Tuesday, August 8, 2017

No, LA Times, That's Not What Nuclear 'Breakout Time' Means

Writing in The Los Angeles Times on Sunday about Donald Trump's threat to effectively pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, veteran reporter Doyle McManus noted, "No matter what the president thinks, the facts will get in the way." McManus was referring to the sheer petulance of Trump's pathetically telegraphed plan "to declare Iran in violation of the 2015 agreement to limit its nuclear program" when the next Congressionally-mandated certification date rolls around this coming October.

As such, McManus correctly points out that Donald Trump's approach to the Iran deal demands "Alice-in-Wonderland"-style reality distortion: in spite of its overblown rhetoric, the White House is literally unable to "offer any substantive reason to declare Iran out of compliance with the deal — because there isn’t one."

The periodic recertification is not required by the deal - known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - itself; rather, it is an empty ritual designed by anti-Iran lawmakers frustrated by the Obama administration's successful multilateral diplomacy. The actual nuclear agreement - agreed to by Iran, Great Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, the United States, and the European Union, and concretized by the UN Security Council - is not beholden to specific U.S. legislation or presidential reauthorization every three months. In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the sole authority empowered to verify Iran's continued compliance with its obligations, namely maintaining a limited stockpile of low-enriched uranium suitable only for research and fueling power plants and ensuring that no fissile material is diverted for military purposes. Since the signing of the JCPOA, according to the IAEA, Iran has consistency fulfilled its obligations.

While McManus is undoubtedly correct that facts don't matter to the reality TV host who sometimes sits behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office - because he's both unaware of what they are and wouldn't care about them if he did - the LA Times reporter's own grasp of reality regarding Iran's nuclear program unfortunately has limits of its own.

The second paragraph of McManus's column notes, "before the agreement, Tehran was believed to be less than a year from making nuclear weapons that would have threatened Israel and Saudi Arabia."

There are a lot of assumptions in that sentence, all of them false.

To start, McManus gives the deliberate impression that, prior to the signing of the JCPOA in July 2015, Iran was actively attempting to build nuclear bombs with which to threaten its regional adversaries, both of whom are close U.S. partners. This is untrue.

Iran does have a nuclear energy program, monitored and safeguarded by the IAEA. The IAEA has affirmed time and again that Iran has never taken steps to divert nuclear material to military purposes. Furthermore, since the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community and its allies, including Israel, has officially maintained that whatever research relevant to nuclear weaponization Iran may have conducted in the past stopped by 2003 and has never started. The NIE has been consistently reaffirmed ever since (in 2009, 2010, and again in 2011).

Even allegations that Iran had an active nuclear weapons program before 2003 are dubious, and rely on Israeli-linked evidence that is most likely completely fabricated. The authenticity of these accusations has been repeatedly questioned by the IAEA, as well as by the United States itself. U.S. intelligence officials, noted former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei in his 2011 memoir, Age of Deception, "did not share the supposed [new Israeli] evidence that had led them to confirm the existence of a past Iranian nuclear [weapons] program, other than to refer to the same unverified set of allegations about weaponization studies that had already been discussed with the Agency." And when Israel provided the IAEA with more allegedly incriminating documentation in 2009, no one was fooled. As ElBaradei explains, "The Agency's technical experts, however, raised numerous questions about the documents' authenticity," adding in a footnote, "The accuracy of these accusations has never been verified; however, it is significant that the conclusion of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate were not changed, indicating that they, at least, did not buy the "evidence" put forward by Israel." 

Quite simply, the much-heralded "Iranian nuclear weapons program" simply doesn't exist, and never has.

Thus, the scenario presented by McManus - that, before the deal, Iran was "less than a year from making nuclear weapons" - is false. You can't be year away from finishing something you're not starting in the first place.

The "year away" calculation for what's known as "breakout time," however, is a commonplace canard in reporting on Iran's nuclear program. It relies on the presumption that the Iranian leadership has made a decision to weaponize its nuclear program (there's zero evidence for this) and will at one point kick IAEA inspectors out of the country and embark on full-scale weaponization of enriched uranium to then mount on a ballistic missile headed for Tel Aviv, Riyadh, or Langley, Virginia. The "breakout" scenario seeks to put in time-bound terms the potential threat that a nuclear-armed Iran could theoretically pose. Yet it's all hypothetical.

McManus, like so many others, has misunderstood the U.S. government's own assessment of Iran's capabilities. For years now, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has confirmed that Iran is not building nuclear weapons and that its leadership hasn't given the order to start doing so. Since 2010, the phrase "We do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons" has been repeated in each and every annual "Worldwide Threat Assessment" report delivered by the DNI to Congress. Following the implementation of the JCPOA, the assessment has noted, "Iran's implementation of the JCPOA, however, has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about a year."

All too often, reporters like McManus conflate "the amount of time Iran would need to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon" with the amount of time it would take to field a deliverable nuclear bomb. These are not the same thing.

Former National Security Council advisor Gary Sick explained this exact problem with "breakout" alarmism as nuclear negotiations hit their final stretch in 2015:
Put simply, for purposes of this agreement, "breakout" exists when Iran masses enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) needed for one nuclear device. 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.
"In short," as former CIA analyst Paul Pillar has noted, "breakout is a scary fantasy, but no more than that. It is a badly flawed standard for formulating a negotiating position or for evaluating a deal with Iran."

Also missing from McManus' article is any context for Iran's own civilian nuclear program. It is not, as the press would so often have us believe, a nefarious outlier on the world stage. Far from it, in fact.

For over a decade now, 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 ElBaradei, though not all of those nations have domestic enrichment capabilities like Iran.

This is simply a matter of science. Nuclear technology and knowhow can inherently be used both for peaceful and military purposes. "[I]f a nation has a developed civilian nuclear infrastructure—which the NPT actually encourages—this implies it has a fairly solid nuclear-weapons capability," nuclear physicist Yousaf Butt has pointed out. "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."

This is not news. It's the fundamental reality of dual-use technology like nuclear energy. "Virtually any industrialized nation today has the technical capability to develop nuclear weapons within several years if the decision to do so were made," noted a 1996 report by a former weapons system analyst. "Nations already possessing substantial nuclear technology and arms industries could do so in no more than a year or two."

In 2013, the University of Maryland conducted a study of media coverage on Iran's nuclear program. It found that mainstream reporting is "plagued with error, often decontextualized, and hews strongly to official American and Israeli government narratives." Moreover, the study revealed that, on the rare occasion that the media addresses "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."

When it comes to Iran and its nuclear program, basic facts are misunderstood, then repeated ad nauseam. It is no wonder why the phony threat of a non-existent nuclear weapons-armed Iran has proliferated so thoroughly throughout the media and onto the public.


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