Jan 1 2012

On Iran, an Unsmoking Nongun

Nuclear report doesn’t say what media want it to

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Erjkprunczyk

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Erjkprunczyk

The release of a United Nations report on Iran’s nuclear program in early November was, according to much of the corporate media, the long-awaited confirmation of something many outlets had already treated as established fact: Iran is working on a nuclear weapon. You would have a hard time figuring out that the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency did not actually arrive at that conclusion.

As has happened with past IAEA reports on Iran, some coverage presented a sneak preview of the supposed conclusions, based on leaks from sources intent on portraying Iran in a more negative light. On CBS Evening News (11/7/11), Scott Pelley reported, “The UN’s nuclear agency is expected to report later this week that Iran is on the threshold of being able to build a nuclear bomb.” In that day’s Washington Post, a piece by Joby Warrick, headlined “Iran Close to Nuclear Capability, IAEA Says,” led with this warning:

Intelligence provided to UN nuclear officials shows that Iran’s government has mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon, receiving assistance from foreign scientists to overcome key technical hurdles, according to Western diplomats and nuclear experts briefed on the findings.

Warrick’s piece zeroed in on a former Soviet scientist’s role—which would come under serious scrutiny as soon as the piece was published. (See sidebar.)

The media themes didn’t change much once the report was made public. A USA Today piece (11/9/11) was headlined “UN Agency Issues Red Alert Over Iran’s Secret Nuke Program”—with the “red alert” hype coming from a Republican source in the piece.

On ABC World News (11/8/11), anchor Diane Sawyer announced “a long-dreaded headline about Iran and nuclear weapons. After a decade of debating whether Iran would build one, a UN report says tonight they will, and it has begun.” ABC correspondent Jim Sciutto added that the IAEA found Iran has “been carrying out activities whose sole purpose can only be the development of a nuclear weapon.” Sawyer closed the segment by pleading for someone to stop Iran, adding: “So much for Ahmadinejad claiming it was only nuclear power plants, always nuclear power plants.”

A New York Times report (11/9/11) included an assessment from “a Western diplomat familiar with the report, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing the agency’s internal assessment of the report.” The source expressed amazement at the “detail” of the report, claiming that it “describes virtually all the steps to make a nuclear warhead and the progress Iran has achieved in each of those steps. It reads like a menu.’’

Anyone who read the report (available at IAEA.org) would know that it did not, in fact, describe all the steps necessary for a nuclear bomb. Nor did it resemble a menu, which would at any rate be rather unhelpful in making a bomb. But the Paper of Record nonetheless granted anonymity to a source to mislead—and confuse—its readers.

If this feels like deja vu, it’s because it’s not the first time that one of the IAEA’s Iran quarterly reports was reported as offering up new evidence of that country’s march towards The Bomb (Extra!, 9-10/05). After the agency’s February 2010 report, outlets similarly announced that the IAEA had “publicly suggested for the first time…that [Iran] is actively seeking to develop a weapons capability” (Washington Post, 2/19/11), though the agency did not actually reach those conclusions (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 3/19/10).

In any event, news coverage of Iran in the days that followed the most recent report often treated the allegation that Iran was working on a weapon as an unquestionable fact, as when a USA Today story (11/14/11) referred to a “United Nations report confirming Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”

And ABC correspondent Jake Tapper (ABC World News, 11/13/11) explained: “So far, President Obama’s Iran policy has not convinced the Iranian leadership to stop their nuclear weapon ambitions.” Even Iran’s angry response was portrayed as at odds with the new facts, as the New York Times (11/10/11) noted:

The tone of their reaction suggested that Iran’s leaders were worried that the report…could sway world opinion and deepen Iran’s isolation, complicating its repeated claims that the goal of the nuclear program is energy for civilian use, not weapons.

Perhaps Iran’s “tone” is the result of being subjected to economic sanctions based on a nuclear weapons program that they adamantly deny pursuing? As for “world opinion,” the Non-Aligned Movement, representing 120 nations, released a statement (11/18/11) critical of the IAEA’s handling of its Iran report. It drew next to no media attention.

So what did the IAEA actually say? The first part of the agency’s November 8 report declares—once again—that Iran is not transferring uranium for use in a military project.

The allegations that were the focus of so much controversy were contained in an annex that finally laid out various strands of evidence that have been circulating for years. Very little of the annex is focused on research that might be ongoing. The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh (11/18/11) quoted Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund saying that “post-2003, the report only cites computer modelling and a few other experiments.”

Corporate media focused on speculation about research that could be related to a weapons program if it were ongoing—as the IAEA puts it, the agency has “become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear-related activities”—but this speculation was transformed in media conversation into unquestionable fact.

