Thursday, August 27, 2015

iSideWhiff: Presidential Poll Site Gets Iran Deal Totally Wrong


You've probably heard of iSideWith.com; it's the site with that helpful quiz that tells you which of the presidential candidates you most agree (and disagree) with on a range of political and social issues.

The efficacy of the quiz, however, requires the asking of questions based on accurate information. Unfortunately, the single Iran-related query in the poll and the accompanying explanatory information are rife with factual errors. These errors and misinformation undoubtedly shape the ways in which less-informed users understand the issue and how they will respond.

Here's the Iran question:
Should the U.S. conduct targeted airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities?
The iStandWith poll, in its framing of the Iran question, repeats an egregious error. Iran does not have any "nuclear weapons facilities" for the United States (or anyone else, for that matter) to "conduct targeted airstrikes on." Why not? Well, quite simply, because – as affirmed by all American, European and Israeli intelligence communities and others for years now, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – Iran has no nuclear weapons program. All 16 U.S. intelligence agencies have collectively concurred since 2007 that, even if Iran had conducted research into nuclear weaponry in the past, this research (which is not itself prohibited under international law) ceased in 2003 and has not resumed. This assessment has been reaffirmed multiple times since.

Not only this, the Iranian leadership is judged time and again not to have even made a decision on whether to embark on a nuclear weapons program (unless, of course, you count the decades-long repetition by the Iranian government that they have indeed made such a decision: and that decision is to never build or acquire a nuclear weapon).

So iStandWith's entire contention is faulty from the start. The U.S. can't bomb Iran's "nuclear weapons facilities" because they don't actually exist. Such a flawed question is sure to elicit mistaken comprehension by respondents unfamiliar with these facts, who are led to believe that Iran is doing something it's not actually doing at all.

For those less informed on this issue, however, iStandWith provides a brief primer for interested users. By clicking a "learn more" button, this paragraph of text is revealed:
In July 2015 the U.S. reached an accord with Iran to limit their ability to put uranium or plutonium in weapons. Iran agreed to turn one nuclear plant into a scientific research facility and shut another one down. Iran agreed to let the International Atomic Energy Agency inspect these sites. Critics argue that the deal gave too many concessions to the Iranians including a provision that gives them up to 24 days to grant inspectors access to their facilities. Proponents argue that the deal makes the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon in the next 25 years extremely remote.
The first sentence – like the last – is reductive, speculative, and incomplete, but okay, fine. It's the stuff in the middle that's extremely problematic and, unfortunately, the mistakes compound rapidly.

iSideWith says: Iran agreed to turn one nuclear plant into a scientific research facility and shut another one down.

The facility at Fordow, which iStandWith describes as a "nuclear plant," is actually a uranium enrichment facility, which, yes, Iran has agreed to convert into an international nuclear, physics, and technology research lab. The installed and operational centrifuges at Fordow will no longer enrich uranium, but will be used for experiments involving non-fissile material.

The other facility referenced above is the Arak heavy-water research reactor, which will not be "shut down," as iStandWith claims. Actually, it is still under construction and, as such, has never been operational, so there’s nothing to "shut down." The Arak reactor, far from being shuttered or dismantled under the agreement, will be reconfigured with international support and will operate under full safeguards as planned.

iSideWith says: Iran agreed to let the International Atomic Energy Agency inspect these sites.

The sites mentioned by iStandWith above – Fordow and Arak – have already been inspected regularly by the IAEA for years: Fordow since it was declared in 2009 and Arak since it was declared in 2002. They are fully-safeguarded facilities, under constant IAEA containment and surveillance. Inspections are not the result of the new deal. Many other sites related to Iran's nuclear program are also routinely inspected and have been for years. All nuclear material remains under agency seal, containment and surveillance and no diversion of nuclear material to military purposes has ever been reported.

iSideWith says: Critics argue that the deal gave too many concessions to the Iranians including a provision that gives them up to 24 days to grant inspectors access to their facilities.

This is just all kinds of wrong. All of Iran's declared nuclear facilities and sites (including hospitals that use radioisotopes to treat cancer patients) are already open and accessible to inspectors at all times. This is not a function of the agreement, this is standard practice under Iran's safeguards protocol with the IAEA, in place since 1974. This constant and consistent access now includes, under the new deal, inspections and monitoring of all aspects of Iran's nuclear supply chain, such as centrifuge workshops and uranium mines and mills. These kinds of non-nuclear facilities are not safeguarded anywhere else on Earth. Inspectors have daily access to all of these sites; no provision in the deal limits this. This fact alone is proof of the massive concessions Iran has agreed to to try and end this absurd decades-long charade.

(By the way, no other nation involved in these negotiations has relinquished any aspect of their own sovereignty, inalienable rights or self-determination to achieve this deal. The lifting of sanctions, designed specifically to force Iranian capitulation to American demands, the abrogation of internationally-recognized and guaranteed national nuclear rights, and exact suffering upon the Iranian people, is not a concession - it is the inevitable, and theoretically desired, result of successful diplomacy and voluntary Iranian compromise.)

The specific bone of contention mentioned by iSideWith - the so-called 24-day delay - is also completely misunderstood. For one, the claim has to do with undeclared sites where the IAEA may suspect Iran is conducted proscribed activities. Undeclared sites, such as military bases and research installations, are legally off-limits to inspectors. The seven parties to the deal - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States and Iran - have attempted to square this circle through a reasonable review process.

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, has explained that, rather than 24 days, "the IAEA will need to give only 24 hours' notice before showing up at a suspicious site to take samples. Access could even be requested with as little as two hours' notice, something that will be much more feasible now that Iran has agreed to let inspectors stay in-country for the long term. Iran is obligated to provide the IAEA access to all such sites..."

"What happens if Iran tries to stall and refuses to provide access, on whatever grounds?" Lewis continues, before laying out the parameters of the process:
There is a strict time limit on stalling. Iran must provide access within two weeks. If Iran refuses, the Joint Commission set up under the deal must decide within seven days whether to force access. Following a majority vote in the Joint Commission — where the United States and its allies constitute a majority bloc — Iran has three days to comply. If it doesn't, it's openly violating the deal, which would be grounds for the swift return of the international sanctions regime, known colloquially as the "snap back."
This arrangement is much, much stronger than the normal safeguards agreement, which requires prompt access in theory but does not place time limits on dickering.
What opponents of the deal have done is add up all the time limits and claim that inspections will occur only after a 24-day pause. This is simply not true.
Unfortunately, the guys running iSideWith - Taylor Peck and Nick Boutelier - don't seem to know any of this. But they should, especially since they're claiming to be providing context upon which their users can make informed decisions about supporting an unprovoked and illegal military assault on a country of 80 million people.

