The American Internal Debate Over the Iranian Nuclear Threat
The Washington Post carried a dramatic headline at the top of its front page on Oct. 18, stating that the Iranian nuclear program was suffering a “setback.” In its opening paragraph, the lead article in the newspaper explained that beyond the reported cyber-attack that afflicted Iran’s nuclear facilities last year, the equipment in its main uranium fuel plant was performing poorly. Specifically, its centrifuges for enriching uranium were old and there was a shortage of spare parts. The author of the article, Joby Warrick, who covers national security for the Washington Post, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996.
Because of its prominence, the report in the Washington Post set the news agenda for the days that followed. Time Magazine featured the story. So did CNN. The Fox News network reported that Iran was having “major problems” with its nuclear program. One of its lead commentators, Charles Krauthammer, spoke about the Iranian nuclear program being “devastated” and suggested that the West had been able to “disarm and retard the program.” Hearing these reports in the U.S., it might be possible for some to conclude that the international community can relax a bit and not be so worried about an imminent Iranian atomic bomb.
What was the source for this optimistic assessment that the Washington Post relied upon? It came from David Albright, a physicist who worked with the International Atomic Energy Agency as it examined the Iraqi nuclear program in the 1990s. The research center which he heads in Washington, the Institute for Science and Security, had just published a report on the performance of the Iranian centrifuges at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. Albright’s study was professional and responsible. He nowhere suggested that the Iranian uranium enrichment program had been halted. All he wanted to show was that the performance of the Iranian centrifuges had been declining and as a result Iran need to use more centrifuges to produce the same amount of enriched uranium.
That is an interesting academic point for professionals. Did it mean that the Iranian nuclear program had in fact slowed down, as the U.S. media was concluding? Did it merit a headline? The Washington Post also wrote that agency inspectors documented “a sharp drop” in uranium output in 2009 and 2010. Yet, looking at the agency’s reports, the picture that emerges is very different. Iran had a stockpile of 839 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, according to the June 2009 report, which more than doubled to 2,427 kg by the time of the the May 2010 report. Most recently, the September 2011 report stated that Iran had enriched a total of 4,543 kg of low-enriched uranium.
Perhaps Iran’s old centrifuges are less efficient today, but nevertheless Iran is still steadily increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. Iran needs to further enrich about 900 kg of low-enriched uranium in order to produce the 20 to 25 kg of weapons-grade uranium that would be needed for a single nuclear bomb. Albright’s institute calculated in June that the Iranians could today produce this amount of weapons-grade uranium in six months. In a speech at George Washington University that he gave on Oct. 21, Albright in fact admitted that Iran already had enough low-enriched uranium to produce as many as four atomic bombs.
Moreover, the same day that the Washington Post published Albright’s assessments about the declining efficiency of the Iranian centrifuges, he released another report through his institute stating that Iran had begun to install the new, advanced centrifuges. This installation had been verified by an agency inspection team in August. Known among professionals as the IR-2m and the IR-4, he estimated that they have four to five times the output of the older IR-1 centrifuges. Presently, Iran was only testing their performance, but Albright suggests that they are planning to install up to a 1,000 advanced centrifuges during 2012, though he he adds a caveat that he is uncertain whether they have stocked enough strategic materials to make reliable machines.
The head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoun Abbasi-Divani, announced on June 8 that Iran planned to install this new generation of centrifuges in its Fordow uranium enrichment plant near Qom, the existence of which was kept secret until the West publicized details about the site in September 2009. Since 2010, Iran has been producing uranium beyond the 3.5 percent level of enrichment for commercial reactors to the 20% enriched level, which can more rapidly be converted to weapons-grade material — in as little as half the time of 3.5 % enriched uranium.
According to Abbas-Divani, Iran will shortly move the production of 20% enriched uranium to Fordow, where its advanced centrifuges will also be located. He then predicts Iran will be able to “triple” its production of 20% enriched uranium. In short, there are other details about the Iranian nuclear program that would lead an objective analyst to conclusions that completely contradict the headline story from the Washington Post on Oct. 18. In fact, after speaking to Albright, the Reuters new service ran a headline on Oct. 18 saying, “Iran Could Make Atom Bomb Materials Despite Hurdles.”
What is going on here? On Sept, 7, the Washington Post ran a lead editorial in which it cited another Washington think tank (not Albright’s) which concluded that Iran would be able to produce weapons-grade uranium in as little as 12 days by next year. The editorial called for a more effective U.S. strategy for dealing with Iran. In the aftermath of the FBI’s disclosure of an Iranian conspiracy to murder the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. by means of a mass casualty bomb attack in Washington restaurant, the Obama administration decided to turn the heat up on Iran.
The administration also wants the atomic energy agency to disclose more evidence than it has previously published about Iran’s nuclear weapons program in its November report. Because Iran reached out to what it thought was a Mexican drug cartel. many U.S. politicians felt that Tehran was now in America’s back yard. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been calling on the administration to take far harsher measures against Iran and use every available means to stop Tehran.
It is always possible to find individuals in a news organization who might want to tweak a headline or re-edit a text to change the public environment. There are also individuals in government who might be dissatisfied with the direction they see that their government taking, and hence seek to influence the internal debate that might still be going on through their contacts in the press.
At the end of 2007, this is what happened when the mass media misrepresented the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate by reporting that it had determined that the Iranians had stopped their entire nuclear program entirely. The purpose was to alter the political orientation of the Bush administration towards Iran and to prevent any conflict from being initiated by Washington against its nuclear program. Perhaps, given the present environment in U.S.-Iranian relations, that’s what happened this time, as well.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom