Feb 26 2010

Cyrus Safdari on Iran, Robert Alvarez on nuclear power


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This week on CounterSpin: Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen says it’s time to “fight crazy with crazy” on Iran’s nuclear policy. If that passes for discussion of diplomacy in the corporate press, maybe we should look beyond them for interpretation of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report. We’ll be talking with analyst and IranAffairs.com blogger Cyrus Safdari.

Also this week: Nuclear power in America is back. Again. The White House announcement of multi-billion dollar loan guarantees for a new plant in Georgia got plenty of media praise, with editorialists and journalists eagerly citing familiar industry-friendly talking points. Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies will give us some hard facts about nuclear power that aren’t being taken up in most media accounts.

That’s coming up but first, as usual, we’ll take a look back at recent press.

—For some in the media and political worlds, the public reaction to the economic stimulus plan is confusing. Economists and experts generally agree that, despite its flaws, the government infusion of cash has helped save or create hundreds of thousands of jobs. But the public is generally opposed to the stimulus plan, and they think it hasn’t worked. So why the disconnect? Well for one thing, right-wing media have vilified the stimulus plan since its inception.

But the mainstream media often aren’t much better at explaining things. Take a February 18 report in the New York Times. In the third paragraph, readers are told, “There is little dispute among economists that the measure has kept the jobless rate from being even higher than it is.” Well, that’s clear enough. But then the Times muddied things up, mostly by adhering to the notion that reporting must be “balanced,” and in this case that means giving space to Republican talking points. After reciting Republican criticisms—essentially, that the stimulus can’t have succeeded because there is still job loss and high unemployment—what does the Times do? They suggest that such critics have a point: “Economists say that Mr. Obama and the Republicans are both, in a sense, correct.” So a clear story has now turned into a confusing one, since we were told at the beginning that the economy would be much worse without the stimulus. The Times does quote an economist, but he doesn’t say that both sides are correct at all; he says the country would have lost 2 million more jobs without the stimulus money. So it’s no wonder people think the stimulus package didn’t work—the media are constantly quoting politicians who say so, without correcting them.

—The U.S./NATO offensive in the Afghan town of Marja continues—the death toll is at this point unknown, and reports about the progress made against the Taliban fighters there are somewhat sketchy. But a piece in the Washington Post on February 22 presented an unusually frank perspective on the point of this offensive. The Post reported that

In purely military terms, sending 11,000 U.S. and Afghan troops to defeat a few hundred Taliban fighters in Marja won’t change much in Afghanistan. The greater significance of the battle is in how it is perceived in the rest of Afghanistan and in America.

The paper goes on to note that the goal of the invasion of the town is “to convince Americans that a new era has arrived in the eight-year-long war,” and quotes a civilian adviser to the military saying, “You want to be able to define your narrative, and we’ve had trouble doing that in the past.” The article closes by noting,

Military officials in Afghanistan hope a large and loud victory in Marja will convince the American public that they deserve more time to demonstrate that extra troops and new tactics can yield better results on the battlefield.

This latest turn in the war, then, seems less about fighting the war in Afghanistan and more about convincing people back home that the war is worth fighting in the first place. It’s unusual to see such admissions in the corporate media. Maybe next they can ask people whether they believe that that sort of reasoning is acceptable.

—There’s plenty of chatter in the corporate media about the political crisis of the Obama administration, which has led many pundits to ask the question they seem to always ask the Democratic party: Are you ready to go to the center?

The latest, clearest example was the February 21 edition of the Chris Matthews Show on NBC. The host opened the show by asking a simple question: Will the White House “go down the center and cut some deals with the Republicans, or stay with the hard liberal agenda?”

That might leave one wondering exactly what “hard liberal agenda” he’s talking about. But to corporate media pundits, that kind of question makes perfect sense—so panelist David Ignatius of the Washington Post could respond with something about Obama trying to move to the “radical center,” whatever that means. When Ignatius noted that the White House was likely to talk about dramatic increases in health insurance premiums—well, Chris Matthews thought that was too partisan: “It sounds like he hasn’t decided to go to the center.” Matthews finally explained what he meant when he said of Obama,

How did he think he could move to the left in terms of big healthcare, a big government role on a lot of fronts, financial regulation, without enraging the center-right? How did he think he could do that?

Again, the premise here is just bizarre; Obama rejected progressive ideas like single-payer healthcare from the start. He jettisoned the public option. There are few progressives who would call the White House’s stance on financial regulation and Wall Street particularly tough. But in the corporate media, the White House is losing because they’ve gone too far to the left. It’s a media refrain that apparently never gets old.

—The New York Times, listeners know, calls itself All the News That’s Fit to Print. Right now, the category of unfit things includes a remarkable story involving Carlos Slim, the Mexican media mogul (and third richest person on the planet) who is also one of the Times‘ biggest stockholders. Slim, as outlets including Reuters, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have reported, is trying to take over a loan that JP Morgan Chase made to a subsidiary of Grupo Televisa—that’s Slim’s major business rival, and the deal would have required Televisa to reveal virtually all its financial secrets. A U.S. federal judge in New York City held that JP Morgan was acting in “bad faith” and put a hold on the loan’s transfer. Jim Ledbetter, of the website Big Money, pointed out that this is a scandalous story, involving one of the world’s largest banks, a powerful federal judge, and two Mexican telecom giants—and he marveled that he was unable to find a single mention of any aspect of the case in the New York Times—either in the paper or on the website, not even a blog post or a wire story. As we record this show, there’s been nothing to undermine Ledbetter’s conclusion that, for now anyway, Carlos Slim’s investment has bought the silence of one of the world’s most important papers.

—And finally, Washington Post columnist George Will has had a perfectly consistent position on the filibuster: It’s good when Republicans use it, and it’s bad when Democrats use it.

Will defended the good kind of filibuster in a 1993 column headlined “The Framer’s Intent.” He praised the framers of the Constitution for protecting “the right of a minority to use extended debate to obstruct Senate action.” Note that in 1993, the Senate had a Republican minority.

Ten years later, with a Democratic minority in the Senate, Will wrote a column headlined “Coup Against the Constitution” that attacked the filibuster:

If Senate rules, exploited by an anti-constitutional minority, are allowed to trump the Constitution’s text and two centuries of practice, the Senate’s power to consent to judicial nominations will have become a Senate right to require a supermajority vote for confirmation.

Now, seven years after that, we once again have a Republican minority using the filibuster against a Democratic majority, and now we have a column from Will headlined “For Liberals, the Filibuster Is Now the Enemy.” Actually, Will says in this February 25 column that liberals’ real enemy is James Madison, the “father of the Constitution.”

Will has the chutzpah to accuse politicians of having “situational ethics” when it comes to the filibuster. When George Will writes about the filibuster, it’s hard to discern any kind of ethics at all.


CounterSpin: “Case Against Iran Gets Stronger,” declared the Miami Herald , while New York’s Daily News went bolder with “WARHEAD BOMBSHELL.” Thus was described the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran. According to virtually all corporate media accounts, the inspectors, under IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, found much to shore up the fears that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, deployable, as the Daily News told readers “Anywhere in the region that the mad mullahs feel the desire to set off a mushroom cloud.” Well belief in Iran’s nuclear threat has taken on such substance in U.S. media that IAEA reports seem more like jumping off points for a familiar list of accusations than anything else.

Here to talk about the latest news from a different perspective is analyst Cyrus Safdari from IranAffairs.com.

Welcome back to CounterSpin!, Cyrus Safdari.

Cyrus Safdari: Thank you for having me.

CS: Well let’s start with what media accounts are presenting as the finding. The New York Times , on February 23, and subsequently, says that the upshot is that United Nations nuclear inspectors said they had extensive evidence of “past or current undisclosed activities” by Iran’s military to develop a nuclear warhead. Well there’s a lot going on in that and it certainly sounds conclusive and damning. Is that the upshot of the most recent IAEA report?