It appears that iSideWith should first inform itself before siding with discredited allegations and base propaganda over clear facts. Without a doubt, the Iran poll question should be updated to reflect reality.

*****

Sunday, August 23, 2015

USA Today Shills For Anonymous Pentagon Officials on Fantasy Iran Attack

Tom Vanden Brook (USA Today)

USA Today's Pentagon correspondent Tom Vanden Brook reports today that an American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would set the program back about two years, and would have to be carried out "with as many as 1,000 aircraft sorties over several days to a week" and employ the constantly-hyped Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000 pound bunker buster bomb designed to destroy heavily-fortified underground facilities, according to a couple of anonymous "senior officers involved in planning potential Iran attacks."


Vanden Brook seems to have a curious understanding of the Iranian nuclear program. He writes that one of the unnamed officers told him that "[t]he location of Iran's nuclear facilities are not much of a secret" and that "[s]py satellites and other means, including monitoring of social media, result in an assessment known as 'all-source fused intelligence.'"

The reason Iran's nuclear facilities aren't a secret isn't because of U.S. surveillance or someone in the Pentagon scouring Facebook and Instagram - it's because all nuclear facilities in Iran are declared and safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). You can find them all on Google Maps. There's a public bus stop in Natanz called "Atomic Station." The IAEA routinely reports on all of these facilities and affirms consistently that they have no military dimension whatsoever. Nevertheless, Vanden Brook writes, There are about 20 nuclear facilities in Iran that would need to be attacked, some with as many as 60 individual strikes."

Nowhere, of course, does Vanden Brook point out that such an attack on Iran would undoubtedly be a massive war crime. The only hint of humanity that Vanden Brook lends to the people who live under the falling bombs is when he mentions that "pinpointing the labs and factories that manufacture the means to deliver the nuclear weapon" can be difficult since "building warheads, engines and guidance systems for a missile can be done in scattered locations, including populated areas," and therefore "civilian casualties would be nearly impossible to avoid." Though not completely impossible, of course, since not dropping bombs on people for no reason is a great way to avoid killing them.

Buried at the tail-end of his article, Vanden Brook notes that "airstrikes in Iran make little sense — and could be counterproductive," according to retired Air Force General David Deptula. But even this admission is marred by bad analysis. Deptula tells Vanden Brook that unless Iranian leaders' "desire for a bomb" is changed, "a U.S. attack is a temporary solution at best."

The problem here is that is putative "desire" doesn't actually exist. For decades now, Iranian leaders have condemned and prohibited the manufacturing, acquisition, and stockpiling of nuclear arms on religious, strategic, ethical, legal and political grounds. There is historical precedent for Iran's serious opposition to building and using weapons of mass destruction, even in the face of war and suffering.

United States intelligence community and its allies, including Israel, have long assessed that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program and, even in the abstract, that its leadership has not made any decision to build nuclear weapons, despite the technical capacity to do so inherent in having a functional nuclear energy program.

The preface to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - the nuclear agreement signed in July by six world powers (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States) and Iran, and endorsed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council - states clearly in its first paragraph: "Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons." This precise statement is also reiterated early in the agreement's preamble.

More than anything else, unfortunately, Vanden Brook's own desire to boost bellicose voices and further promote long-debunked propaganda in USA Today is undeniable.

*****

Originally published as UPDATE XXI on "The Forever Threat: The Imminent Attack on Iran That Will Never Happen."

*****

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Barak's Iran Attack Hype: More Anti-Deal Bluster With No Substance


The New York Times' Jodi Rudoren has published an article claiming Israel was on the brink of attacking Iran at least three times between 2010 and 2012, according to recordings released publicly by biographers of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who also served for years as Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu's Defense Minister.

Here's the headline:


The broadcast of taped recordings of Barak, which aired on Israeli television to the alleged chagrin of Barak (who claims he tried unsuccessfully to prevent their release), appears to be one more desperate tactic of those opposed to the recently-agreed nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers to make Israel seem ready and willing to conduct illegal airstrikes against Iranian nuclear and military facilities and infrastructure. All Israel needs, the report would have us believe, is the right opportunity and a longer leash from Washington and bombs would blissfully fall on Iranian buildings and humans.

The revelations in Barak's admissions are, in fact, hardly any revelation at all. For instance, the same station - Israel's Channel 2 - that aired the Barak interview on Friday has previously exposed some of the same claims. In 2012, Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported on a Channel 2 investigation that exposed a rift in the Israeli leadership over any potential strike on Iran that had occurred in 2010. According to the story, while Netanyahu and Barak were eager to prepare the military for a potential strike on Iran, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Mossad director Meir Dagan were not, with Ashkenazi referring to an Israeli attack on Iran as a "strategic mistake." During a May 2011 appearance, Dagan, who had retired in September 2010, famously called the idea of bombing Iran "the stupidest thing I have ever heard" and "patently illegal under international law."

Furthermore, it should be noted that, though no stranger to alarmism and warmongering, Barak himself was actually actively undermining the supposed move toward war at the same time he claims he was advocating for it.

Back in September 2009, Barak, who was then head of Israel's Labor Party, told Yedioth Ahronoth that "Iran does not constitute an existential threat against Israel," adding later, "Right now, Iran does not have a bomb. Even if it did, this would not make it a threat to Israel's existence." Countering Netanyahu-inspired rhetoric that absurdly conflates Iran with Nazi Germany, Barak said plainly, "I don't think we are on the brink of a new Holocaust."

Speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the AIPAC-spinoff think tank, in February 2010, Barak stated, "I don’t think that the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, they are going to drop it immediately on some neighbor. They fully understand what might follow. They are radicals but not total meshuganas." He further noted his belief that Iranian leaders "have quite sophisticated decision-making process and they understand realities."

The next year, Barak repeated the assessment that even a nuclear-armed Iran would pose very little threat to Israel. In May 2011, he told Ha'aretz that "[i]f Iran succeeds in developing nuclear weapons, it is unlikely to bomb Israel," and said that "Israel should not spread public panic about the Iranian nuclear program." When asked directly whether he believed Iran would ever launch a nuclear attack on Israel, Barak replied: "Not on us and not on any other neighbor."

Later that same year, Barak told an Israeli radio station that the Israeli leadership "has not yet decided to embark on any operation," and dismissed as "delusional" that constant media speculation that he and Netanyahu were about to launch an attack.

In early 2012, during an interview with Israeli Army Radio, Barak said that Iran would most likely never decide to build a nuclear bomb, since such a decision would inevitably lead to either harsher international opprobrium and sanctions, or even military action. When asked whether the Israeli leadership had decided to launch its own assault on Iran, Barak answered, ""We haven't made any decision to do this," adding, "This entire thing is very far off." When pressed further, he said, "It's certainly not urgent. I don't want to relate to it as though tomorrow it will happen."

