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.


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