How definitive are the IAEA’s findings, anyway? Columnist and University of Southern California chemical engineering professor Muhammad Sahimi wrote on the Tehran Bureau website (11/9/11) that the report’s allegations about Iran’s high-explosives research, for example, are not necessarily linked to nuclear work:

The report discusses in detail fast-functioning detonators, known as “exploding bridgewire detonators” (EBWs), which are needed in nuclear weapons. By the IAEA’s own admission, Iran informed the agency in 2008 that it had developed EBWs for use in conventional and civilian applications.

The IAEA report acknowledges that “there exist non-nuclear applications, albeit few, for detonators like EBWs.” Actually, some experts, including former IAEA inspector Robert Kelley, a nuclear engineer, argue that the kind of explosives experiments Iran is said to be conducting are not the kind you would use in nuclear research (Asia Times, 11/22/11).

Amidst the hype leading up to the release of the report, some outlets distinguished themselves with a healthy skepticism. An NPR Morning Edition segment (11/9/11) began by noting that the agency’s new report “was much anticipated, because advanced reporting suggested the IAEA had concluded definitively that Iran is engaged in a full-scale nuclear weapons program. Turns out the report does not say that.”

And the Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson (11/9/11) wrote an excellent report that began:

The latest United Nations report on Iran’s nuclear program may not be the “game changer” it was billed to be, as some nuclear experts raise doubts about the quality of evidence—and point to lack of proof of current nuclear weapons work.

The Monitor website even featured a timeline of allegations about Iran and nuclear weapons—revealing that, if official pronouncements from U.S. and Israeli politicians were any guide, the country has been on the cusp of having a nuclear weapon for the past couple of decades.

But most major media outlets seemed to have learned little from the failure of skepticism in the run-up to the Iraq War. Two newspaper editorials, both published November 10, are instructive. The New York Times, under the headline “The Truth About Iran,” called the IAEA report “chillingly comprehensive,” and cheered the agency for standing firm: “The agency did not back down, and neither should anyone else.”

The Washington Post editorial began:

The International Atomic Energy Agency has now spelled out in detail what governments around the world have known for a long time: Iran’s nuclear program has an explicit military dimension.

The paper declared that the IAEA report “ought to end serious debate about whether Tehran’s program is for peaceful purposes.” Of course, ending serious debate on Iraq’s weapons programs was what gave us years of devastating war.


The Soviet Scientist

by Peter Hart

Some of the strongest evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program came in the form of a Soviet scientist who allegedly helped Iran with crucial detonator research. Joby Warrick’s Washington Post piece (11/7/11) previewing the IAEA report focused on “a former Soviet weapons scientist who allegedly tutored Iranians over several years on building high-precision detonators of the kind used to trigger a nuclear chain reaction.”

What the Post did not report was that the scientist in question, Vyacheslav Danilenko, is a well-known researcher in the field of nanodiamonds—the creation of synthetic diamonds that can be used for a variety of industrial pursuits, including oil drilling, an activity that produces the majority of Iran’s exports.

An early critique of the Post story was posted at the Moon of Alabama blog (11/7/11), which noted that Danilenko’s nanodiamond research was indeed mentioned in the IAEA report—but missing from the Post’s story. Inter Press Service reporter Gareth Porter (11/9/11) detailed Danilenko’s decades of research in this field, which requires the large-scale detonation chambers that news reports suggest are possibly part of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons research program.

Warrick’s next move was interesting. Rather than own up to writing a profoundly misleading account, the Post reporter returned on November 14 with an article that made Danilenko’s work sound rather peculiar:

When the Cold War abruptly ended in 1991, Vyacheslav Danilenko was a Soviet weapons scientist in need of a new line of work. At 57, he had three decades of experience inside a top-secret nuclear facility and one marketable skill: the ability to make objects blow up with nanosecond precision.

Danilenko struggled to become a businessman, traveling through Europe and even to the United States to promote an idea for using explosives to create synthetic diamonds.

This is a strange way to describe research Danilenko had been working on for decades. The piece went on to refer to Danilenko’s “diamond-making scheme.”

Warrick added some notes of caution:

Evidence is often ambiguous, as the same technology can sometimes have peaceful as well as military applications. In the case of Danilenko, the scientist’s synthetic-diamonds business provided a plausible explanation for his extensive contacts with senior Iranian scientists over half a decade.

But on balance, Warrick’s piece is an attempt to show that Danilenko’s field of research provides a remarkably useful cover for something else. Warrick closes the piece by alluding to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a group headed by David Albright, who has dominated the media discussion of the case against Iran. Warrick put it:

“Synthetic diamond production is unlikely to have been a priority” for Iran, ISIS said. “Although it has obvious value as a cover story.”

This would seem to be the basis for much of the coverage of Iran: The allegations are treated as the truth until Iran can prove otherwise.