Granted, such denials in the media could always have been just a political and strategic gambit to reduce attention on Israeli military machinations and set the stage for a surprise assault. As former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told a Labor Party meeting in late 2011, "Every citizen in the country has to be worried that these two fools, Netanyahu and Barak, are planning an attack on Iran."

More likely, however, is the fact that no Israeli leader - not Netanyahu, not Barak, no one - will ever actually attack Iran through air strikes. The reports, the denials, the predictions, the investigations are all part of Israeli theatrics meant to scare American and European leaders into applying pressure on Iran through sanctions, sabotage, assassinations and military threats in an effort to stave off the hypothetical Israeli attack that will never actually happen.

*****

Originally published as UPDATE XX on "
The Forever Threat: The Imminent Attack on Iran That Will Never Happen."

*****

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Kerry on Iran's Right to Enrich: Return of the Flip-Flopper


Remember the ugly 2004 presidential campaign when the Bush camp accused challenger John Kerry of being a flip-flopper on a great many consequential political issues? Well, in his tireless efforts to advocate in favor of the Iran deal - perhaps the signature political and diplomatic achievement of Kerry long career - the flip-flopper charge can once again be levied (and more accurately), this time regarding Kerry's personal consideration of Iran's right to a domestic uranium enrichment program, as affirmed under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Defending the agreement reached in Vienna last month by the P5+1 (the five permanent, nuclear-armed members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and Iran, U.S. Secretary of State trotted out a lot of conventional wisdom and long-discredited narratives about Iran's program and progress during a Reuters Newsmaker event Tuesday.

Among others things, Kerry declared that, with regard to Iran's right to domestically enrich uranium, "they don’t have a right to enrich," arguing that "under the NPT there is no right." Using rather tortured logic, Kerry pleads this case:
The NPT is silent on the right to enrich. It doesn’t grant people automatically a right to enrich. But the NPT also doesn’t ban it. It doesn’t say you can't enrich. And there are about 12 NPT countries, we among them, who enrich. At the moment we're not doing that, but others are. I think you have Brazil – there are a group of countries that use enrichment.
This has been the steadfast U.S. position for quite some time, and certainly throughout these most recent negotiations, as often articulated by Obama administration officials involved in the talks. Kerry himself said at a press conference in Abu Dhabi in November 2013, before the interim agreement was signed in Geneva, "There is no existing right to enrich for anybody. The NPT does not grant a right and it does not prohibit a right."

Yet, Kerry and his State department gets the rights afforded by NPT, and international law at large, all wrong here. Not only is it a hypocritical stance, considering the historical record, but simply claiming that no language in the NPT specifically guarantees Iran the right to enrich uranium is also wholly disingenuous, as international law scholar, nonproliferation expert and law professor Dan Joyner has long pointed out.

However, most striking, as I've noted before, is Kerry's own devolution on this particular issue.

In a 2009 interview with the Financial Times, Kerry, then a Massachusetts Senator, stated that the demand that Iran have no enrichment capability is "ridiculous" and "unreasonable." His explanation was unequivocal: "They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose," Kerry said. To claim otherwise was "bombastic diplomacy."

While these past few months Kerry has convincingly argued the Obama administration's case for Congress to approve the Iran deal this September, he still unfortunately relies on a great deal of false narratives to sell the agreement. His comments on Tuesday were no departure from this norm.

For instance, Kerry claimed that U.S. government officials "have no doubt" that, prior to 2003, Iran was "chasing a nuclear weapon," despite there being no authenticated evidence to support this allegation. Not even the collective judgment of 16 American intelligence agencies, whose 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) Kerry is clearly referring to, makes that case. While the news media has long assumed that the 2007 NIE dispelled all doubt about the military nature of Iran's nuclear program before 2003, this is a wholesale misreading of the actual report.

False claims and predictions about Iran's nuclear program and intentions go back decades, to at least 1984.

Nevertheless, the key finding of the NIE, noted throughout the media as proof Iran had - then halted - a dedicated atomic bomb project, is this: "We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons."

While sounding mighty authoritative, this finding is on less stable ground that it may seem, and not just because evidence for a pre-2003 nuclear weapons program is dubious and most likely completely fabricated.

The "estimative language" used - and defined - by the U.S. intelligence community makes clear that even high confidence assessments are not to be confused with proof. The 2007 NIE itself notes that "phrases such as we judge, we assess, and we estimate" are meant "to convey analytical assessments and judgments. Such statements are not facts, proof, or knowledge." Indeed, the NIE adds, all "assessments and judgments are not intended to imply that we have 'proof' that shows something to be a fact."

Beyond this, the term "high confidence" is also loaded. The NIE explains that it refers to a "solid judgment" based upon "high-quality information," but still hedges considerably: "A 'high confidence' judgment is not a fact or a certainty, however, and such judgments still carry a risk of being wrong."

So, even for the most advanced, intrusive, and sophisticated intelligence apparatus on the planet, all that glitters ain't gold.

The lack of real evidence is no secret, despite being seldom reported. After publicizing the 2007 NIE and its conclusions, then-IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei received a special briefing by U.S. intelligence. But, as ElBaradei recounts in "Age of Deception," his 2011 memoir, "They did not share the supposed evidence that had led them to confirm the existence of a past Iranian nuclear [weapons] program, other than to refer to the same unverified set of allegations about weaponization studies that had already been discussed with the Agency."

Years earlier, ElBaradei had publicly questioned the authenticity of these "alleged studies" that Israel and the United States accused Iran of conducting. In a September 17, 2009 IAEA press release, ElBaradei noted that the agency "has no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapon programme in Iran." A few weeks later, in an interview with The Hindu, ElBaradei remarked, "The IAEA is not making any judgment at all whether Iran even had weaponisation studies before [2003] because there is a major question of authenticity of the documents."

None of this seems to matter in the mainstream debate over Iran and its nuclear program.

During his Reuters Newsmaker interview, Kerry also said of Iran that, in 2003, "we found them red-handed with facilities they shouldn't have had and material they shouldn't have had, and of course, we blew the whistle on them as everybody knows with respect to the underground facility at Fordow [in 2009]."

As I have documented before, claiming that Iran's enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow, and the heavy-water reactor at Arak, were "facilities they shouldn't have" is utterly bogus.

The Reuters chat with Kerry was entitled "Iran: The Moment of Truth." It's shame that even the deal's most staunch and passionate advocates are still peddling falsehoods about the history and legality of Iran's nuclear program and a threat that doesn't exist in order to make their case.


*****

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

David Albright: Congress' Favorite Fear-Monger


This just in! David Albright of the Washington-based propaganda factory Institute for Science and International Security is making predictions about Iran's nuclear program again.