Safdari: It’s quite the opposite, actually. That’s basically a spin being placed on the IAEA report which does not say anything of the sort. The IAEA report itself is merely repeating the same allegations that the U.S. has been making to the IAEA about Iran for a few years now, which the IAEA has itself said it has no independent evidence to verify.

CS: Well, it sounds as though, you know, there’s a difference between allegations, and they’re calling this evidence. Now how does that language confusion come about from looking at the same—presumably you and the New York Times reporter are looking at the same piece of paper?

Safdari: Well, if you read the previous IAEA reports on Iran, they clearly had a section entitled Alleged Studies and this is how the former IAEA head, El-Baradei, used to refer to them as well. These were allegations provided really by the United States that Iran had investigated in the past activities into weaponization of its nuclear programs. And these were based mainly on the so-called “laptop of death,” a laptop which the U.S. says was smuggled out of Iran, which contains all of this. In previous studies, these accusations were labeled allegations or alleged studies. The new report refers to it as possible weapons dimensions or possible weapons studies. But in either case, as with the previous reports, there is still no independent evidence obtained by the IAEA to verify any of it. Iran has yet to be presented with the documentation which it would need in order to refute the allegations, so they’re basically telling Iran that we have these documents, they show that you’ve done this stuff, now prove that you haven’t, oh and we can’t show you the documents.

CS: Well, The Washington Post, in their report, listed, as first among the “bad news” from this latest report that “Iran has already produced its first batch of more highly enriched uranium, and it did so without waiting for IAEA inspectors to arrive”. Now, The Washington Post doesn’t explain what that violates. It’s clearly meant to be self-evident, and that is their first item, so what’s the story on that?

Safdari: The Iranians informed the IAEA that they would be enriching uranium to 20 percent enrichment—now keep in mind that weapons enrichment requires 90 percent enrichment—and that they were going to be doing a miniscule amount in order to create fuel for a medical research reactor because Iran has been prevented from buying the fuel on the market which is necessary for producing medical isotopes for its cancer victims. Unfortunately, the United States of course characterized this as a step towards weaponization. Now the IAEA says that it would have been nice if Iran would have allowed the IAEA more time in order to carry out the inspections before this enrichment happened. However, the entire program, Iran’s entire enrichment program, is already under IAEA safeguards. So there was no chance that this could have been part of a secret weaponizations program, which would not have been noticed. Now the IAEA in its latest report says now that Iran is going to be enriching to 20 percent, there needs to be some modification of the inspections, and apparently they’re in the process of negotiating these modifications with Iran. However, there was nothing in here about a weapons program, what the newspapers were alleging.

CS: Well, and let’s take it from there because the explicit concern everywhere throughout the conversation is that Iran will make a bomb, is on its way to making a bomb, taking the first step to making a bomb, and then attack someone, maybe Israel. But you have written that you don’t actually think, in the bigger picture, that the fight is really about nuclear weapons proliferation at all—that there really is another conflict going on here, another tension. What do you think is really going on?

Safdari: If you look at the facts objectively, Iran’s nuclear program started under the Shah, this is a nuclear program that started with the blessing and the assistance of the United States of America. France provided Iran’s enrichment program to it. The program was already under IAEA safeguards. Iran isn’t doing anything that several other countries aren’t already doing, Argentina and Brazil, for example. Nuclear weapons are basically an excuse in order to manufacture a crisis. The Iranians have already offered to place additional restrictions on their nuclear program, which would have addressed any concern, any real concern about nuclear weapons proliferation. However, these offers along with Iran’s compromise offers and the 2003 faxed peace offer were all deliberately deflected and ignored.

