Even outspoken supporters of the nuclear deal signed between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany) rely on myriad entrenched myths and falsehoods about Iran's nuclear program to make their case. For instance, the constant claim that the agreement "prevents Iran from building a nuclear weapon" is a facile talking point that assumes an Iranian drive for a bomb that has never actually existed.
What the deal - known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - does is, in exchange for removing sanctions, verifiably limit Iran's nuclear infrastructure by restricting enrichment levels, expanding monitoring access beyond the legal requirements of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and Iran's safeguards agreements to affirm the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program, a program that has never been found to have ever been militarized.
Nevertheless, leading advocates of the accord have consistently argued that without this deal, Iran would inevitably race toward producing the bomb it's never wanted and has prohibited for decades, and as a result, the United States (or Israel) would be forced to bomb Iranian nuclear and military facilities to save the world from the clutches of evil atomic mullahs.
We've heard the same thing for decades, that the "clock is ticking" and "time is running out" to attack Iran or force it to capitulate on its legal nuclear program, lest Iran acquire the atomic arsenal that we've been told since the mid-1980s is only "a few screwdriver turns" away and right around the corner.
These are bad facts, built upon a two-pronged foundation of alarmism that promotes the supposed inevitability of two things that will never happen: Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and a U.S./Israeli military attack on Iran. And with bad facts come worse analysis.
In essence, even the deal's own supporters buy into ahistorical, Netanyahu-inspired narratives of malevolent Iranian intent and prepare their appeals from there. Unfortunately, this is unsurprising and a direct result of the consistent failure of both the media and policymakers to present accurate information.
A 2013 study by the University of Maryland found that media coverage about Iran's nuclear program is plagued with error, often decontextualized, and hews strongly to official American and Israeli government narratives. Among the study's conclusions was that, on the rare occasion that the media addressed "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. This led to an inaccurate picture of the choices facing policy makers."
One of the most striking examples of this egregious practice is a recent opinion piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter in USA Today, a publication with a history of terrible reporting and commentary on Iran.
Slaughter surely has impressive credentials. She's taught at elite universities, including Harvard and Princeton, served for two years as Hillary Clinton's director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department and currently heads the New America Foundation, an influential center-left think tank in Washington D.C.
With this résumé, it is both shocking and illuminating how little she seems to understand about Iran's nuclear program. Slaughter refers to "Iran's illegal nuclear program," despite the fact that Iran has the inalienable right to a domestic nuclear program as affirmed by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). She is also apparently convinced Iran is engaged in a "quest for a nuclear weapon" (alternatively rendered as "Iran's illegal pursuit of a nuclear weapon"), which it decidedly is not and for which there is no credible evidence.
And that's not all. Slaughter's analysis gets a lot more wrong.
Slaughter's Imaginary Stockpiles
Here's Slaughter's opening gambit:
The opponents of the Iran deal are absolutely right about the existence of an alternative. We could bomb Iran. A sustained attack could destroy its nuclear facilities and presumably a large part of its stockpiled plutonium and highly enriched uranium.For starters, the argument of either a "deal or war" is a wholly false choice, despite Slaughter's conclusion that, "Like it or not, those are the only two choices we have."
In fact, with no deal, Iran would still be a member of the NPT, have a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, and continue to call for a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East, as it has done for decades. An attack on Iran, a sovereign nation that virtually all intelligence agencies on the planet have determined is not pursuing nuclear weapons, would be a undeniable war crime.
But in her second sentence, Slaughter makes a gigantic, and completely inexplicable, error. Iran has exactly zero "stockpiled plutonium and highly enriched uranium." This is not a controversial issue; anyone who knows absolutely anything about Iran's nuclear program knows this.
Before it can be stockpiled, plutonium must first be extracted and reprocessed from the spent uranium fuel of an operational nuclear reactor. Iran has never done this and doesn't even have a reprocessing plant. Iran has literally never extracted plutonium from a reactor core, let alone stockpiled it, as Slaughter claims.
