Consider the source
31 Mar 2009 13:39
Iran's Nuclear Program 101
By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
From 2001 to 2003, when the Bush administration was preparing the public for the invasion of Iraq, it supported its lies and exaggerations through front-page articles in The New York Times by Judith Miller, the now discredited reporter who left "the newspaper of record." Many of her articles were co-authored by Michael R. Gordon, The Times' chief military correspondent. In fact, from 1998 Miller had been serving as the chief of propaganda for Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, presenting in her articles, based on Mr. Chalabi's fabrications, accounts of a terrifying Iraq with active programs for producing weapons of mass destruction, which were later proven to be nonexistent. Many internal memos from The Times leaked to the outside world indicated that Chalabi and the neocons were the only sources of Miller's claims on Iraq.
A particularly glaring example of the lies that Gordon and Miller were propagating was in an article that they published on September 8, 2002, in which they claimed that Saddam Hussein was trying to purchase aluminum tubes for use in Iraq's uranium enrichment program. The "evidence" was quickly challenged in an article by Joby Warrick of the Washington Post, but the lie was used by the neocons, and particularly Dick Cheney, as "proof" of Iraq's nuclear program. It turned out later that the neocons had supplied the lies to Gordon and Miller, and then used their articles as the needed evidence for the "smoking gun." The lie was used repeatedly for quite some time as the primary propaganda tool against Iraq.
Was Judith Miller that gullible and easy to fool? No, she was not. She was sympathetic to the neocons' cause, despite being considered a liberal on many other issues. At the same time, she had to go along with what she was being told because otherwise she would have probably lost her sources in the administration.
A similar phenomenon is taking place with respect to Iran and its nuclear program. Lies, exaggerations and baseless speculations are rampant about how close Iran supposedly is to making a nuclear bomb. The last round of propaganda started after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its latest report on Iran on February 19, 2009. The report in fact reaffirmed, once again, that (i) Iran had not diverted its nuclear materials to non-peaceful purposes; (ii) there was no evidence of a secret nuclear weapons program or secret nuclear facility, and (iii) all of Iran's nuclear facilities are monitored by the IAEA and its nuclear materials are safeguarded. The report also contained an important positive signal from Iran in that it stated that the Islamic Republic had not increased significantly the number of centrifuges that were producing low-enriched uranium (LEU). This was very likely a signal from Iran that it wished for a detente with the United States under the new administration of President Obama.
All the positive points in the report were however ignored by the usual anti-Iran crowd, because the IAEA also reported that it estimated, as of January 31, Iran had produced 1010 kg of the LEU with an enrichment level of 3.49%. Suddenly there were deafening screams about how Iran could enrich its stockpile of LEU to the level suitable for a single nuclear bomb; that is, to 90% purity. Even if Iran could miraculously do the enrichment and build a nuclear device, it would have to explode it in a test, hence finishing up its entire stockpile! Moreover, converting a nuclear device to a nuclear bomb is in itself a difficult task, and there is no evidence that Iran has such a capability.
But, the War Party has ignored all of this. In its tall tale, Iran's one ton of LEU is the equivalent of Iraq's "aluminum tubes." Its allies in the latest round of propaganda are the usual crowd -- the mainstream media, the Israel lobby, and the pundits who are apparently able to read the minds of the Iranian leaders better than the Iranian leaders can themselves.
That the War Party and the Israel Lobby should embark on this latest round of propaganda is expected. What is surprising however is the appearance of an entirely new source to "substantiate" that which cannot be substantiated: speculations, innuendos and skewed interpretations of what the IAEA actually reports, or what Iran may or may not have or do. This new source is David Albright and his Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).
One would think that Albright would use his command of nuclear issues, as recognized by the American Physical Society's Joseph S. Burton Forum Award, for objective and impartial analysis of Iran's nuclear program. But he and his Institute have been increasingly distancing themselves from such a position, and wittingly or unwittingly becoming a tool in the hands of the anti-Iran crowd. Let me explain.
Consider, first, the ISIS itself. It monitors the nuclear programs of India, Pakistan and Iran, among other nations. Unlike Iran, the first two have not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), and have developed nuclear arsenals. Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, restive population, political instability, and strong influence of Islamic fundamentalists in its military and intelligence services, is one of the most dangerous nations on Earth; yet the main focus of the ISIS in Iran.
The ISIS, which presents itself as a scientific -- hence, presumably impartial -- organization, does not analyze or monitor Brazil's nuclear program, whose navy controls its uranium enrichment program and has restricted the IAEA access to Brazil's uranium enrichment facilities, in violation of its NPT and Safeguards Agreement obligations. Just imagine what would happen if the IAEA were to declare that Iran's military controls its uranium enrichment program.
Nor does the ISIS analyze or follow Israel's program. This is the same nation that, (i) has at least 200 nuclear warheads; (ii) has three nuclear submarines that can attack any nation in the Middle East (one is usually in Iran's vicinity); (iii) kidnapped its own citizen, Mordechai Vanunu, in Italy and took him to Israel, where he was jailed for 18 years because he revealed that Israel had a nuclear weapons program; (iv) has been threatening for a long time to attack Iran and its nuclear facilities, and (v) is the main reason for instability in the Middle East. But, the ISIS apparently believes that Israel and its nuclear program do not require monitoring or analysis.