After years and years of his utter nonsense, how can anyone take this guy and his ridiculous analysis seriously?

Here's a quick trip - just using his own reports, not his endless appearances spouting disingenuous garbage in the media - down memory hole lane:







But don't worry, Albright will never pay any professional price for his endless, agenda-driven drivel. And he'll surely be back soon with more scary predictions and alarming speculation. We won't have to wait long.

*****

Friday, July 17, 2015

Vox's "Plutonium Plant": Explainer Site Still Doesn't Understand Arak

Is this what a plutonium plant looks like? (Image: Creative Curiosity)

On the heels of the recently announced historic multilateral agreement over Iran's nuclear program, self-described explanatory journalism outlet Vox.com has posted a number of infographics to explain certain parameters of the deal. The images were produced by Vox's talented graphics editor Javier Zarracina, who's previously worked at the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe. The text accompanying the graphics, however, appears to derive largely from previous Vox posts, most likely ones penned by the site's content manager Max Fisher.

While the post is not as error-laden as some of the site's previous articles and supposedly explanatory maps, one mistake is glaring and deserves both attention and correction.

In its copious coverage of the Iranian nuclear program, Vox - and Mr. Fisher in particular - routinely refers to Iran's heavy water research reactor at Arak as a "plutonium plant," a description that is not only factually inaccurate but also deliberately alarmist. The new post, attributed solely to Zarracina, is unfortunately no different.

In its brief section on the nuclear facilities Iran will continue to operate under deal and the specific restrictions agreed to pertaining to these facilities, Zarracina produced the following map:

(Image: Javier Zarracina / Vox)

The bold text at the top of the map above is misleading. Iran currently has 18 nuclear facilities and nine additional locations (all hospitals) where nuclear material is used. All of these facilities - not just three, as Vox says - will continue to operate. All of them have long been declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and all are under agency safeguards and open to regular monitoring and inspection. At least four times a year for the past dozen years, the IAEA has consistently continued to "verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at these facilities" to military and weaponization programs.

The three facilities Zarracina focuses on, however, are especially important and that figure centrally in the parameters of the agreement. Two - Natanz and Fordow - are operational enrichment facilities; the other is a nuclear research reactor still under construction at the Arak complex.

In his explanation of the limitations Iran has accepted on its nuclear program, Zarracina claims the following:
The Arak facility matters because Iran has used it to develop plutonium, another nuclear fuel that can be used for energy or for a weapons program. Iran will be required to restructure its plutonium plant at Arak such that it will only make energy-grade plutonium, and will ship out its spent plutonium. The Arak facility will also be monitored.
Each of Zarracina's three sentences contains either egregious errors or is explicitly misleading. His "explanation" is, as a result, just the opposite - an embarrassing exercise in ignorance and disinformation.

Let's take the sentences one by one:

"The Arak facility matters because Iran has used it to develop plutonium, another nuclear fuel that can be used for energy or for a weapons program."

For starters, the reactor at Arak remains under construction and has never been operational; therefore, Iran has never - ever - "used it to develop plutonium." The reactor has in fact never been "used" to do anything. It's never even been turned on.

Zarracina is clearly confused as to what facilities Arak contains, what those facilities do, and what Iran has done with these facilities. At Iran's Arak complex, two facilities are relevant in this discussion: one is the IR-40 heavy water research reactor, the other is a heavy water production plant (HWPP). There is no such thing as a "plutonium plant" on the site.

The half-built IR-40 reactor is under full IAEA safeguards and is visited regularly by inspectors; the production plant, however, is not under safeguards and thus not legally subject to inspections. This is less alarming than it might sound and here's why: heavy water is not nuclear material, it merely acts as a moderator and coolant in nuclear reactors that use natural uranium rather than enriched uranium. Still, Iran voluntarily provided IAEA inspectors access to HWPP in August 2011 and again in December 2013, even though this exceeded Iran's legal obligations to the agency.

The IR-40 reactor at Arak - like all reactors - produces energy, not nuclear fuel. It runs on nuclear fuel. And once that fuel is used, it becomes irradiated and must be extracted from the reactor and replaced with new fuel.

All reactors that use uranium (natural or enriched) as fuel produce plutonium as a waste product. Ever heard of nuclear waste? Yeah, that includes plutonium, which hypothetically can be used to produce nuclear weapons. The amount of weapons-capable plutonium produced as a byproduct in the spent nuclear fuel of a heavy water reactor is usually more than what naturally occurs in the spent fuel from light water reactors, which run on enriched uranium and use normal water as coolant. This is why the Arak reactor in particular is considered by some to be an unacceptable proliferation risk.

But there's more: weapons-grade plutonium present in irradiated (used) fuel must be extracted through a process known as reprocessing before it can be used for anything else. Iran has no reprocessing facility and has for years agreed never to build one. The new Iran deal simply reaffirms this past decision.

As nuclear expert Martin Sevior has explained, "Going the plutonium route to nuclear weapons is more difficult than using highly enriched uranium" because Iran "would have to build a sophisticated reprocessing plant which would be very hard to conceal while constructing, and requires even greater skill to conceal while operating." Considering Iran has the single most scrutinized nuclear energy program on the planet and is constantly spied on by its adversaries, the idea that it would undertake this route is comical.

Vox's writers seem to think that once a heavy water reactor is switched on, out pops weapons-grade plutonium, ready to be loaded into the nose cone of a ballistic missile bound for Tel Aviv or Boca Raton. This is not the case.

"Iran will be required to restructure its plutonium plant at Arak such that it will only make energy-grade plutonium, and will ship out its spent plutonium."

Ok, again, there is no such thing as a "plutonium plant at Arak," so that's wrong. As part of the final agreement between Iran and its six negotiating partners, the Arak reactor will be redesigned and rebuilt so that it runs on 3.67% enriched uranium, not natural uranium, and no longer produces weapons-grade plutonium as a waste product. This essentially means Arak will be converted from a heavy water reactor to a hybrid heavy and light water reactor; heavy water will still be used a "coolant, moderator and reflector" with normal water used as a safety measure if necessary.

Once operational, the Arak reactor will be used for "peaceful nuclear research and radioisotope production for medical and industrial purposes," just as Iran originally intended.

Zarracina compounds his misunderstanding of what nuclear reactors do and what they produce with the claim that Iran "will ship out its spent plutonium." Reactors don't produce "spent plutonium." They produce energy. They also, as a waste product, produce spent uranium, the substance that actual fuels reactors, which, after irradiation, contains (along with many other radioactive byproducts) both plutonium isotopes Pu-239, which is suitable for weapons, and Pu-241, which is not. Plutonium enriched to more than 97% Pu-239 is dangerous; the more it is contaminated by Pu-241, the less danger it poses. The length of time nuclear fuel stays in a reactor determines how much of each plutonium isotope is leftover once the fuel is used up and removed from the reactor core. The longer the fuel stays in the less Pu-239 there is and the more Pu-241 there is. That's why Pu-239, which is combustible, is referred to as "weapons grade," while Pu-241 is known as "reactor-" or "energy-grade" plutonium. None of this plutonium, in whatever form, is used to fuel reactors; it is the byproduct of fuel, not the fuel itself.