Iran has also never produced, let alone stockpiled, any "highly enriched uranium" (HEU), which is defined by the IAEA as "uranium containing 20% or more of the isotope 235U." Only when uranium is enriched to about 90% does it become suitable for weaponization. Prior to the implementation of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), Iran had been enriching uranium to between 3.5% and 5% 235U for use as fuel in nuclear power plants and to about 19.75% 235U for use in medical research reactors. Since the plan went into effect, 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.
Even the Israeli intelligence community, perhaps the entity most hostile to Iran and likely responsible for the murders of five Iranian scientists, doesn't claim Iran has any stockpiled plutonium or HEU. In a top-secret 2012 memo, the Israeli Mossad assessed that, although Iran maintained a declared stockpile of LEU, "it does not appear to be ready to enrich it to higher levels." Furthermore, the cable noted that, without a plutonium reprocessing plant in Iran, the plutonium produced as a byproduct of running the heavy water research reactor in Arak (still under construction), "will not be able to be used for weapons."
No amount of criminal airstrikes can bomb away material that does not exist. With this little grasp of the issues at stake, the fact that Slaughter was a policy adviser to a Secretary of State for two years is a harrowing thought.
Slaughter's Bad Facts on the Iran Deal
Slaughter's comprehension of the deal itself - the deal she herself supports - is similarly tenuous. Regarding sanctions relief and specifically the unfreezing of Iranian assets abroad, she writes, "If, in fact, Iran complies with the terms of this deal, stops pursuing a weapon and completely dismantles its nuclear supply chain, then it is entitled to recover the funds."
Ok, no. This is wrong. As noted already, since Iran isn't "pursuing a weapon," it doesn't actually have anything to stop doing in that regard.
Beyond this, Iran will absolutely not be "dismantling its nuclear supply chain," which extends from the mining and milling of natural uranium ore to yellowcake conversion to centrifuge manufacturing and storage facilities to enrichment and fuel production. None of these elements of Iran's program is being dismantled under the deal; rather, unprecedented monitoring and surveillance access is being granted by Iran to the IAEA at every step of the way, a level of inspections and oversight unmatched anywhere in the world.
Slaughter's Obfuscation of U.S. Role in Failed Iran Diplomacy
Later on in her op-ed, Slaughter engages in quite a bit of fictional storytelling about her past experience in the State Department:
George W. Bush's administration spent eight years just trying to get Iran to come to the table to negotiate, without success. In 2010, during my first year working as director of Policy Planning under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we thought we had a deal with the Iranians to ship most of their highly enriched uranium to Russia, but it promptly collapsed when the Iranian negotiators took it back to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. And all the while, the Iranians moved from hundreds of centrifuges to about 20,000, of ever more sophisticated design. Their supply of highly enriched uranium, just one step away from the fuel needed for a bomb, went up and up.Again, Slaughter pretends that Iran has produced and maintained a supply of "highly enriched uranium." It hasn't, and never has. The potential deal was over Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium - the highest level Iran had ever enriched to was roughly 5%, suitable only for reactor fuel and far from weapons-grade. Since then, Iran still has never enriched uranium to more than 19.75%. This low-enriched uranium is hardly "one step away" from weaponization. No stockpile of highly enriched uranium in Iran has ever gone "up and up" for the simple reason that no such stockpile has ever existed. Here, Slaughter demonstrates that, either she doesn't understand the difference between enrichment levels or she'll eagerly lie to her readership in the interest of pushing her agenda.
Furthermore, Slaughter's timeline doesn't make any sense. By late 2010, Iran was already operating roughly 3,800 centrifuges at its enrichment facility in Natanz. That's more than the "hundreds" Slaughter mentions. While the number of centrifuges installed and spinning has certainly grown since then, less than 10,000 of the original IR-1 generation have ever been used. By the start of renewed negotiations in late 2013, Iran had installed about 1,000 of the "more sophisticated" second generation IR-2m centrifuges. None of them had ever been operational.
