Monday, April 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

USA Today, September 15, 2008:

Bloomberg News, July 31, 2009:

Daily Mail, November 17, 2011:

The Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2012:

The Washington Post, February 29, 2012:

Bloomberg News, January 14, 2015:

The Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2013:

Jewish & Israel News Service, April 14, 2014:

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

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

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

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

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



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



June 24, 2015 - The war crime fantasies about big American bombs blowing holes in Iran continues this week with a new installment in the MOP hero quest, this time written by Politico's unimpressive Michael Crowley. Boosting the false choice of successful nuclear diplomacy vs. U.S. military aggression, Crowley drools, "Think of it as Plan B for Iran. The failure of diplomacy might lead the U.S. to turn to a weapon finally ready for real-world action after years of design and testing."

He continues, "The so-called “Massive Ordnance Penetrator,” or MOP, represents decades of military research, dramatically accelerated in recent years, focused on the problem of destroying targets buried deep underground."

Crowley's sinister description of Iran's legal nuclear infrastructure is matched only by his eagerness to see it bombed for no reason by the U.S. Air Force. Pathetic.



July 1, 2015 - As intended, a number of outlets picked up on Michael Crowley's latest paean to American bunker buster bombs, with Business Insider's Jeremy Bender doing most of the work. In two articles in the past six days, Bender has bolstered the notion that Iran will soon get pummeled by the infamous MOP.

Bender identifies what he calls "two huge problems" with the "Plan B" of dropping a gigantic bomb on a country for the crime of having a legal, safeguarded uranium enrichment program that poses zero proliferation threat. After calling the huge exploding device "awe-inspiring," Bender laments that the 30,000-pound bomb can't wipe Iranian scientists' brains off the map. He also seems disappointed that Iran might actually try to defend itself against such a blatant act of unprovoked aggression.

Both Bloomberg and CNN also jumped on the bunker buster bandwagon this past week.


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, 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.


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

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

The suggestion that Iran ever had the intention of keeping Natanz a secret is ludicrous.

In 2000, Iran declared to the IAEA that it was constructing a Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) near Esfahan, an industrial scale plant for converting yellowcake into UF6 feedstock, nuclear material to be fed into centrifuges for further enrichment. The size of the facility, let alone its open declaration to the IAEA and subsequent safeguards and inspections, dispelled all possibility of use in a clandestine weapons program. It would be ridiculous for Iran to build such a facility without an enrichment plant of similar scale to further convert the feedstock into energy-grade uranium.

When the Natanz was officially declared to the IAEA in February 2003, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami also announced that Iranian surveyors had discovered more uranium reserves near the city of Yazd in central Iran. He noted that facilities already existed in Esfahan and Kashan where the uranium would be processed to produce electricity. No alarms were raised by the IAEA. In fact, IAEA spokesperson Melissa Fleming confirmed, "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. And the Iranians announced to us officially in September their plans to develop an ambitious nuclear power program that would include the entire nuclear fuel cycle."

In a September 2004 interview with the Financial Times, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's then-representative to the IAEA (who later served as Foreign Minister and is now head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization), laughed at the notion that a facility of that size of Natanz could operate secretly. "How can it be secret if it has a few hundred acres, and a sign saying 'Atomic Energy Organisation' and the buses that go from Tehran to Natanz stop at a station called 'Atomic Station'?" he wondered.

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


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

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

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

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

'Plutonium Plant at Arak'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

IAEA inspectors have also had consistently open access to the gas conversion facility at Esfahan and have long monitored the heavy water production plant at Arak, despite these non-nuclear facilities not being explicitly covered by Iran's Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

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

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

'Breakout Time'

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

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

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

'Modified Code 3.1'

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obfuscatory Journalism

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

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

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

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

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

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


NOTE: Ever since I started poking holes in Max Fisher's awful reporting and near-total ignorance on the Iranian nuclear program, he's blocked me on Twitter. Because he's a professional.



July 14, 2015 - Once news that a final agreement between Iran and the P5+1 was reached in Vienna on Tuesday, July 14, 2015, Max Fisher got to work updating his "Plain English" guide to the nuclear deal, which in Vox terms means literally overwriting the old post with a new one without mentioning anything to anyone.

While there's now information about the so-called "snapback" provisions and the "managed access" for inspections of non-safeguarded sites, most of the original post - and every single error referenced above - remains in tact. So much for fact-checking.



