Wednesday, July 13, 2016

More Misleading Reporting on the Iran Deal and 'Heavy Water'

It's not hard to learn what heavy water is, folks. Just look it up.

Nuclear technology is complicated. Explaining the minutiae of enrichment levels, dual-use material, and the legal frameworks of international law and supervision is hard to do. So is good journalism. Deadlines, reader accessibility and editorial demands put a lot of pressure on reporters who cover a range of topics to use shorthand and shirk details.

The combination of the two, therefore, can be deadly. Reporters covering the Iranian nuclear program and, namely, the terms of the multilateral nuclear deal - known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - signed by Iran and six world powers a year ago don't have it easy.

But that's still no excuse for getting basic facts wrong. Errors and misrepresentations, especially in media coverage, have a tremendously negative impact on the public's ability to know the truth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in reporting about the Iranian nuclear issue, where news and commentary outlets routinely publish egregiously incorrect information without fact-checking or correction.

These mistakes are endemic and bipartisan; supporters of diplomacy with Iran get things wrong almost as often as those avidly pushing for more sanctions and regime change. This is why, for instance, the false narrative that the deal "stopped" Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is so common among deal boosters, despite the fact that Iran was not weaponizing its nuclear energy program in the first place (and therefore there was no "weapon" or "weapons program" to "stop").

A 2013 University of Maryland 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."

Sadly, with the Iran deal now a year old, nothing much has changed.

In a July 12 Foreign Policy dispatch on a failed Republican scheme to pass new sanctions on Iran before the summer recess, senior reporter John Hudson mentioned an effort to ban the United States from purchasing heavy water from Iran.

In an apparent effort to explain an unfamiliar term to his readers, Hudson describes "heavy water" as "a byproduct from the production of nuclear energy." This is incorrect.

Heavy water is actually just a denser form of normal water, containing a hydrogen isotope called deuterium, which acts as both a moderator and coolant in the nuclear fuel process. It is not fissile material. It poses absolutely no danger and has no military capabilities. It can not make bombs, nor is it a necessary component of the bomb-making process. Heavy water can literally be consumed just as regular H20, although that would be a particularly pricey way to quench one's thirst.

Because heavy water is so benign, the material is not typically subject to IAEA monitoring or safeguards.

The reason heavy water is even a topic of conversation when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program is because, before the JCPOA was signed, Iran was in the process of constructing a heavy water research reactor at its Arak facility. Heavy water reactors are fueled using natural uranium rather than enriched uranium. These reactors are said to pose a potentially enhanced 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 other reactors), material that could then be separated from the irradiated fuel and further processed to weapons-grade levels.

The heavy water reactor at Arak was never operational. It has never been fed with uranium, never been turned on, never produced even one Watt of energy or a single atom of plutonium. Iran has no reprocessing facilities to turn its nuclear waste into weapons-grade material and has, for years now, committed never to build any.

As part of the nuclear deal, Iran also agreed to deliberately minimize the plutonium production capabilities of its reactors and avoid all production of weapons-grade plutonium in the future. In January 2016, Iran removed the reactor core from the Arak plant and filled it with concrete, thus rendering it unusable.

Furthermore, the deal specifies that, even though it will still use heavy water as a moderator, the "redesigned and rebuilt Arak reactor will not produce weapons grade plutonium" and that "[a]ll spent fuel from Arak will be shipped out of Iran for the lifetime of the reactor."

Contrary to what Hudson writes, heavy water is not a byproduct of nuclear energy production. Saying so makes it sound far more ominous, and linked directly to the hypothetical production of nuclear weapons.

This is the difference just a few misinformed words make.

Hudson isn't the only one to get this wrong. Vox does it all the time.

An Associated Press report from March 2016 used this misleading description: "Heavy water, formed with a hydrogen isotope, has research and medical applications, but can also be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium."