So that raises the question, is nuclear weapons really the issue? Because if it was, we could have resolved this issue in the past, but we, the United States deliberately has kept this issue alive. Now we can speculate on a number of other actual motivations behind this conflict. One is certain nations that already own enrichment capability are trying to create a world in which they get to keep enrichment capability—the process of making fuel for nuclear reactors—while at the same time preventing other nations from acquiring this capability of making the fuel which is going to basically power the world in the near future when the oil runs out. This is a conflict that predates Iran’s nuclear program.There is a longstanding conflict between developing and developed states over the control of the uranium enrichment cycle. This predates, again, this predates Iran’s nuclear program. This is a conflict that has been going on in diplomatic circles at the United Nations since around 1980, when the United States first started its effort of limiting enrichment capability under the guise of preventing so-called nuclear weapons proliferation, when in reality what results is a monopolization of enrichment capability to a certain few nations. And the developing countries which have thus far defended Iran’s program are simply not having any of that. That’s one other agenda we can speculate is underneath this crisis, this manufactured crisis, over Iran’s nuclear program.

CS: Well it certainly sounds like a worthy avenue for journalistic exploration. We’ve been speaking with Cyrus Safdari. You can find his work on the Web at IranAffairs.com.

Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

Safdari: Thank you.


CounterSpin: Last week the White House announced a return of nuclear power, with multibillion dollar loan guarantees for a new plant to be built in Georgia. The media response was mostly positive, stressing some familiar themes: job creation, zero greenhouse gas emissions, American’s energy future, and so on. As we noted last week on this show, some of the network news programs had time for a single soundbite from an opponent of nuclear power here or there—leaving some of the bigger questions about nuclear power unasked and unanswered.

Joining us now to go through some of that information is Robert Alvarez. He is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. He was a senior policy adviser to the secretary of energy during the Clinton administration.

Robert Alvarez, welcome to CounterSpin!

Robert Alvarez: Thank you for having me on.

CS: Now there was a certain kind of uniformity to the coverage we saw after the White House announcement, at least in the sense that the arguments in support of nuclear power are so familiar. You chose a piece from the website of the Atlantic as an example, but the same talking points are heard almost everywhere. The first one, and perhaps the most pressing in today’s economy, was the point about job creation. We hear 3,500 construction jobs, a few hundred permanent jobs down the road, somewhere in that neighborhood. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? What’s the problem?

RA: Well, I mean, these are jobs which will take ten to fifteen years, they’ll be stretched out over a ten to fifteen year period. They’ll be mostly construction jobs. And by comparison, the number of jobs that building a couple of nuclear power plants would generate over, let’s say, a ten year period would be comparable to the number of jobs that were created in the state of Ohio last year for any energy conservation. So you have to think about this not only in terms of jobs or kind of jobs, but how quickly can these jobs come about and how they can help the economy in a time that we really need more employment.

CS: And those conservation jobs can, you know, when we talk about shovel-ready, that sounds pretty shovel-ready.

RA: It’s true they are shovel-ready. There, as you know, there’ve been some problems with the weatherization jobs. Largely because states have fired people who would originally have been processing the money for the economic stimulus for the organization. But I’m hoping that will get fixed fairly quickly.

CS: Well, another point we’ve been hearing is that this is the future of American energy. ABC News had a report touting the total amount of electricity that would be generated from this one plant. And again, out of context the numbers sounded pretty good. They said something like a half a million homes.

RA: Yes, I mean a lot of this stuff unfortunately is what I call press release journalism, and there isn’t much interest or attention to dig into some of these facts. Because President Obama is now currently seeking about $54.5 billion in authority for loan guarantees to build reactors. And nuclear power plants are estimated to cost somewhere between $8-10 billion right now, and that price tag is probably going to rise. So if you go with that and assume that all these reactors will be built and things will go swimmingly well—there won’t be any defaults on the loans and things like that—these loan guarantees for nuclear power will make less than one percent of the total electrical generating capacity in this country, which isn’t much of a contribution.

CS: Now in addition to being America’s energy future, we also hear that nuclear power is our past and our present. It’s a well-known, very familiar technology; it’s not like wind or solar where we have these technological questions about whether they’re feasible. But what do we know about nuclear power that’s keeping us from having more of it? It seems like Wall Street rendered its verdict on nuclear power already.