And, again, for this plutonium byproduct to ever be used in a nuclear weapon, it must first be isolated and extracted from the spent fuel through reprocessing, which Iran is incapable of - and not interested in - doing.

"The Arak facility will also be monitored."

Ok, here's an easy one. In simple terms, yes, Zarracina is correct. Arak will be monitored. But this statement is misleading without context. As mentioned already, Arak is already monitored by the IAEA - this is not a new development as a positive consequence of the Iran deal. Zarracina makes it sound like Iran finally agreed to put Arak under IAEA safeguards, but that's not even remotely true.

In truth, even before Hassan Rouhani was elected president, Iran's delegates to the IAEA under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were urging international "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 said in early June 2013, 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."

Ignoring Facts and Avoiding Responsibility

Whether the blame for these errors (some by commission, some by omission) should fall to Zarracina or Max Fisher or someone else is unclear. Regardless, all of the writers, content creators and editors at Vox have a responsibility not to mislead their readers. Sure, nuclear technology is complex and journalists on deadline don't always have time to study a lot of the details. Still, all of this information is open-source and easy to find. Once errors are pointed out, Vox's editors should do their best to own up to and correct their mistakes and those of their contributors. When it comes to their Iran coverage, this tends not to happen at Vox. Quite the contrary, fact-checking Vox on Iran's nuclear program often results in hostility and dismissal from Vox staff.

At the very least, Vox should immediately stop referring to the research reactor at Arak as a "plutonium plant." This is easy to do: call it what it is and stop misleading readers. Instead, due to either a stubborn allegiance to ignorance or extreme laziness, Vox has continued to misinform it audience about the Iranian nuclear program. Unless facile and faulty explanations are its editorial mission, a widely-read resource like Vox that prides itself on "explaining" things to the less informed should try a little harder at first informing itself.
I got blocked by Yglesias for this tweet.

*****

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Does Iran Really Need Nuclear Power?


As multilateral negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and international sanctions continue in Vienna, it is important to remember that, for Iran, this is not about nuclear weapons, but rather the domestic production and control over nuclear energy.*

Iran has officially forsworn any interest in nuclear weapons - constantly and consistently - since it restarted its nuclear program in the early 1980s.1 Iran's desire for the indigenous mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle and control over its own supply chain was never a secret. It's eventual purchase of nuclear technology on the black market and decision to enrich uranium domestically was a last resort, born of a deliberate American policy to deny Iran the very nuclear infrastructure acknowledged as an "inalienable right" and international cooperation guaranteed in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Article IV of the NPT clearly states that all signatories to the agreement "undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy" and that nuclear superpowers such as the United States, are obligated to help "non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty," such as Iran, to acquire and utilize nuclear energy through direct cooperation or multinational consortia, "with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world."

The American effort to deny Iran of nuclear technology, long couched as an effort to stop potential nuclear weapons programs, thus placed illegal restrictions on Iran's technological and scientific development. This has been public knowledge since at least 1984, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War. Despite the fact that the U.S. State Department admitted to having "no evidence Iran has repudiated or violated its pledge under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to place its nuclear activities under international safeguards to prevent their use in the production of bombs," the Reagan administration (which was actively aiding Iranian exiles intent on overthrowing Khomeini's government and providing military and intelligence support for Saddam Hussein) imposed an embargo on nuclear-related trade with Iran. Citing its mistrust of Iranian intentions, the State Department declared in a press release that "the United States will not consent to the transfer of U.S. nuclear technology to Iran. In addition, we have asked other nuclear suppliers not to engage in nuclear co-operation with Iran, especially while the Iran-Iraq war continues."

Still, the release noted that Iran's nascent nuclear program posed no immediate danger. After all, it said, "light-water reactors are not particularly suitable for a weapons program" and "there is no evidence of construction [in Iran] of facilities needed to separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel."

Years later, Reagan's successor followed suit. In early 1991, The Los Angeles Times reported that the "[George H.W.] Bush Administration and its allies are quietly launching a new international effort aimed at making it more difficult for such countries as Iraq and Iran to buy the high-tech items needed to develop nuclear weapons," which purposefully affected trade in "so-called 'dual-use' goods--items that, while they have other legitimate uses, are also important components for a program to develop nuclear weapons."

That same year, however, Hans Blix, then-Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), made it clear that there was "no cause for concern" regarding Iran's attempts to acquire nuclear technology.

The following year, in 1992, IAEA inspections in Iran found no evidence of illegal nuclear activity. After visiting numerous nuclear sites, chief inspector Jon Jennekens announced that "everything that we have seen is for the peaceful application of nuclear energy and ionizing radiation." He told the press, "We visited without any restriction everything we had asked to see. All nuclear activities in Iran are solely for peaceful purpose."

Nevertheless, in Senate testimony delivered early that year, then-CIA director Robert Gates (who later served as Defense Secretary under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama), claimed that Iran "has not abandoned the goal of one day leading the Islamic world and reversing the global dominance of Western culture and technology." Gates admitted, however, that "most of these technologies are so-called dual use technologies—that is, they have legitimate civilian applications. This makes it difficult to restrict trade in them because we would be limiting the ability of developing nations to modernize."

The American policy of denial has long been met with Iranian accusations of hypocrisy and monopoly. As Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told CNN's Christiane Amanpour only a month after his first inauguration:
We're against "nuclear apartheid," which means some have the right to possess it, use the fuel, and then sell it to another country for 10 times its value. We're against that. We say clean energy is the right of all countries. But also it is the duty and the responsibility of all countries, including ours, to set up frameworks to stop the proliferation of [nuclear weapons].
Years later, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, condemned as "unacceptable" the "monopolization of technology and science and nuclear apartheid," which he said "is in stark contrast to the undeniable rights of countries based on the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the agency's Articles of Association."

This frustration is shared across political lines. At a May 2014 meeting of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, President Hassan Rouhani declared, "We are after our national interests, and we will not accept nuclear or scientific apartheid," adding, "In the direction of science, knowledge and progress, the Atomic Energy Organization had no choice but to stand on its own feet for its scientific goals and technological achievements."

Yet critics of diplomacy with Iran and those whose interests lie with promoting Netanyahu-inspired fear-mongering often ask why Iran - a country with reportedly the planet's fourth largest oil reserves and second largest natural gas reserves (if not more) - should be so intent on developing a nuclear sector.