The same month, Joe Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert who heads the Ploughshares Fund, touted the success of the Iran deal in a piece for Politico. Unfortunately, he relied on a number of explicit falsehoods to make his point. Claiming that "we just stopped Iran from getting the bomb," Cirincione explained that, as part of the deal, "Iran ripped out centrifuges, shipped out uranium and filled the core of its new plutonium reactor with concrete." Philip W. Yun, executive director of Ploughshares, repeated this formulation in a June article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Even the fact-checking Goliath PolitiFact gets it wrong. In an April 2016 fact-check, heavy water is described alarmingly and erroneously as "material is a key component of making nuclear weapons and producing nuclear energy." That's pants-on-fire wrong.

Facts are important. It's about time reporters and experts starting getting them right.



July 16, 2016 - It appears that, following my tweet (below; forgive the "nyclear" typo!) about Hudson's incorrect description of heavy water, the Foreign Policy article was updated to remove the offending reference.

The sentence has now been edited, omitting the description of heavy water as "a byproduct from the production of nuclear energy." It appears this way now:

A note added to the bottom of the article reads only, 'This post has been updated."


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Boo! If By Sea: More Scary Tales of US-Bound Iranian Ships

Breathless reports are again circulating that Iran will deploy warships to the Atlantic Ocean. Based on a mid-June announcement by Iranian Navy chief Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, news is spreading that Iran plans to establish a naval base somewhere along the Atlantic coast. Sayyari said, “We have yet to determine which country will assist us regarding the presence of our naval fleet. When the name of the chosen country is confirmed and announced, our strategic naval forces will deploy a training and military flotilla to the Atlantic Ocean.”

Taking this declaration at face value, Al-Monitor contributor Abbas Qaidaari noted that while "Iran's limited fleet is incapable of facing possible threats of much stronger naval fleets... the presence of a middle power such as Iran in the Atlantic Ocean could have a major psychological impact on its rivals, especially the United States." Qaidaari continues, "It thus appears that Iran, just as is the case with its missile program, is trying to use its navy to achieve the goals of its broader gunboat diplomacy," speculating that "countries such as Venezuela and Cuba would be likely hosts."

But this kind of talk from Iranian military officials is nothing new (Qaidaari even points this out in his own report). In fact, news of an imminent Persian Armada docked off American shores has been floating around for years, despite never actually holding water. Here's a quick look back at previous iterations of the same story, beginning with the latest:

Al Monitor, June 30, 2016:

Arutz Sheva, June 19, 2016:

Breitbart, April 4, 2016:

The Algemeiner, March 22, 2016:

Trend, March 18, 2016:

Daily Mail, October 29, 2015:

Ha'aretz, February 9, 2014:

Ynet, February 8, 2014:

USA Today, February 1, 2014:

The Diplomat, January 22, 2014:

ABC News and Fox News, September 28, 2011:

The Iranian bogeyman establishing a foot (or flipper) hold in the Western hemisphere is a tried-and-true trope of right-wing alarmism, seen now for years in Israeli propaganda, the press and overwrought political theatrics. We hear endlessly from right-wing rags of Iranian infiltration and expanding influence in Latin America; a Muslim menace wading waist-deep across the Rio Grande to surprise us in our sleep and steal our precious bodily fluids. Just look at these spooky headlines:

In September 2012, Congressman Jeff Duncan, a Republican from South Carolina, argued in favor of passing his own "Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012," warning of an "emerging Iranian-backed terror network here in the Western Hemisphere" and insisting that the "U.S. must have the capabilities to defend itself from a potential Iranian attack on the homeland."

In his litany of nefarious Iranian activity, Duncan lamented, "Since 2005, Iran has increased its embassies from 6 to 11 and built 17 cultural centers in Latin America. Iran's diplomacy has led to soaring trade with Latin American countries. Brazil increased its exports to Iran seven-fold over the past decade to an annual level of $2.12 billion. Iranian trade with Argentina and Ecuador has grown, and economic contracts between Iran and Venezuela have exploded to more than $20 billion in trade and cooperation agreements."

Oh, the horror.

Still, the hysteria worked. Not only did both houses of Congress pass the bill, President Obama actually signed it into law in December of that year. A mere six months later, a State Department assessment concluded that "Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is waning."

