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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