The answer to the question of why an oil-rich nation would want nuclear energy, however, is simple: in order to compete on an international stage, Iran must vastly diversify its energy policy. With a growing population, energy demands are rapidly increasing. Oil and gas, Iran's leading natural resources (and which are finite), must be available for export to foreign markets, not merely used for energy domestically, in order to fuel Iran's economy. Therefore, for domestic use, Iran has long sought different energy sources, from nuclear to solar to wind.

The Iranian government has long made this very argument. On November 18, 2005, a full-page message was published in the New York Times, outlining Iran's position with regard to its nuclear program. "Although it is true that Iran is rich in oil and gas, these resources are finite and, given the pace of Iran's economic development, they will be depleted within two to five decades," the message said. With a growing population, "Iran has no choice but to seek access to more diversified and secure sources of energy," it read, adding that "the youthfulness of the Iranian population, with around 70% under 30, doesn't allow complacency when it comes to energy policy. To satisfy such growing demands, Iran can't rely exclusively on fossil energy. Since Iranian national economy is still dependent on oil revenue, it can't allow the ever increasing domestic demand affect the oil revenues from the oil export."

After leaving his post as Iran's ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Javad Zarif (now Iran's foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator), published a paper entitled, "Tackling the Iran-U.S. Crisis: The Need for a Paradigm Shift," in the Spring/Summer issue of the Journal of International Affairs in 2007. In it, he wrote at length about the need for a diversified energy policy in Iran:
A review of objective facts would establish Iran's need for alternative sources of energy, including nuclear energy. According to a recently released study by the National Academy of Science, "Iran's energy demand growth has exceeded its supply growth," and therefore, "Iran's oil export will decline," or even "could go to zero within 12-19 years." The study acknowledges that Iran's need for nuclear power is "genuine, because Iran relies on...proceeds from oil exports for most revenues, and could become politically vulnerable if exports decline." Nuclear reactors, the report adds, "will substitute for the power now generated by petroleum, thus, freeing petroleum for export." Many other U.S. and western experts have reached the same conclusions. In fact, Iran's current plans to produce 20,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity by 2020 may save Iran 190 million barrels of crude oil every year or nearly $14 billion annually.
From an environmental perspective, more Western utilities are looking to nuclear power "because of the prospect of controls on fossil-fuel generated power, while possible climate-change legislation wouldn't affect nuclear power, which doesn't generate the same pollutants."
"Therefore," Zarif continued, "Iran's nuclear program is neither ambitious nor economically unjustifiable. Diversification—including the development of nuclear energy—is the only sound and responsible energy strategy for Iran. Moreover, Iran's energy diversification strategy is not concentrated solely on nuclear energy, but encompasses various other alternative and renewable sources."

This was, and remains, true.

In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that "Iran has the largest installed renewable-energy capacity in the Middle East." The Iranian government has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into supporting clean energy projects. "The government sees renewables as a way to alleviate pollution, a common problem in congested cities such as Tehran. It also sees an opportunity for Iran to reduce its oil dependency," wrote the Journal.

Iran has an official Renewable Energy Organization (SUNA), is an exporter of wind energy, and already has dozens of hydroelectric power plants and a number of operational solar power plants around the country, including one near Shiraz and another near Yazd, which is reportedly the world's first combined cycle plant that uses both natural gas and solar energy.

In 2011, Iranian media reported that Iran's largest solar plant had opened near Mashhad which was said to "produce enough electricity to power Khorassan province's Regional Electric Company building" and was "expected to generate 72,000 kilowatt hours of electrical power each year." A small wind-solar hybrid power plant is also said to have been installed on the Persian Gulf island Kharg.

The same year, Iran's Energy Minister Majid Namjou said that, by 2015, Iran planned to generate more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity from renewable energy resources. Plus, if a joint American and Iranian workshop back in 2010 is any indication, it appears that Iran is very receptive to increasing their solar energy capacity.

Indeed, independent analysts agree with the Iranian assessment of its energy needs - including nuclear power.

"[W]hy should Iran deplete its nonrenewable oil and gas sources when it can, much like the energy-rich United States and Russia, resort to renewable nuclear energy?" asked a New York Times oped on October 14, 2003. "Nuclear reactors have their problems, and they will not resolve Iran's chronic shortage of electricity. Yet they represent an important first step in diversifying Iran's sources for energy." The authors lamented, "Sadly, with their fear of an Iranian bomb, the United States and some of its Western allies have failed to acknowledge Iran's legitimate quest for nuclear energy."

In 2004, even the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of Britain's parliament said that based on a study it commissioned: "It is clear... that the arguments as to whether Iran has a genuine requirement for domestically produced nuclear electricity are not all, or even predominantly, on one side." A 2006 Energy Tribune article argued that, "given Iran's ongoing energy struggles, it makes sense, both economically and from an energy point of view, for the country to be pursuing nuclear power." A 2007 essay published in the journal Atoms For Peace noted, "Rapid growth in Iran's domestic energy demand and its dependence on oil exports for revenue has forced it to consider alternative future energy solutions."

A 2009 Foreign Policy article by Christopher de Bellaigue, for instance, concurs with these conclusions when directly challenging the claim that "Iran Has No Use for Nuclear Power." De Bellaigue writes that this is "False," and goes on to explain:
Iran is the second-largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and has the world's second-largest natural gas reserves. But its energy needs are rising faster than its ability to meet them. Driven by a young population and high oil revenues, Iran's power consumption is growing by around 7 percent annually, and its capacity must nearly triple over the next 15 years to meet projected demand.
Where will the electricity come from? Not from the oil sector. It is retarded by U.S. sanctions, as well as inefficiency, corruption, and Iran's institutionalized distrust of Western investors. Since 1995, when the sector was opened to a handful of foreign companies, Iran has added 600,000 barrels per day to its crude production, enough to offset depletion in aging fields, but not enough to boost output, which has stagnated at around 3.7 million barrels per day since the late 1990s. Almost 40 percent of Iran's crude oil is consumed locally. If this figure were to rise, oil revenues would fall, spelling the end of the strong economic growth the country has enjoyed since 1999. Plugging the gap with natural gas is not possible — yet. Iran's gigantic gas reserves are only just being tapped, so Iran remains a net importer.
Beyond mere population metrics and potential energy needs, the national mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle is seen by Iran's government as vital for scientific progress and sustainability. In a September 9, 2004 interview with the Financial Times, Iran's then-representative to the IAEA Ali Akbar Salehi, an MIT-educated physicist, made this clear:
Nuclear technology, of you are able to master it, opens the way to other technologies, because you are dealing with the highest limits of engineering – the highest pressures, highest temperatures, the highest material properties. This know-how can be used in other industries. 
With technology you cannot have big jumps. You can't suddenly expect an underdeveloped country to send a rocket to the moon. 
Nuclear technology would give us the base for future technology in fusion, which is the ultimate answer to unlimited supply of energy for human beings. If you do not, [and] fusion comes in 20 to 30 years, you will be totally ignorant.
But there's something else.

