Friday, July 3, 2015

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

Bobby Ghosh

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


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

Here's the headline:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In mid-2004, with Iran fully complying with its obligations under Saadabad Agreement of October 2003, the negotiations were strained by the prospect of a new European-drafted IAEA resolution against Iran. President Mohammad Khatami told the press, in terms strikingly similar to Rouhani's recent statement, that Iran's voluntary suspension of enrichment would thus be endangered if the resolution passed.

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

A month later, Khatami insisted that "nothing stands in the way" of Iran "building and assembling centrifuges designed for uranium enrichment," reported the Associated Press.

Throughout the first half of 2005, Iranian officials were still intent on resolving the nuclear impasse through diplomacy with Europe, but explained that the resumption of "full-scale enrichment" was the ultimate goal of the talks, along with assurances that the program would remain forever peaceful.

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

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

Uranium conversion restarted in early August 2005.

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

In his 2011 memoir, former IAEA director-general Mohamed ElBaradei described the European position in 2005 this way: "When Iran was already suspending its enrichment program, all it got in return was an offer made of hot air" due to the sad fact that the Europeans "were too afraid of opposition by the Americans to promise Iran Western nuclear power technology," as required by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Thus, ElBaradei explained, the Iranians felt "they were being taken for a ride. And that is how this series of diplomatic failures began."

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

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

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

*****

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

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