RA: Well as I’ve written, nuclear power is most certainly well known to Wall Street, which has refused to fund any nuclear reactor construction for more than 30 years because of the financial risk. Despite, you know, the debacles that Wall Street is responsible for, they’ve been burned in the past by nuclear power and won’t have much to do with it in terms of taking a risk with other people’s money. Wall Street definitely prefers the taxpayer to bear this burden. So, and if you look at the boom period of nuclear power, which was in the 1960s and 1970s, what happened was that the cost for constructing these reactors in some cases increased by as much as 380 percent, the delays were quite significant, and investors eventually had to write off about $17 billion for nuclear plants that were never constructed. So that’s kind of one of the things that we have to deal with and so nuclear power is not necessarily the future of America’s energy. It is certainly a past part of America’s energy.

CS: Now one point you raised in one of your recent columns was about how these programs and other nuclear initiatives—we’re talking about nuclear power and weapons—end up really skewing the priorities of the Energy Department. You know, people like the idea of green jobs, but there’s very little room for that kind of policy decision if so much of the Energy Department is dedicated to nuclear policy. Explain that.

RA: Well, if you look at the budget request that was submitted by President Obama for the Department of Energy, 65 percent of that budget is going for nuclear weapons, to maintain thousands of nuclear weapons and to clean up and maintain hundreds of nuclear weapons facilities. It’s about $18.1 billion. Only 15 percent of the Energy Department’s budget is actually dedicated for actual energy function, such as energy research and development. The Energy Department also presides over public power entities in the Western states, maintains strategic petroleum reserves, has the Energy Information Administration. And if you look carefully at the energy R&D portfolio of the Energy Department, what you’ll find is that nuclear energy gets about 44 percent of the money, conservation gets the second largest amount, and a lot of that money that’s going for nuclear R&D goes essentially to Department of Energy nuclear sites, so what’s going on is that we’re basically, I think, creating huge obstacles to having a meaningful energy policy in order to maintain a large, antiqued nuclear infrastructure owned by the government.

And it’s surprising to see, given President Obama’s speeches about eliminating nuclear weapons, that he’s going to be spending more on nuclear weapons than his immediate predecessors, and at the same time, he’s curtailing spending that would eliminate these weapons. We have several thousand, as many as 4,200 weapons that have been discarded by the military. They are no longer needed. And these are not things that we have to wait for arms control agreements to bring about. Right now it’s going to take about 15 years to take them apart and get rid of the materials, and the Obama Administration is actually calling for a 50 percent cut in warhead dismantlement. What I kind of sense in this budget is that the Obama energy budget looks a lot like that of George Bush and many predecessors of George Bush. It’s a structural problem that the public is mostly unaware of, that the Congress refuses to deal with because of the entrenched interests that would involve. And if you were to move let’s say, the weapons program into the Pentagon there would be fierce opposition in places like New Mexico because of the loss of status of the weapons labs and the particularly powerful position that the New Mexico delegation holds in the Congress.

So these are some of the structural problems we have. You know, if you look at our energy problems, DOE, Energy Department was created in 1977, and really it has virtually no meaningful impact on our energy problem. The United States makes up about 5.5 percent of the world’s population, yet we consume more oil than any other nation—3/4 of which comes from foreign sources. And our energy dependence has worsened, you know, greenhouse gas emissions have grown worse; they’ve increased by 17 percent since 1990. And the main reason for the department’s ineffectiveness is that it’s just not structured to usher in the country’s energy future. As I said, for most of its existence, 2/3 of its budget has gone to maintaining the nuclear arsenal and the nuclear weapons production sites.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Robert Alvarez. He was a senior policy adviser to the secretary of energy during the Clinton Administration. He is now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin!, Robert Alvarez.

RA: Thank you very much.



–“Nukes Aren’t the Answer,” by Robert Alvarez (CommonDreams, 2/15/10)