A decade ago, Dick Cheney himself voiced the age-old line about Iran, a hydrocarbon-rich country, not needing alternative sources of energy. "They're already sitting on an awful lot of oil and gas," he said. "Nobody can figure why they need nuclear as well to generate energy." Henry Kissinger echoed this sentiment in an oped, writing that "that "for a major oil producer such as Iran, nuclear energy is a wasteful use of resources."

But here's the rub: in the mid-1970s, the Ford administration (in which Kissinger, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz themselves held high-level positions) was heavily in favor of Iran's decision - under the Shah - to pursue nuclear energy. A 2005 Washington Post article by Dafna Linzer tells the tale.
Ford's team commended Iran's decision to build a massive nuclear energy industry, noting in a declassified 1975 strategy paper that Tehran needed to "prepare against the time -- about 15 years in the future -- when Iranian oil production is expected to decline sharply."
Estimates of Iran's oil reserves were smaller then than they are now, but energy experts and U.S. intelligence estimates continue to project that Iran will need an alternative energy source in the coming decades. Iran's population has more than doubled since the 1970s, and its energy demands have increased even more.
The Ford administration -- in which Cheney succeeded Rumsfeld as chief of staff and Wolfowitz was responsible for nonproliferation issues at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency -- continued intense efforts to supply Iran with U.S. nuclear technology until President Jimmy Carter succeeded Ford in 1977.
[...]
In 1975, as secretary of state, Kissinger signed and circulated National Security Decision Memorandum 292, titled "U.S.-Iran Nuclear Cooperation," which laid out the administration's negotiating strategy for the sale of nuclear energy equipment projected to bring U.S. corporations more than $6 billion in revenue. At the time, Iran was pumping as much as 6 million barrels of oil a day, compared with an average of about 4 million barrels daily today.
The shah, who referred to oil as "noble fuel," said it was too valuable to waste on daily energy needs. The Ford strategy paper said the "introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran's economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals."
Of course, because the Shah was a good friend to the US government at the time, the issue of nuclear proliferation never even came up.

In early 2012, Michael Hayden, George W. Bush's CIA and NSA chief, confirmed that opposition to Iran's domestic nuclear program has nothing to do with proliferation fears or international law, but rather regional hegemony, impunity and regime change.

"It's not so much that we don't want Iran to have a nuclear capacity, it's that we don't want this Iran to have it," Hayden told a gathering of analysts, experts and journalists at the Center for the National Interest. "Slow it down long enough and maybe the character [of the Iranian government] changes."

Former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said much the same at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. the following month. "When there is a secular and democratic Iran, let them have all the technologies in the world, whatever they like. Not this regime," he said.

Now, years later, regime change remains the ultimate goal of those opposed to a diplomatic solution to this decades-long impasse.

Such is the lie that is the "Iranian nuclear crisis," the bogus propaganda ploy to exert power over one of the only nations on the planet to, three and a half decades ago, successfully break its imperial chains and pursued its own path. It has nothing to do with Iranian proliferation or power generation and everything to do with American and Israeli power projection.

Let's hope this nonsense is soon behind us all.

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Updated to include more information regarding the Reagan administration's nuclear embargo on Iran.

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* This should go without saying, but I find it necessary to point out that I am in no way an advocate of nuclear energy. Clearly, it is not the greatest or safest form of energy production in the world; but that's not the issue here. Nuclear power is very real and widely utilized, promoted and guaranteed via the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Arguing against nuclear power is probably a good idea, but until all nuclear power is done away with, Iran has just as much right to pursue it as any other sovereign nation. (Return to article)

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1 UPDATE - July 16, 2015: As a note in the comments on this article points out, the Shah's nuclear program was mothballed by the nascent leadership of Iran shortly after the revolution in 1979. The Khomeini government derided the nuclear project as "imperialistic," namely due to its close association (and inception by) the United States. This was the primarily impetus for its being put on the back-burner. Indeed, by April 1979, the AEOI was virtually defunded and by July 1979, work on Bushehr ground to a halt when Iran's European partners reneged on their construction contracts. Much of Iran's nuclear program was effectively put on hold.

But not all of it.

Even in April 1979, Iranian media reported on the continuation of building an (albeit smaller scale) nuclear industry than what the Shah had envisioned. On April 9, 1979, an interview with Fereydoun Sahabi, Iran's Deputy Minister of Energy and Supervisor of AEOI, broadcast on national radio revealed that the organization would "be cut back on a wide scale." Nevertheless, work on Bushehr was at that time still expected to proceed and "the Atomic Energy Organization's activities regarding prospecting and extraction of uranium would continue."

Following constant electricity shortages that plagued Iran in the early years after the revolution, official Iranian policy began to change with regard to alternative sources of energy. What really revitalized government interest in the nuclear program was the "discovery of huge uranium deposits in four places in Iran" in late 1981. Far from being a boon to a nefarious and clandestine project, this discovery was also announced on national radio, with the new head of AEOI, Reza Amrollah, noting "that the organization is to follow up with a detailed programme for nuclear research and scientific study."

About three months later, Iranian state media outlet IRNA reported that, according to the head of the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center (ENTEC), "Iran was taking concrete measures for importing nuclear technology, while at the same time utilizing Iranian expertise in the field. He said the decision was made in the wake of discovery of uranium resources in the country and after Iran's capability for developing the industry had been established." The report even outlined ambitious Iranian plans for "developing nuclear capability" in short-term, mid-term, and long-term phases.

Shortly thereafter, as the United States became heavily involved in supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. policy of denying Iran of nuclear technology and assistance was implemented, leading the the further deterioration of Iran's previous business relationships with European partners like Eurodif.

The next year, in 1983, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization invited the IAEA to visit ENTEC and the Tehran Nuclear Research Center and requested assistance from the IAEA in resuming its research in domestic uranium enrichment and possibly setting up a pilot enrichment plant. As soon as the U.S. government got wind of such potential cooperation, it "directly intervened," demanding the IAEA cease all assistance to Iran (in contravention of the basic tenets of the NPT). "We stopped that in its tracks," said a former U.S. official years later. Following American obstruction, "the IAEA dropped plans to help Iran on fuel production and uranium conversion."

Nevertheless, Iran pushed forward with its research, and in 1985 discovered even more uranium deposits near Yazd. Amrollah, according to the BBC at the time, "stressed" that "the availability of uranium will be a big help to the economic infrastructure of the country."