July 17, 2015 - Vox's Max Fisher begins his new, co-written fact-check on the "biggest myths about the Iran nuclear deal" with, considering his own contributions to the issue, what can only be assumed to be a little comic relief:

"The Iran deal mythmaking predates the Iran deal itself," he writes with fellow Voxer Amanda Taub. While rhetoric from all sides contain "kernels of truth," Fisher and Taub add that most commentary about the Iranian nuclear program and parameters of the new deal are "largely composed of spin, exaggeration, and often a degree of straight-up nonsense."

Indeed. In fact, one needs to go no further than Fisher's own "explanatory journalism" to prove this point.


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:

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 posed 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 - and 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?)



January 8, 2016 - It took some time - and some persistent noodging - but Scott Peterson has graciously updated his timeline, correcting the year for Netanyahu's oft-quoted "three to five" years nuclear prediction. Here's what it looks like now:

As a result of the update, the entry itself has also been moved out from under the heading for "Israel paints Iran as Enemy No. 1: 1992" (where it was originally listed) to the next one, "US joins the warnings: 1992-97."

An editor's note has also been added to the bottom of the page:

My gratitude goes out to Scott and his editors at the Christian Science Monitor for making this change based on their review of my research. Now all that remains is updating all the erroneous references to this quote in the hundreds of articles and books that use it, right?


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 (or wishful, warmongering, thinking) 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.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

Correcting Rachel Maddow on Her Analysis of the New Iran Deal Framework

Most people are neither interested in nor informed about the minutiae and technical details of Iran's nuclear program, or any nuclear program for that matter. That's perfectly understandable.

When MSNBC host Rachel Maddow opened her show tonight with a lengthy segment on nuclear technology, bomb-making, and the amazing news from Lausanne, Switzerland today, she revealed how one can be interested and yet still uninformed, despite plenty of help from producers and researchers.

Without a doubt, today's historic announcement of an agreed-upon framework for a comprehensive, multilateral deal between Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States) is major news that, for the uninitiated, begs for explanation and analysis if it is to be understood.

Soon after the framework was announced in Lausanne in a joint statement by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the U.S. State Department released a fact sheet of sorts, revealing in far greater detail the various parameters of the proposed deal. This sheet and a number of its demands were subsequently disputed by Zarif himself as "spin."

When Rachel Maddow took to the airwaves on Thursday evening to inform her audience about the details of the framework, a number of glaring errors and omissions infiltrated her script, further demonstrating just how difficult it is to rely on mainstream media for factual content when it comes to Iran and its nuclear program. Maddow's reporting on Iran has long been shoddy, full of inaccuracies, speculation and uninformed editorializing. Unfortunately, though she seemed to try her best, tonight was hardly a break from the past.

And whoever writes Maddow's chyrons only made matters worse.

After explaining to her audience how nuclear bombs are made - thus implicitly conflating Iran's safeguarded nuclear enrichment and energy program with a weapons program (not a good start) - Maddow spoke about the basics of uranium enrichment and plutonium production.

Enriching uranium is "hard to do, and you need a lot of raw material," she said. "It's hard to enrich uranium all the way to up weapons grade. All the way up to 90 percent plus." Maddow continued:
It's hard to do, but it's not that hard to do. And the nation of Iran has been enriching uranium to 20 percent enrichment for quite a while now.
In the new deal, the new framework of a deal announced with Iran today, Iran says they will stop enriching uranium to 20 percent. They are agreeing, they are hereby agreeing that they will not enrich uranium above 3.67 percent for at least the next 15 years.
Despite what the chyron says, Iran has never made any "highly enriched uranium."

Where to begin?

Setting aside the fact that acquiring the technology and scientific know-how to master the nuclear fuel cycle is actually quite hard and requires years of experiments, experience and expertise (not to mention millions, perhaps billions, of dollars), Maddow whiffs on her first main point.

Iran has not been "enriching uranium to 20 percent enrichment for quite a while now." In fact, at this moment, Iran is not enriching any uranium to levels anywhere close to 20 percent, let alone anything approaching weapons-grade.

For starters, 19.75 percent enriched uranium (what Maddow and others routinely refer to as "20 percent") is low enriched uranium (LEU), not highly enriched uranium. Furthermore, Iran is not - and has never even been accused or suspected of - enriching highly enriched uranium, let alone weapons-grade uranium.

Beginning in February 2010, Iran began enriching uranium to roughly 19.75 percent, in order to provide fuel to its Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) that produces radioisotopes needed to diagnose and treat more than 850,000 cancer patients across the country.

A little over two years later, in mid-June 2012, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors nuclear programs worldwide, confirmed that Iran had converted 33 percent of its stockpile of nearly 20 percent enriched uranium to metal fuel plates.

