Is the Washington Post Hyping the Iranian Nuclear “Threat” Once Again?

Yet again, the Washington Post has published another highly inflammatory article on Iranian nuclear developments, “Iran’s Advances in Nuclear Technology Spark New Concerns about Weapons,” by Joby Warrick.  As we wrote, Warrick co-authored another recent story for the Washington Post on Iran’s nuclear program that “could easily have been run about Iraq back in 2002.”  That piece relied “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.”  We pointed out several factual errors and omissions in the story and identified four major factual and/or logical weaknesses in it as well — including the claim that an Iranian physicist who reportedly defected when he was 31 years old had “been associated with sensitive nuclear programs for at least a decade,” which means that he would have to have started working on these sensitive programs when he was not older than 20 years of age.

Joby Warrick has now followed that piece with this new article, which presents alarmist assessments of the development of Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities from unnamed “U.S. and European intelligence officials and diplomats,” without attempting any serious critical evaluation of what those sources told him.  The article opens,

Iran is poised to make a significant leap in its ability to enrich uranium, with more sophisticated centrifuge technology that is being assembled in secret to advance the country’s nuclear efforts. . . .  Iran’s apparent gains in centrifuge technology have heightened concerns that the government is working clandestinely on a uranium-enrichment plant capable of producing more nuclear fuel at a much faster pace, the officials said.  U.N. nuclear monitors have not been allowed to examine the new centrifuge, which Iranian officials briefly put on display at a news conference last month.  But an expert group’s analysis of the machine — based on photos — suggests that it could be up to five times as productive as the balky centrifuges Iran currently uses to enrich uranium.

Iran does indeed seem poised to make significant leaps in its ability to enrich uranium, in part through the introduction of more sophisticated centrifuges.  Currently, the vast majority of the centrifuges operating in relatively long cascades at Iran’s principal uranium enrichment facility at Natanz are first-generation “IR-1” machines.  The Iranians have tested several second-generation centrifuge prototypes — the “IR-2,” the “IR-3,” and the “IR-4” — but have so far not deployed any of these on an “industrial” scale.

Warrick’s story focuses on Iran’s development of a new, third-generation centrifuge — described by one diplomat as “probably an IR-5.”  However, the “news conference” at which this new centrifuge was “briefly put on display last month” was hardly a marginal or obscure event.  The new machine was unveiled on one of Ahmadinejad’s regular visits to the Islamic Republic’s enrichment center at Natanz, this one on Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day (April 9); like his other visits to Natanz, Ahamdinejad’s trip to Natanz last month was extensively covered in the Iranian and international media.  The photos on which the expert group cited by Warrick based their technical analysis of the new centrifuge — David Albright’s Institute for Science and International Security — were obtained from Iranian state media, not from a clandestine source.

We have no quarrel with the purely technical aspects of the ISIS analysis of the new machine’s technical capabilities.  It is hardly surprising that, as the Iranians accumulate more experience with enriching uranium, they get better at it — and develop more sophisticated and capable equipment for the purpose.  This reality is what defines the fundamental policy problem facing the Obama Administration with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue: Iran is going to continue enriching uranium, and will continue becoming progressively more accomplished at doing so.  What international monitoring arrangements is the Administration prepared to negotiate with the Islamic Republic to control the proliferation risks that are inevitably associated with any country’s efforts at enriching uranium, and what is the Administration prepared to put on the table — in terms of an improved U.S.-Iranian strategic relationship — to make accepting these monitoring arrangements an attractive proposition for Tehran?

Getting back to Warrick’s story, it would seem that the Iranians have not yet shown their new centrifuge to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors because, as the director of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said publicly, uranium gas has not yet been introduced into a third-generation prototype — which means that the Iranians are not yet required to show that prototype to the IAEA.  Iran has allowed IAEA inspectors access to its various second-generation centrifuges when uranium gas was initially introduced into each second-generation prototype.  On the basis of the historical record, there is no reason to anticipate that Tehran would not grant the IAEA access to third-generation centrifuges when uranium gas is introduced into them.  (On this point, Salehi says that “we may need a year of time before we can arrange a cascade [of third-generation centrifuges] for testing.”)

With regard to concerns that the Iranians are working “clandestinely” on a new uranium-enrichment plant, Warrick notes that “Iran’s progress on a new centrifuge coincides with a marked decline in activity at its two known uranium-enrichment plants, sources said, spurring speculation that it plans to use the machine at a still-unknown facility.”  That ominous-sounding sentence seems to have little hard evidence behind it.

