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March 18, 2009

A New Judith Miller for
Iran Hawks?


by Muhammad Sahimi

When the Bush administration was preparing the public in 2001-2003 for the invasion of Iraq by selling it lies and exaggerations, it was supported by articles discredited former New York Times reporter Judith Miller published on the front page of the Times. Beginning in 1998, Miller spread propaganda for Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, claiming that Iraq had active programs for producing weapons of mass destruction. Miller's sources were almost exclusively Chalabi and the neocons.

A particularly glaring example of the lies Miller was propagating can be found in an article she and Michael Gordon published in September 2002 claiming that Saddam Hussein was trying to purchase aluminum tubes for use in Iraq's uranium enrichment program. The "evidence" was quickly challenged and turned out later to have been supplied by the neocons. Dick Cheney used the article as evidence of a "smoking gun." It was not that Judith Miller was gullible and could be fooled easily. She was sympathetic to the neocons' cause.

Now, lies, exaggerations, and speculations are also rampant about Iran's nuclear program. The last round of propaganda began after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its report on Iran on Feb. 19, which reaffirmed that (1) Iran has not diverted its nuclear materials to non-peaceful uses; (2) there is no evidence of a secret nuclear weapon program or facility; (3) all of Iran's nuclear facilities are monitored by the IAEA, and its nuclear materials are safeguarded; and (4) Iran has not significantly increased the number of its centrifuges that are producing low-enriched uranium (LEU).

But the usual anti-Iran crowd cared only about the IAEA reporting that, as of Jan. 31, Iran had produced 1010 kg of LEU with an enrichment level of 3.49 percent. Suddenly, there were deafening screams about how Iran could enrich its LEU to the 90-percent level suitable for a single nuclear bomb. Even if Iran could miraculously build a nuclear bomb, it would have to explode it in a test, hence finishing off its entire stockpile. Moreover, there is no evidence that Iran has such a capability. Regardless, the War Party made Iran's one ton of LEU the analogue of Iraq's aluminum tubes.

That the War Party and the Israel Lobby started the latest round of propaganda is not a surprise. What is a surprise is the emergence of a whole new source of speculation and skewed interpretations of what the IAEA actually reports. This source is none other than David Albright and his Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). Although Albright is considered an expert on nuclear issues, he and the ISIS have been increasingly distancing themselves from an impartial posture and becoming a tool in the hands of the anti-Iran crowd.

The ISIS monitors, among other nations, the nuclear programs of India, Pakistan, and Iran. Unlike Iran, the first two have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and they have developed nuclear arsenals. Pakistan, with political instability and Islamic fundamentalists in its military and intelligence services, is one of the most dangerous nuclear nations on Earth, yet the main focus of the ISIS is on Iran. The ISIS does not analyze the nuclear program of Brazil, whose navy controls its uranium enrichment program and has restricted IAEA access to uranium enrichment facilities, in violation of its NPT and Safeguards Agreement obligations. Just imagine what would happen if the IAEA declared that Iran's military controlled its uranium enrichment program.

Nor does the ISIS analyze Israel's program. This is a nation that has at least 200 nuclear warheads; has three nuclear submarines, one of which is usually in Iran's vicinity; kidnapped its own citizen, Mordechai Vanunu, in Italy and jailed him for 18 years because he revealed Israel's nuclear weapon program; and has been threatening for a long time to attack Iran. On its Web site, the ISIS claims that it "works to create world safe from the dangers posed by the spread of nuclear weapons to irresponsible governments" (emphasis mine). Yet, despite its 41 years of occupying Palestinian lands in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, despite the unimaginable destruction it has caused there and in Lebanon, Israel is a "responsible" government, while Iran, a nation that has not attacked any country for at least 270 years but has been the victim of numerous invasions and foreign-sponsored coups, is not.

The ISIS lists a small staff. It uses satellite imagery provided by DigitalGlobe, a private vendor based in Colorado. On its Web site, the ISIS states that "the vast bulk of our funding comes from public and private foundations." I could not find the names of its benefactors. In an e-mail to the ISIS office, I asked about the sources of their funding, but I received no response.

One must also consider the ISIS' information sources. When Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA's director general, submits his reports to the IAEA's Board of Governors, their distribution is usually restricted. Yet, the ISIS posts the reports on its site immediately after they are submitted. Often, even before the submission of the reports, the ISIS seems to know their contents, and at numerous times it has posted them at the same time that they are submitted.

That brings us to David Albright himself. I am not going to repeat Scott Ritter's criticisms of him. (See also the response by Frank von Hippel of Princeton University defending Albright.) Leading an extensive research program in physics and engineering for the past 25 years has given me a degree of objectivity. Thus, I believe that Albright has made many valuable contributions to the debates on nuclear arms, nuclear materials, and so forth.

However, Albright relies too heavily on speculation and, quite often, baseless guessing. Moreover, he has been silent on important issues that any experienced expert should be able to comment on while publishing analyses that seem to serve one and only one purpose: adding dangerous fuel to the hysteria over Iran's nuclear program. Given that the War Party and Israel are looking for any excuse to provoke and justify military attacks on Iran, anything other than scientific analysis, backed by legitimate documents and credible sources, is extremely dangerous.

An analyst of Iran's nuclear program and the president of a supposedly scientific institution cannot consort with AIPAC, the leading pro-Israel lobby in the United States and the prime force behind practically all the anti-Iran rhetoric, and, at the same time, present himself as an objective and impartial analyst. But on March 5, 2006, Albright spoke to AIPAC, making a presentation entitled, "Nuclear Countdown: What Can Be Done to Stop Iran?"

When talking about Iran's nuclear program, Albright usually tells half the story. For example, when he is asked how much yellowcake (the uranium oxide that is converted to uranium hexafluoride for enrichment) Iran has, he typically responds that it is enough to make dozens of bombs, but he does not say that going from yellowcake to a bomb is a long, tortuous process, fraught with technological difficulties and requiring advanced technologies, many of which Iran does not currently have (at least there is no evidence that it does). When he is asked about Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium, he responds that it is enough to make one nuclear bomb, but he does not usually say that what Iran has is LEU, not the highly enriched uranium (HEU) needed for a bomb, and that so long as Iran's enrichment facilities and stockpile are safeguarded by the IAEA, there is no way that Iran can obtain the HEU, even if it wanted to (there is no evidence that it does) and had the facility for producing it (it does not). In effect, Albright uses facts to insinuate predetermined and unrelated conclusions.

In a recent interview, Albright was asked about Iran's progress in its nuclear program, to which he responded:

"Iran continues to move forward on developing its nuclear capabilities, and it is close to having what we would call a 'nuclear breakout capability.' That's a problem because once Iran reaches that state then it could make a decision to get nuclear weapons pretty rapidly. In as quickly as a few months, Iran would be able to have enough weapons-grade uranium for nuclear weapons. And if a breakout occurred, they would not likely do so at the well-known Natanz enrichment plant. Rather, the Iranians would most likely take low-enriched uranium that's produced at that plant and then divert it at a secret facility that we wouldn't know anything about. And at this secret facility, the Iranians would produce this weapons-grade uranium. … They don't need that much more low-enriched uranium before they reach the first level of breakout capability, namely enough low-enriched uranium to make one nuclear weapon."

To the untrained eyes of a layman, the above paragraph seems very "innocent" and, at the same time, very "authoritative." It is neither.

  1. Albright's statement about breakout capability is misleading. A nation has that capability when it has enough LEU for conversion to HEU and has conversion facilities. But, as I discussed above, the process of converting LEU to HEU is long and tortuous. Even if Iran has everything in place, and everything works without any glitches or outside intervention, the breakout time – the time to convert the LEU stockpile to HEU – is six to nine months, ample time for the international community to negotiate with Iran.
  2. Albright says with seeming certainty that the process of converting LEU to HEU will take place in a secret facility. That is, he seems to be sure that such a facility already exists. But the IAEA has certified time and again that there is no evidence of the existence of a parallel enrichment program in Iran. Albright does not mention that Iran's stockpile of LEU is safeguarded by the IAEA. So the only way for Iran to produce HEU from LEU is to leave the NPT and expel the IAEA inspectors from Iran, then take the LEU to its alleged secret facility so quickly that all the satellites hovering over Iran, watching its every move, miss such a monumental event!
  3. All Albright talks about is one nuclear bomb. Assuming that Iran could fool the entire world and , with tremendous luck, produce one nuclear bomb (and there is no evidence that Iran has the capability to do so), it would have to explode it for testing. That would be the end of Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium.

The ISIS recently posted an analysis in which it claimed that Iran was running out of yellowcake. When Albright was asked in the aforementioned interview about this issue, he responded, "Iran has never really had the uranium resources to support an indigenous nuclear electricity program. So they are dependent on importing the fuel. If you consider the Bushehr reactor, that's what they did. They bought the reactor from Russia, and they also bought the fuel for at least 10 years" (emphasis mine). Assuming that the first part of Albright's response is correct (which it is not), the second (emphasized) part is totally misleading. Iran bought the fuel for the Bushehr reactor for 10 years because when it signed the agreement with Russia, it had no enrichment plant and it would take 10 years (at the current pace) to set up an industrial-scale enrichment plant with 50,000 centrifuges.

Albright continued, "From our point of view, the best thing they can do is work out a solution with the international community so they can proceed with the nuclear electricity program and import the low-enriched uranium fuel that they need for those reactors" (emphasis mine). In addition to suggesting that Iran should give up its rights under Article IV of the NPT, Albright makes one wonder whom he's talking about when he says "our point of view." If he is talking about himself and the ISIS, that is all right. But if he considers himself part of the U.S. government, then he should stop all pretense of leading a scientific, impartial institution.

Albright and the ISIS continually publish analyses in which they insinuate preordained conclusions based on totally unrelated facts. An example is a recent piece [.pdf] by Albright, Paul Brannan, and Andrea Scheel in which they described a network of companies that allegedly purchases items that cannot be exported to Iran. There is not a single item in the analysis that has anything to do with Iran's nuclear program. Even the authors do not make such a claim. In another article [.pdf] Albright et al. claimed Iran was "illicitly" procuring vacuum pumps for its uranium enrichment program. No shred of evidence, no matter how flimsy or indirect, was presented for the claim. Even a cursory check of Wikipedia indicates that there are at least 16 very different uses for such pumps (Wikipedia does not list centrifuges as one of them), yet Albright and company declared that the purchase must have been for Iran's nuclear program. Any reasonable expert would object to such analyses as utterly unscientific and based on sheer speculation.

One of the most contentious issues between Iran and the IAEA is a laptop that was supposedly stolen in Iran and given to the U.S. and which allegedly contains incriminating evidence of Iran's nuclear weapons program. The IAEA has repeatedly called on the U.S. to allow it to give Iran copies of the laptop's documents. The U.S. has refused. The laptop has never been analyzed for its digital chain of custody to reveal the dates at which the documents were stored in it. These are two crucial issues that go to the heart of the subject. This brings us to last piece of the puzzle, namely, Albright's source at the IAEA.

Albright's contact at the IAEA, with whom he is "extremely tight" (in the words of several sources), is Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's deputy director for safeguards, who is in charge of the current inspections in Iran. Heinonen, whose Finnish nationality may lead people to believe that he is impartial, is leading a crusade against Iran. He constantly acts outside the IAEA's protocol by leaking sensitive information to the press and spreading unproven allegations about Iran's nuclear program. A February 2008 report by ElBaradei to the Board of Governors of the IAEA declared that Iran's six minor breaches of its Safeguards Agreement had been addressed to the IAEA's satisfaction and that the IAEA had a better understanding of the history of Iran's nuclear program. Heinonen immediately made a presentation to the Board of Governors that was entirely based on the laptop, four years after the IAEA had obtained it, calling its contents "alarming." He expects the Iranian government to explain a document it has never seen. The solution is straightforward: present copies of the documents to Iran and analyze the laptop's digital chain of custody.

But Albright has been silent about this issue. Albright most likely knows that at least some of the documents were fabricated and inserted in the laptop and an analysis of the laptop's digital chain of custody would easily reveal that. Albright certainly knows that, given the assassinations of Iranian scientists by hostile countries, Iranian experts would not carelessly reveal the names of important personnel in a memo the laptop supposedly contains. But Albright has kept silent, because if he says anything about the issue that Heinonen does not like, he may lose his source. Heinonen is "tight" with Albright because he realizes that leaking information to a former weapons inspector and his "scientific institution" to present it to the public gives it a veneer of legitimacy.

There might be yet another factor in play. Many times in the past, Albright claimed that Iran could not reach certain milestones because it lacked the scientific capabilities. Time and again he was proven wrong. In fact, Western experts just have a hard time accepting that Iran, a nation that has been under the most severe sanctions by the U.S. for over two decades, has succeeded in setting up a complete indigenous cycle for producing nuclear fuel. As I told William Broad and David Sanger of the New York Times in an article that was published March 5, 2006, "[W]e've made mistakes in underestimating the strength of science in Iran and the ingenuity they show in working with whatever crude design they get their hands on."

Is David Albright not developing uncanny similarities to Judith Miller? It would be a pity if he is, because he can contribute much to the debate on Iran's nuclear program, provided that he does not sacrifice objectivity for the sake of having a source at the IAEA – and a discredited one at that.

 

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Muhammad Sahimi, professor of chemical engineering and materials science and the NIOC professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Southern California, has published extensively on Iran's nuclear program and its political developments.

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