Also, the link Slaughter provides to support the absurd claim that the Bush administration was desperate for diplomacy with Iran is a piece of utter propaganda written by Stephen Hadley, a stalwart neocon who served as Bush's national security adviser.
Slaughter omits the fact that, in 2002 and 2003, diplomacy between Iran and the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) resulted in the suspension of Iran's nascent enrichment program and voluntary adoption of the stringent Additional Protocol, which allowed the IAEA extensive access to Iran's program for over two years. In that time, the IAEA consistently affirmed that Iran had never diverted any nuclear material to military purposes.
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."
Nevertheless, since late 2005, Iran has proven willing time and again to engage in negotiations over its nuclear program and the international sanctions regime. Its numerous proposals over the years have consistently reiterated its willingness to officially ban nuclear weapons development through legislation, cap its level and scope of enrichment, immediately convert its enriched uranium to fuel rods "to preclude even the technical possibility of further enrichment" towards weapons-grade material, "to provide unprecedented added guarantees" to the IAEA that its program would remain peaceful, and open its enrichment program to international partnership.
Iran's offers were routinely rejected by the United States government, which long maintained the irrational position that Iran capitulate to the American demand of zero enrichment on Iranian soil. "We cannot have a single centrifuge spinning in Iran," declared George W. Bush's undersecretary of state for arms control Robert Joseph in early 2006. As recently as this past March, Slaughter's former boss Hillary Clinton was still indicating her preference for "little-to-no enrichment" in Iran.
What made successful diplomacy with Iran possible was not, as so many still erroneously claim, the devastating sanctions imposed on the Iranian people or even the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani, it was the Obama administration's eventual abandonment of the "zero enrichment" demand, opening the door for acknowledging (albeit implicitly) Iran's right to enrich and for negotiations to move forward productively.
Perhaps the most curious comment Slaughter makes, however, is about the 2009 P5+1 nuclear swap proposal, in which she claims the United States and its partners offered "to ship most of [Iran's] highly enriched uranium to Russia."
Forgive the repetition, but remember, Iran never had any "highly enriched uranium," so Slaughter is beginning with a completely false premise. Placing the blame on the Iranian leadership for the failure to implement the deal is also disingenuous. Here's what really happened:
In June 2009, while it was enriching uranium up to 5% LEU only, Iran announced publicly that it required a new stock of nearly 20% LEU to keep the U.S.-built Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) operational and producing vital medical radioisotopes used to treat nearly a million Iranian cancer patients. In advance of the depletion of its reactor fuel, Iran tried to purchase more enriched uranium on the open market under full IAEA supervision.
Despite the safeguarded TRR presenting no proliferation threat, the United States and its European partners prevented any discussion of such a commercial sale. Instead, in October 2009, they offered a "swap" proposal whereby Iran would ship out most of its stockpiled low-enriched uranium to Russia to be enriched to the requisite 19.75%. This would then be shipped to France where fuel rods that could power the TRR would be produced. Iran would then, theoretically, receive those rods a year after shipping out its stockpile.
Iran agreed in principle to this arrangement, with the intention of hammering out mutually acceptable details at a later date. In late 2009, the deal was still in the works. Iran's then foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki reiterated that Iran was "willing to exchange most of its uranium for processed nuclear fuel from abroad" in a phased transfer of material with full guarantees that the West "will not backtrack an exchange deal."
In reviewing the P5+1 offer, the Iranian press reported, "technical studies showed that it would only take two to three months for any country to further enrich the nuclear stockpile and turn it into metal nuclear rods for the Tehran Research Reactor, while suppliers had announced that they would not return fuel to Iran any less than seven months."
As the parties discussed final terms, Mottaki suggested Iran initially hand over a quarter of its enriched uranium stockpile in a simultaneous exchange on Iranian soil for an equivalent amount of processed fuel for use in the medical research reactor. The remainder of the uranium would then be traded over "several years," under an agreed upon and internationally supervised framework.
