Iraq Redux: Defectors, Terrorists, and Unnamed Officials in the Media’s Iran Coverage

On April 25, the Washington Post had another piece on Iran, this time on the front page, that could easily have been run about Iraq back in 2002.  We have recently criticized the Post for relying on Green Movement partisans for ostensibly objective “analysis” about Iranian politics.  This front page article relies almost entirely on unnamed U.S. officials and a known terrorist organization to make the Iraq-redux argument that Iranian “defectors” are providing the U.S. government with critical information that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.  (The Post‘s story refers specifically to three alleged, relatively recent defections.)

The Post seems to take as fact that “Iran’s political turmoil,” created by the country’s June 12, 2009 presidential election, “has prompted a growing number of the country’s officials to defect or leak information to the West, creating a new flow of intelligence about its secretive nuclear program.”  But, the Post‘s journalists do not appear to have asked some basic questions about the information they are being fed by U.S. officials.

At least four main points from the Post‘s story do not stand up to serious scrutiny.

1.  What is the factual basis for the U.S. officials’ claims that there is any real “political turmoil” in Iran today that would prompt mass defections from an important, prestigious, and sensitive industry like Iran’s nuclear program?  All the evidence at this point shows that support for the Green Movement has dropped precipitously and that the government is firmly in control.

2.  What is the factual basis for linking the three alleged Iranian defections cited by the Post to the supposed “political turmoil” precipitated by Iran’s June 12, 2009 election?   Two of the three defectors named in the Post piece (and the only two with any connection to Iran’s nuclear program) appear to have defected before the June 12, 2009 election.

  • The only individual cited in the story who clearly defected after the June 12, 2009 election was one diplomat at the Iranian embassy in Norway, who had no access to Iran’s nuclear program.
  • The second defector cited by the Post reportedly defected in 2007 — two years before the 2009 election.
  • The third defector named is Shahram Amiri, now 32, who supposedly disappeared in June 2009 while on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia — at about the same time as the election in Iran that supposedly prompted a mass of defections.  Given the planning that would be required for someone to defect (both by the defector and by his handlers), it does not seem plausible that Amiri became so dissatisfied with the political order in Iran after June 12, 2009 that, within days, and with significant political demonstrations going on in Iran, he was able to arrange to leave his supposedly sensitive job to travel abroad and establish arrangements for his defection with Western handlers.  If Amiri, in fact, disappeared in June 2009, it is more likely that his decision to work with Western handlers and eventually to defect was taken well before the June 12, 2009 election.

3.  Amiri’s case deserves more scrutiny than the Post‘s journalists gave it.  The reporters cite U.S. and European officials claiming that Amiri

has provided spy agencies with details about sensitive programs, including a long-hidden uranium-enrichment plant near the city of Qom. . . .  Amiri is described by some as the most significant Iranian defector since Brig. Gen. Ali Reza Asgari, a former deputy defense minister and Revolutionary Guard Corps commander who switched sides during a 2007 trip to Turkey.

The reporters also cite the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI) to claim that “Amiri had been associated with sensitive nuclear programs for at least a decade.”  The NCRI is identified by the Post only as “an opposition group that publicly revealed the existence of a secret uranium-enrichment program in 2003” without readers being informed that the NCRI is part and parcel of the notorious MEK, which the U.S. government has officially designated as a foreign terrorist organization.

The Post reporters also have their facts wrong about the NCRI’s previous nuclear “revelation.”  In August 2002 — not 2003, as claimed by the Post — the NCRI held a press conference to “expose” two nuclear facilities in Iran (Natanz and Arak) that they claim to have discovered.  However, the sites were already known to U.S. and other intelligence agencies and, under the terms of Iran’s then-existing safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Tehran was under no obligation to disclose the facilities while they were still under construction and not yet within 180 days of the actual introduction of nuclear materials.

Furthermore, how could it be that Amiri, who would have been 31 years old at the time of his defection, would have had meaningful access to anything sensitive about Iran’s nuclear program — much less to have had such access “for at least a decade”?  Unless Amiri completed his doctorate as a teenager and was given a senior position in Iran’s nuclear program with high-level access at the age of 20 or 21, this claim literally does not add up.

4.  According to the Post, “Some [unnamed] observers say the Tehran government has been unnerved by the defections and point to the death of an Iranian physics professor more than three months ago as a sign that it has begun a crackdown designed to frighten would-be spies.”  Their evidence for this, yet again, are claims only attributable to the NCRI, which is part of the MEK, a terrorist organization dedicated to the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

These claims rest on the January 12, 2010 assassination in Tehran of an Iranian professor, Masoud Ali Mohammadi, who, it is implied, was killed by the Iranian government because of his knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program and sympathy to Iranian opposition groups.  The Post cites only the NCRI for the ominous claim that, “The day before his death, Iranian intelligence agents had searched his home and confiscated documents and notes.”  The Post fails to mention that Dr. Mohammadi was a quantum field theorist with interests in such diverse fields as condensed matter physics, cosmology, and string theory.  These subjects are all quite distinct from nuclear physics, nuclear engineering in general, and nuclear weapons in particular.  Therefore, the claim that Dr. Mohammadi was a nuclear physicist with access to sensitive aspects of Iran’s nuclear program is highly suspect.

Oddly, the Post then features a subheading, “Learning from mistakes,” under which the journalists report that U.S. officials are “under pressure to avoid their predecessors’ mistakes.”  Unfortunately, rather than learning from “their predecessors’ mistakes” in perpetrating one of the biggest intelligence blunders in modern American history in their bungled assessments of Iraqi WMD, U.S. officials are instead seeking to avoid a repeat of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program — which concluded, among other things, that Iran had stopped work on purely weapons-related aspects of its program.  If that conclusion remained on the table, how could Washington argue for intensified sanctions against the Islamic Republic — much less keep the military option “on the table”?

It would also be constructive if reporters in America’s most prestigious media outlets sought to learn from “their predecessors’ mistakes” in helping to disseminate the manufactured “intelligence” about Iraqi WMD (much of it based on defectors’ stories) which was used to make the case for invading Iraq.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 25 April 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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