Burying the Most Important News on Iran’s Nuclear Program?

The release of a new International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran was greeted as an ominous development by some major outlets. But are they playing down what could be the most important news in the report?

The IAEA’s latest made it to the New York Times (8/30/12) under the headline, “Inspectors Confirm New Work by Iran at Secure Nuclear Site.” Reporters David Sanger and William Broad write:

Iran has installed three-quarters of the nuclear centrifuges it needs to complete a site deep underground for the production of nuclear fuel, international inspectors reported Thursday, a finding that led the White House to warn that “the window that is open now to resolve this diplomatically will not remain open indefinitely.”

The findings indeed sound dramatic: Twice as many centrifuges as before, and what some think is a suspicious clean up job at the Parchin site, where some say Iran is conducting weapons research (an argument that is highly debatable).

The next day the Times was ramping up the talk of war, devoting a front-page piece to the debate inside Israel about how and when they might attack, presumably based on the same IAEA report. “Report on Iran Nuclear Work Puts Israel in a Box,” reads the headline, and it stresses the Israeli government’s interpretation in the lead:

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday offered findings validating his longstanding position that while harsh economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation may have hurt Iran, they have failed to slow Tehran’s nuclear program. If anything, the program is speeding up.

The piece goes on to claim that

the agency’s report has also put Israel in a corner, documenting that Iran is close to crossing what Israel has long said is its red line: the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack.

The piece leans on anonymous sources in Israel and the United States, and frames the whole matter as a question of when Israel will decide to act:

The report comes at a critical moment in Israel’s long campaign to build Western support for stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Of course, there is the obvious possibility that Iran is developing no such thing, but media too often assume the Iran is building a weapon–despite the fact that there is zero evidence to substantiate that claim.

But what should be the most important news in the IAEA report is being buried.  Deep in the August 30 Times piece, readers learn this:

Some of the 20 percent fuel is in a form that is extremely difficult to use in a bomb, and most of the stockpile is composed of a fuel enriched at a lower level that would take considerably longer to process for weapons use.

Those findings are quite a bit at odds with the ominous talk of Iran crossing some sort of red line, and the need to strike sooner rather than later.

In the Washington Post, Joby Warrick had a piece that stressed the bad news first: “Iran dramatically increased its production of a more enriched form of uranium in recent months,” his August 30 article begins. But then he mentioned:

The report said Iran has 255 pounds of uranium enriched at 20 percent, up from 159 pounds in May.

But the IAEA also found that Iran had converted much of the new material to metal form for use in a nuclear research reactor. Once the conversion has taken place, the uranium can’t be further enriched to weapons-grade material, Obama administration officials said.

The dispute over Iran’s nuclear program has led to harsh sanctions that affect everyday life in the country. There is a very real chance that the United States and/or Israel will attack Iran. If the new report presents evidence that a significant part of Iran’s uranium stockpile cannot be used for weapons-making, it’s hard to fathom why news accounts wouldn’t lead their stories with this fact. Instead, we get stories that give Israeli officials one more chance to warn that war is inevitable to stop a nuclear weapons program–one that very well might not exist.

For decidedly less alarmist take on the latest IAEA report, read this Iran Affairs piece.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.