As Peter Jenkins, former British envoy to the IAEA, told Bloomberg News at the time, the conversion is "significant" since "[i]t demonstrates that the 20 percent program is indeed about producing fuel for the TRR and not, as critics have alleged, about moving closer to building nuclear weapons."

"Importantly, uranium in the form of fuel plates cannot easily be converted back into the gaseous form required for further enrichment," explained nuclear expert Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association later that year. "Even though still enriched to 20 percent, it is essentially no longer available for diversion into a military program."

While some analysts argue that reconverting the plates back into usable feedstock for weapons grade enrichment wouldn't be terribly difficult for Iran, the idea that the conversion efforts by Iran are merely the first step in a clever ruse are far-fetched, even for perennial alarmists. Nuclear physicist Yousaf Butt has explained, "This conversion essentially freezes the enrichment level and subtracts from the 'enrichable' gaseous stockpile used in centrifuges. It is not something that a nation hell-bent on weaponization would do."

Over the course of the next year, Iran continued to systematically convert its 19.75 percent UF6 to U3O8 metallic fuel plates for its research reactor, thus effectively precluding the material's further enrichment to weapons-grade and decreasing its accumulating stockpile, thus deliberately reducing the potential threat of proliferation.

All this was done during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Following the election of Hassan Rouhani and the resumption of negotiations, the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the interim agreement reached between Iran and the six world powers in November 2013, included a full suspension of Iranian enrichment to nearly 20 percent. This halt in 19.75 percent LEU was implemented on January 20, 2014.

By July 2014, the IAEA confirmed that, in line with its commitments under the JPOA, Iran had converted or diluted its entire remaining stockpile of nearly 20 percent LEU to either fuel plates or 5 percent LEU.

Thus, today, when Maddow said that Iran has been producing 20 percent LEU "for a while now" but will, under the terms of the new nuclear framework, "will stop enriching uranium to 20 percent," she ignores the facts that Iran only enriched uranium to 19.75 percent for about two and a half years and stopped doing so well over a year ago.

Maddow, continuing her explanation of the framework, said, "Iran in total has about 19,000 centrifuges right now. In this new deal, they have agreed to go down from 19,000 to 6,000. And they agree that the 6,000 can only be the old crappy ones, not the good ones."

If the U.S. State Department fact sheet is correct, this is roughly accurate. But Maddow probably should have pointed out fewer than 10,000 of those installed centrifuges are actually operational. This is a minor point of criticism, for sure.

Iran doesn't have a "plutonium production plant."

Maddow also gave a slightly confused explanation of how plutonium is produced, effectively claiming that spent fuel rods from reactors can either be "reprocessed into plutonium, which can make a nuclear bomb" and also that "[t]here is, however, one other way to get plutonium, and that is with a specific kind of reactor where you don't have to reprocess anything. It just produces plutonium as a byproduct of running that reactor. Iran has built one of those reactors, or at least is in the process of building one of those reactors at a place call Arak."

This isn't right. All nuclear reactors - regardless of configuration - produce plutonium in their spent fuel as a byproduct. Light water reactors (like Bushehr) produce less than heavy water reactors (like Arak), but all plutonium must be first extracted from the spent fuel and reprocessed to weapons grade material.

While Maddow correctly noted that "Iran apparently does not now have the technology or know-how to make plutonium that could be used in a bomb by reprocessing spent fuel from nuclear reactors" and "will not develop it," she said this was a new decision made by Iran under the framework. Actually, Iran has long forgone research and development of any reprocessing capability, as verified repeatedly by the IAEA for years.

This image is not of Iran's Arak reactor. It's actually a test reactor located in Idaho.

After her long intro, Maddow's first guest was Joe Cirincione, head of the Ploughshares Fund. To her credit, Maddow insisted Cirincione correct any mistakes she may have made. While he praised her detailed analysis, he did note that Arak "actually does make plutonium in the fuel rods and it does have to be reprocessed." After more prodding by Maddow, he added, "Every reactor core produces some plutonium in the fuel rods. The original design, they would have been producing about eight kilograms, enough for about two bombs a year. Completely reconfigure the core, less than one kilogram, not enough for a nuclear bomb."

Maddow's willingness to learn and be corrected deserves respect. Not many news hosts in her position would do the same. Hopefully, as she learns more about the Iranian nuclear program, her audience will learn along with her. Unfortunately, minor errors and vague insinuations still carry dangerous consequences as misunderstanding breeds alarmism, especially on this issue.

Getting the facts right is the best way to challenge the nearly-ubiquitous propaganda and hysteria the American public is subjected to on a regular basis. As a comprehensive, final agreement between Iran and the P5+1 takes shape and details are hammered out in the coming months, it'll be even more important to sweat the small stuff.