This proposed timetable was immediately rejected by Western powers. An unidentified senior U.S. official was quoted by Voice of America as claiming that the Iranian counter-proposal was inconsistent with the "fair and balanced" draft agreement. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Slaughter's boss at the time, urged Iran to "accept the agreement as proposed because we are not altering it," which is the definition of an ultimatum, not a negotiation. Talks predictably fell apart.
When Iran later renegotiated the swap arrangement with Brazil and Turkey in May 2010, the Obama administration angrily rejected the terms and aggressively pushed more sanctions through the UN Security Council.
Slaughter's History of Support for Military Intervention
Despite her distressing lack of accurate information about Iran's nuclear program, Anne-Marie Slaughter's uneasy embrace of the Iran deal is, at minimum, still a welcome departure from her usual militarist posture.
supporting the invasion of Iraq on the appalling grounds that it was "illegal but legitimate," Slaughter was annoyed by the "gotcha politics" of being held accountable for her disastrously bad judgment, grousing in The Huffington Post that "debate is still far too much about who was right and who was wrong on the initial invasion."
In 2011, after leaving the State Department, Slaughter lent her full-throated support to the NATO bombing campaign in Libya, extolling herself as a champion of humanitarianism and democracy and then hailing the operation as an unmitigated success. It's been anything but.
A year later, she was calling for U.S. allies to arm rebel forces against the Assad government in Syria, writing in The New York Times, "Foreign military intervention in Syria offers the best hope for curtailing a long, bloody and destabilizing civil war."
In 2013, Slaughter openly lamented her support for the invasion of Iraq a decade earlier. "Looking back, it is hard to remember just how convinced many of us were that weapons of mass destruction would be found," she wrote in The New Republic. "Had I not believed that, I would never have countenanced any kind of intervention on purely humanitarian terms."
Slaughter said she had learned her lesson. "Never again will I trust a single government's interpretation of data when lives are at stake, perhaps especially my own government," Slaughter resolved. "And I will not support the international use of force in a war of choice rather than necessity without the approval of some multilateral body, one that includes countries that are directly affected by both the circumstances in the target country and by the planned intervention."
Nevertheless, after penning this mea culpa, Slaughter continued busily advocating unilateral American airstrikes on Syria and pushing for Obama to at least threaten military action against Russia in Ukraine. "A US strike against the Syrian government now would change the entire dynamic," she wrote for Project Syndicate. "It would either force the regime back to the negotiating table with a genuine intention of reaching a settlement, or at least make it clear that Assad will not have a free hand in re-establishing his rule." Her calls for the U.S. bombing of Syria, and also Iraq, have since intensified.
Just last week, Slaughter again pressed her case for imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, citing "both moral and strategic reasons." The direct American military intervention, Slaughter suggests, could be conducted "using sea-based missile systems" and "would force Mr. Assad to reconsider his long-term prospects and, most likely, force him to the negotiating table."
Claiming that military strikes would inevitably follow the (increasingly impossible) Congressional rejection of the Iran deal is its own form of bellicosity. Deal opponents falsely argue that a "better deal," not bombing and regime change, is their real goal, but that too is ridiculous.
It is indeed unfortunate that intelligent and influential commentators like Slaughter feel the need to resort to their own fear-mongering and false narratives to support a diplomatic initiative whose benefits need no such bludgeon. Real threat reduction over the Iranian nuclear issue would be far better served by an honest appraisal of the facts, examination of hard evidence and a refusal to engage in selective history.
Without these facts at her fingertips, Slaughter winds up promoting the very thing she supposedly seeks to prevent. She supports the deal, but for all the wrong reasons. If her former boss becomes the next commander-in-chief, Slaughter will almost certainly return to a high-powered position in government. Let's hope she gets her facts straight before then.
September 16, 2015 - See here for a follow-up on this post, precipitated by a Twitter conservation with Anne-Marie Slaughter herself.