalt, December 26, 2012:


Atlantic Treaty Association, November 7, 2012:



CBS DC, October 22, 2012:


The Sydney Morning Herald, October 2, 2012:


Foreign Policy, August 30, 2012:


The American Spectator, August 27, 2012:


Ha'aretz, August 14, 2012:


Albuquerque Journal, June 28, 2012:


Reuters, June 21, 2012:


National Review, March 2, 2012:



NewsMax, February 8, 2012:


New English Review, February 2012:



CBS Sunday Morning, January 15, 2012:


The New York Times, December 29, 2011:


The Weekly StandardDecember 19, 2011:


AEI Center for Defense Studies, December 12, 2011:


UPI, November 9, 2011:


The Hill, November 8, 2011:


Associated Press, November 4, 2011:


New York Post, January 18, 2011:


The Atlantic, August 20, 2010:


The New York Times, March 19, 2010:


Voice of America, December 6, 2009:


The Spectator (UK), December 1, 2009:


New York Post, November 16, 2009:


Christian Science Monitor, November 3, 2009:


Los Angeles Times, September 20, 2009:


Daily Motion, July 13, 2009:



Meet the Press, June 21, 2009:


Politico, June 19, 2009:


The Washington Post, March 8, 2009:


EurasiaNet, June 13, 2008:


Toronto Star, May 17, 2008:


Arms Control Today, November 1, 2006:



Los Angeles Times, August 2, 2006:


Institute for Science and International Security, March 27, 2006:


Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), May 26, 2005:


Dawn, March 19, 2005:


Voice of America, September 19, 2004:


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UPDATE:

November 23, 2014 - Yes, seriously.


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UPDATE II:

November 24, 2014 - And this:


Also, the above Foreign Policy piece has been slightly updated to read more definitive:


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UPDATE III:

November 24, 2014 - Apparently, time is up! What's next? Oh right, OVERTIME!

h/t Sam Khanlari

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UPDATE IV:

January 9, 2015 - A new year, but the same old talking points, this time courtesy of Ellie Maruyama, a research associate in the Energy, Environment and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a DC think tank.


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UPDATE V:

March 5, 2015 - George Jahn, the Associated Press' perennial neocon stenographer, has a new piece up about...guess what...?


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UPDATE VI:

March 16, 2015 - More "ticking clock" rhetoric from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry:


And more commentary of Kerry's "ticking clock" rhetoric from MSNBC, which interviewed noted Brookings warmonger Kenneth Pollock:


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UPDATE VII:

March 31, 2015 - Thankfully, CNN has managed to squeeze in one more ticking clock headline before nuclear talks are set to conclude this evening in Lausanne, Switzerland.


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