Media Advisory: Iran, Nukes and the Failure of Skepticism

16 November 2011 — Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting

Iraq all over again?

Much of the corporate media coverage of a new UN report on Iran strongly asserts that Iran is close to building nuclear weapons. But the International Atomic Energy Agency report does not actually arrive at that conclusion, and many critics contend that the speculations that are in the report are misguided.

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 source in the piece, Rep. Ed Royce (R.-Calif.). On CBS Evening News, Scott Pelley reported (11/7/11), “The U.N.’s nuclear agency is expected to report later this week that Iran is on the threshold of being able to build a nuclear bomb.”

On ABC World News, anchor Diane Sawyer announced (11/8/11):

And now, 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, “Anything else out there to prevent this, to stop it? Is it too late?” She added: “So much for Ahmadinejad claiming it was only nuclear power plants, always nuclear power plants.”

On NBC’s Today show (11/9/11), viewers were told that the “UN reported for the first time Tuesday that Iran is conducting secret tests with the sole purpose of building nuclear weapons.”

“A dreaded headline on Iran,” declared ABC This Week host Christiane Amanpour (11/13/11). “UN weapons inspectors reveal new evidence the country is working on a nuclear weapons device. Can the United States do anything to stop it now?”

An Associated Press piece (11/9/11) referred matter-of-factly to Iran being “on the brink of developing a nuclear warhead,” and a Washington Post piece (11/14/11) about a Republican presidential debate mentioned ways to “deal with Iran’s apparent nuclear weapons program.” A USA Today story (11/14/11) referred to a “United Nations report confirming Iran’s nuclear ambitions” and “the strongest finding yet that Iran is going ahead with a bombmaking program.” In Time magazine, Joe Klein (11/21/11) wrote, “Even the UN’s extremely cautious International Atomic Energy Agency now believes Iran is working on a nuclear weapon.”

This rhetoric wildly overstates the actual findings of the IAEA report.

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 more explosive allegations that media are focusing on are contained in an annex that attempts to lay out evidence that has been circulating for years. The IAEA report stresses concern over allegations over past activities; very little of the report is dedicated to research that could be describing as ongoing. Indeed, the media is focusing primarily on the IAEA’s speculation about what might be ongoing research that could be related to a military program.

But how definitive are the IAEA’s findings? As columnist and University of Southern California chemical engineering professor Muhammad Sahimi wrote (Tehran Bureau, 11/9/11):

The most important part of the report deals with alleged work on high conventional explosives, not for conventional weapons, but supposedly for use in triggering a nuclear device. 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.

Sahimi points out that the IAEA report admits that “there exist non-nuclear applications, albeit few, for detonators like EBWs.” The IAEA report also focuses on design and computer modeling research that it suggests Iran may have pursued. The insinuation is that this research has nuclear dimensions, but there is no solid evidence that this is the case. As Sahimi wrote, some of the apparently worrisome computer modeling

could very well relate to Iran’s conventional-warhead missile program that it has never hidden, but has in fact boasted about. Even the IAEA acknowledges such a possibility. The agency itself does not even allege that the enumerated activities are related to a nuclear warhead, but that “they are highly relevant.”

Some media coverage suggested the strongest evidence came in the form of a Soviet scientist who allegedly helped Iran with crucial detonator research. The Washington Post (11/7/11) reported that the IAEA was 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. 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.

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. The reporter who wrote the Post piece, Joby Warrick, followed up on November 14 with an article focused Danilenko’s research—including the background missing from the first piece. Warrick wrote:

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.

This time around, the Post included Danilenko denying that he had anything to do with a nuclear weapons program. But the paper seemed mostly unconvinced—calling his work, for example, “his diamond-making scheme.”

As in the run-up to the Iraq War, it was certainly possible to report skeptically on the Iran intelligence. The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson wrote an excellent report (11/9/11) 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 article quotes former IAEA inspector Robert Kelley, who is dismissive of the agency’s analysis. And 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.”

Anyone wondering about the lessons learned from Iraq could find two newspaper editorials, both published November 10, 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.”

The idea that a journalistic outlet would declare this debate over is profoundly troubling—and suggests that in the corporate media, few lessons have been learned from the Iraq debacle.

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