But Duncan hasn't let up his crusade to play Paul Revere warning of the coming Iranian invasion. Hyping the threat of bloodthirsty Iranians lurking beneath our southern border is an obsession of his. On July 9, 2013, he held a House Subcommittee hearing, entitled, "Threat to the Homeland: Iran's Extending Influence in the Western Hemisphere," featuring a who's-who of neocon think tankers like Douglas Farah, Matthew Levitt of AIPAC-offshoot WINEP and Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council.

In March 2015, he held another hearing about the same thing.

"The real purpose of the hype is to bring the Iranian threat home," writes journalist Belén Fernández, "justifying the increased militarization of our backyard and Iran's in one stroke. It's the same playbook Reagan drew on when he warned that the Sandinistas were 'just two days' driving time from Harlingen, Texas.' Such rhetoric means more money for the defense and border fortification industries, and preemptively validates any eventual Israeli or U.S. aggression against Iran."

Similar propaganda both preceded and followed the Reagan administration's invasion of Grenada in 1983. In a televised speech to the American people, President Reagan declared on March 24, 1983, "On the small island of Grenada, at the southern end of the Caribbean chain, the Cubans, with Soviet financing and backing, are in the process of building an airfield with a 10,000-foot runway. Grenada doesn't even have an air force. Who is it intended for? ... The Soviet-Cuban militarization of Grenada, in short, can only be seen as power projection into the region."

After the invasion, Reagan was triumphant. "We got there just in time," he crowed, claiming that the military mission had prevented a planned "Cuban occupation of the island." Grenada, he said, "was a Soviet-Cuban colony being readied as a major military bastion to export terrorism and undermine democracy."

A week later, news reports told a very different story. "In the aftermath of last week's invasion of Grenada," reported The New York Times on November 6, 1983, "it has become clear that Reagan Administration officials and military authorities disseminated much inaccurate information and many unproven assertions. They did so while withholding significant facts and impeding efforts by the journalists to verify official statements." It was soon discovered that breathless claims of the number of Cuban military personnel on the island had been massively inflated, while the purported discovery of warehouses with "weapons and ammunition stacked almost to the ceiling, enough to supply thousands of terrorists" were grossly exaggerated.

American Bathtub

Now, decades later and with no Cold War to keep military fires burning, the Red Scare has been replaced with a Persian Menace. As always, what's also missing from all of these terrifying tales of America-based Iranian argonauts and agents is the fact that Iran - like most nations on the planet - doesn't actually have a single permanent overseas base. When it comes to foreign military outposts, however, no one even comes close to the United States.

"Despite recently closing hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan," American University professor David Vines wrote last year, "the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad—from giant 'Little Americas' to small radar facilities. Britain, France and Russia, by contrast, have about 30 foreign bases combined." This means that "the United States has approximately 95% of the world’s foreign bases."

Based primarily on the Pentagon’s annual Base Structure Report, Vines mapped the global footprint of the US military. (Graphic by 5W Infographics / Politico)

Vines, author of Base Nation, explains that "[a]lthough few Americans realize it, the United States likely has more bases in foreign lands than any other people, nation, or empire in history." Consequently, our own imperialism goes unquestioned and ignored as "we consider the situation normal and accept that US military installations exist in staggering numbers in other countries, on other peoples' land. On the other hand, the idea that there would be foreign bases on US soil is unthinkable."

Even the US Navy's own recruitment commercials boast of omnipresence. Not only self-labelled "a global force for good" that's "100% on watch" across the seven seas, the Navy is also positioned as operating without limitation or restraint in the American bathtub known as Planet Earth.

Just check out this creepy ad:

And that's what this hysteria about Iran is all about, really. The threat doesn't actually exist, but the mere implication by Iran that it would dare send soldiers or sailors so far from home and so close to the shores of the US empire is so unimaginable that bills must be passed, sanctions imposed, walls built, troops deployed, and brows furrowed. In essence, all reactions to Iranian pronouncements echo a similar tune: just who do they think they are and why don't they know their place?

So, no, the Iranians aren't coming. But, fear not, more frenzied headlines and incredulous pearl-clutching surely will be.