Straightforwardly put, the relevant facts are these: Ahmadinejad has publicly declared Iran’s intentions to build new uranium enrichment facilities.  The Islamic Republic has not declared any new sites to the IAEA since last September, but there is a legal dispute between the IAEA and several national governments (including the United States), on the one hand, and Iran, on the other, about precisely when Tehran is required to declare new nuclear facilities.  In an interview with CBS News — which we wrote about last week — Dr. Salehi indicated that Iran would declare any new enrichment facility to the IAEA at least six months prior to the introduction of nuclear materials into that facility.

To sum up: if there is “news” about the first public display of Iran’s third-generation gas centrifuge technology, it is three-week-old news.  Even the ISIS technical assessment of the new centrifuge is two and a half weeks old.  Likewise, there is nothing really newsworthy about the Iranians not yet having shown the new centrifuge to the IAEA.  And, the Iranians are on the hook to declare any new enrichment site to the IAEA at least six months before they introduce nuclear material into it.  This raises what is for us the most important question of all: why is Warrick being handed this “no news” story now?

It seems highly likely to us that the willingness of “U.S. and European intelligence officials and diplomats” to talk with Warrick about the state of Iran’s centrifuge capabilities now — again, three full weeks after the Iranians first publicly displayed a prototype of their newest centrifuge — is not coincidental.  With the NPT Review Conference opening and President Ahmadinejad bringing a high-level delegation to New York to help him push back against efforts to demonize Iran’s nuclear activities, the United States and its European partners have a clear tactical interest in putting out the most alarmist assessments possible about the status of Iran’s nuclear program.  As Jerry Seinfeld would say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” — but it should raise red flags for any analyst worth his salt that U.S. and European governments are putting out information about Iranian nuclear activities not to further the disinterested pursuit of objective truth but as part of what is, in effect, an information warfare campaign.  At a minimum, this campaign is designed to muster international and domestic support for U.S. diplomatic goals regarding the Iranian nuclear issue.

An analyst, however, is supposed to prioritize the disinterested pursuit of objective truth over other ends.  In this regard, what exactly is the job of an American journalist covering U.S. national security and foreign policy when he or she is reporting on a “hot” topic like the Iranian nuclear issue?  Is it simply to report, as accurately as possible, what U.S. government officials say about that topic?  Or should a journalist work to be an analyst as well as a reporter — that is, should a journalist consider it part of his essential mission to “fact check” and otherwise scrutinize what government officials are telling him?

To be sure, the first view — that journalists should simply report what U.S. government officials say — has its defenders.  But these are not defenders that Warrick and his superiors at the Washington Post should find attractive.  In 2004, as it was becoming increasingly apparent that most of her pre- and post-invasion reporting on the state of Iraq’s WMD programs was wildly inaccurate, as a result of an uncritical approach to official statements and officially sanctioned sources (including the notorious Ahmad Chalabi), Judith Miller of the New York Times argued that “[M]y job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself.  My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.”

We do not agree with this view.  And, in the end, Miller’s editors at the New York Times did not seem to agree with it, either — as they indicated in their May 26, 2004 “From the Editors” statement acknowledging that the paper’s coverage of Iraqi WMD issues had relied too heavily on “information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on ‘regime change'” (including Chalabi) and that “information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged.”  The editors wrote that, “looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.”  But, by then, the damage had already been done.

We do not want to accuse Joby Warrick of becoming the Washington Post’s Judith Miller — but he is starting to display similar characteristics in his coverage of the Iranian nuclear issue that Miller displayed with regard to Iraqi WMD.  This is truly ironic, because in the months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq Warrick wrote stories for the Washington Post casting doubt on the George W. Bush Administration’s claims — initially reported by Judith Miller and her colleague, Michael Gordon, in the New York Times — that the United States had intercepted shipments of high-strength aluminum tubes which Saddam Husayn’s government was trying to import for installation in gas centrifuges.  Even more ironically, Warrick’s stories on this subject were driven, to a large extent, by another David Albright report from ISIS questioning the intercepted tubes’ suitability for use in centrifuges.  Additionally, Warrick wrote an excellent story in 2006 detailing how the George W. Bush Administration had deliberately suppressed a military intelligence assessment categorically demonstrating that two small trailers captured by U.S. forces in Iraq after Saddam’s overthrow in 2003 were not mobile biological weapons labs, as Administration officials had claimed — and Miller had dutifully reported.

We hope that those sorts of genuinely analytic qualities will be reflected in the Post‘s future reporting on the Iranian nuclear issue.

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 2 May 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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