As I point out above, by the early 1990s, the IAEA was appraised of Iran's progress, had visited Iran's uranium mines, and found "no cause for concern."

Following Iran's declaration of its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz to the IAEA, and its announcement in February 2003 that it would begin domestically mining uranium at Saghand for an indigenous enrichment program, IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming told the press, "This comes as no surprise to us, as we have been aware of this uranium exploration project for several years now. In fact, a senior IAEA official visited this mine in 1992."

(Return to article)

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Back to the Bazaar: Fact-Checking the BBC on Iran's Nuclear Program


Reporting on the Iranian nuclear program in the mainstream press has always been fraught with disinformation, misinformation, speculative shorthand, and myriad errors. The BBC is no stranger to such mistakes.

In a new report from Vienna, where nuclear talks continue, the Beeb's diplomatic correspondent James Robbins attempts to give readers some historical context for Iran's nuclear development following the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

He writes:
The new religious leadership inherited a nuclear research programme, but consistently denies expanding it with the aim of making "the bomb".
The big powers have never accepted that, pointing instead to all the Iranian effort to produce highly-enriched uranium in the quantities you could only need to build a bomb, as well as the secrecy and alleged concealment of so much activity which is specifically outlawed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Iran is a signatory.
Ok, first, the "big powers" who doubt Iran's sincerity about their nuclear development don't include Russia and China, which have consistently noted in the past decade that Iran's enrichment program is under strict safeguards and there exists no evidence of militarization.

For instance, in September 2012, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov explained, "We, as before, see no signs that there is a military dimension to Iran's nuclear program. No signs."

"We see something different - that there is nuclear material... in Iran that is under the control of inspectors, specialists of the International Atomic Energy Agency," Ryabkov continued. "This nuclear material is not being shifted to military needs, this is officially confirmed by the (IAEA)."

Ok, small point. Moving on...

'Highly Enriched Uranium'

Robbins writes of "all the Iranian effort to produce highly-enriched uranium in the quantities you could only need to build a bomb," which doesn't make sense since Iran has never - ever - produced "highly-enriched uranium," let alone "in the quantities you could only need to build a bomb." This is a total falsehood.

Before the implementation of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), signed between Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1, Iran had been enriching UF6 (uranium hexafluoride feedstock) to between 3.5% and 5% U-235 for use as fuel in nuclear power plants and to just under 20% U-235 for use in medical research reactors. Both 5% and 19.75% enriched uranium are considered "low-enriched uranium" (LEU). Neither of these enrichment levels is close to the minimum of 90% U-235, or high-enriched uranium (HEU), needed to produce nuclear bombs. All Iranian enrichment activities and facilities are - and were - under strict IAEA safeguards, round-the-clock surveillance and regular intrusive inspection.

As I wrote yesterday, since JPOA went into effect in January 2014, Iran ceased all enrichment above 5%, diluted or disposed of its entire stockpile of 19.75% LEU, and converted the vast majority of its remaining stockpile of LEU to a form incapable of being weaponized. At every step along the way, Iran has been in full compliance with its obligations.

Tellingly, the BBC often refers to 19.75% enriched uranium as "higher-enriched" material, despite the fact that there is no such designation as defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) itself. The IAEA glossary (p.205-6) is clear: "high enriched uranium" or HEU is "uranium containing 20% or more of the isotope 235U," while "low enriched uranium" or LEU is "enriched uranium containing less than 20% of the isotope 235U." There is no such thing as "medium" or "higher" enriched uranium except in media articles purposefully alluding to a potential Iranian nuclear weapons threat that doesn't exist.

Robbins' claim that Iran has gone to great lengths "to produce highly-enriched uranium" is 100% incorrect. Making such a suggestion is ignorant in the extreme.

What's even stranger is that the BBC already knows this. Back in March 2009, it reported on National Intelligence director Dennis Blair's testimony to Congress that affirmed "that Iran does not have any highly enriched uranium."

Violating the NPT?

The rest of Robbins' sentence compounds the error. He claims allegations of nuclear weapons work and Iranian duplicity have merit since Iran has concealed "so much activity which is specifically outlawed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty."

Except Iran has done no such thing.

In fact, nothing Iran has ever done in its procurement of nuclear technology and mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle has ever contravened its obligations under the NPT since it has never been found to have diverted any fissile material to a weapons program. Iran's past noncompliance with its IAEA safeguards - due to its "failure to report" otherwise totally legal activities - is not the same as violating the NPT. Even so, in November 2003, the IAEA affirmed that "to date, there is no evidence that the previously undeclared nuclear material and activities referred to above were related to a nuclear weapons programme." And the following year, after extensive inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities were conducted under the auspices of the IAEA's intrusive Additional Protocol (implemented voluntarily by Iran for two years) the IAEA again concluded that "all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for, and therefore such material is not diverted to prohibited activities."

IAEA investigations into Iran's previously undeclared activities, as adjudicated by a 2007 Work Plan, resolved all of the initial outstanding questions that led the IAEA to send Iran's nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council in the first place - all of them in Iran's favor.

In March 2013, Nobel laureate Hans Blix, who previously headed both the IAEA and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), affirmed that "Iran has not violated NPT and there is no evidence right now that suggests that Iran is producing nuclear weapons."

Even the Congressional Research Service, whose analysis heavily favors the U.S. government's interpretation of international law, has stated, as recently as June 25, 2015, that it is "unclear" whether or not Iran has ever violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, noting that the "U.N. Security Council has never declared Iran to be in violation of the NPT" and "the IAEA has never reported that Iran has attempted to develop nuclear weapons."

Lingering Colonial Tropes

For all of Robbins' dubious journalism, perhaps nothing is as offensive as his quoting of remarkably Orientalist statements made by former diplomat Sir John Sawers about Iranians. Sawers, who Robbins writes was "chief British negotiator with Iran from 2003 to 2007, and after that the UK's representative on the UN Security Council when sanctions against Iran were being decided," speaks like Rowan Atkinson doing a Cecil Rhodes impression.

"Sir John," Robbins writes, "from all his years negotiating with Iran, is blunt: 'Whenever you buy a carpet in Iran, you have to buy it two, three times over.'" Sawers adds, "You sometimes feel that is the same in the nuclear negotiations as well. There is an Iranian saying that the real negotiation only begins once the agreement is signed. They will always come back for more."
If that's not bad enough, the section of the BBC article containing these statements bears the subheading, "Carpet sales tales." Really.

Allusions to Persian rug merchants, wily bazaari haggling, and devious and duplicitous wheeling and dealing - all this is expected from the Wall Street Journal's neocon editors and career propagandists like Michael Oren. But Robbins and his editors at the BBC?

Looks like colonialism dies hard in the old empire.

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