On its Web site, the ISIS claims that it "works to create a world safe from the dangers posed by the spread of nuclear weapons to irresponsible governments..." (emphasis mine). Given its 41 years of occupation of the Palestinian lands, in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, its massacre of thousands of innocent people in the occupied territories and Lebanon, and the unimaginable destruction that it has caused there, Israel must be a "responsible" government. And Iran, which has not attacked any nation for at least 270 years, and has been the victim of numerous military attacks, invasions, and foreign-sponsored coups, is "irresponsible."
Then there is the question of the sources of funding for the ISIS. It has a staff of five, and also lists two consultants and two interns. It uses the satellite imagery provided by DigitalGlobe, a private vendor of space imagery based in Colorado. All of this needs funding. On its Web site the ISIS states that, "the vast bulk of our funding comes from public and private foundations," but 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 ISIS's sources of information. Consider, for example, the IAEA's reports on Iran. When Mohamed ElBaradei, the 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 sites immediately after they are submitted. Often, even before the submission of the reports, the ISIS seems to know their contents, and numerous times has posted them at the same time that they are submitted.
That brings us to the ISIS President, David Albright, his analysis, and his sources at the IAEA. I am not going to repeat Scott Ritter's criticism of Albright. Some interpreted Ritter's expose as a personal attack, and Frank von Hippel of Princeton University wrote a response to his piece, defending Albright.
I leave it to the readers of Ritter's article to gauge for themselves whether his arguments have any merit. I have never met Ritter, but have tremendous respect for him and his courageous stand regarding the illegal invasion of Iraq and what the Bush-Cheney cabal tried to do to Iran. At the same time, leading an extensive and active research program in physics and engineering has given me a degree of objectivity.
I believe that Albright has made many valuable contributions to the debates on nuclear arms, nuclear materials, etc. Albright relies, however, too heavily on baseless (not educated) speculations, and, quite often, nothing more that mere guesses. Moreover, he has been silent on important and sensitive issues that any experienced analyst and expert should be able to comment on. And he has published on the ISIS Web site analysis that seems to serve one and only one purpose -- adding dangerous fuel to the debate over Iran's nuclear program. These may not have been a problem by themselves, but we are talking about a serious international issue, namely Iran's nuclear program and the fact that the War Party, the Israel lobby, and Israel itself are looking for any excuse to provoke and justify military attacks on Iran. In such a situation, anything other than solid, objective scientific analysis, backed by legitimate documents and credible sources is extremely dangerous. But, unfortunately, when it comes to Iran, Albright has increasingly distanced himself from being such an expert and analyst. Let me explain.
To begin with, let me point out that an analyst of Iran's nuclear program, and the president of a supposedly impartial and scientific institution, cannot consort with AIPAC, the leading Israel lobby in the United States and an organization that is behind practically all the anti-Iran rhetoric that is coming out of Washington and, at the same time, present himself everywhere as an objective and impartial analyst. But, that is exactly what Albright did. On March 5, 2006, he spoke to AIPAC, making a presentation entitled, "Nuclear countdown: what can be done to stop Iran?" That, by itself, is very revealing, but Albright has not stopped there.
When it comes to talking about Iran's nuclear program, Albright either sensationalizes the issue without putting much substance behind it, or tells half the story, leaving behind important details. As an example of the former, consider all the nonsense that he said about the Parchin site near Tehran in September 2004. This is an industrial complex in southeast Tehran that has been producing conventional ammunition, high explosives, and rockets for Iran's armed forces for decades, going back to the 1950's. In an article, Albright and Corey Hinderstein made all sorts of allegations about how Parchin was being used by Iran for nuclear-related work. But, the IAEA visited the site in January 2005, and reported no discovery of nuclear-related activities. What did Albright and Hinderstein do? Instead of retracting what they had written, they demanded further visits to the site!
More examples of how Albright is telling only half the story, consider the following. On the question of how much yellow cake (the uranium oxide that is converted to uranium hexafluoride for enrichment) Iran has, Albright has been saying recently that it is enough to make tens of bombs, but does not say that going from the yellow cake to the bomb is a long, tortuous process, fraught with all kinds of scientific difficulties, requiring advanced nuclear technologies, many of which Iran does not currently have, or 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 does not usually say that what Iran has is LEU, not highly-enriched uranium (HEU) that is needed for the 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 wants to (there is no evidence that it does), or has the facility for producing it (which it does not). It is clear that if Iran were ever to enrich its LEU to HEU, it would not do it at the well-known Natanz site. But, even if it were to do so, Iran must do extensive re-piping and some redesigning, which it would not be able to do under the watchful cameras of the IAEA.
In a recent interview, Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor at www.CFR.org, said to Albright, "You've been following Iran's nuclear activities for years. Could you provide an update on its progress so far?"
Here is his response:
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. And so if you were in the camp that said, 'Well, we'll have to strike militarily,' you won't actually know where to strike because you won't know where that secret facility is. Whatever camp you are in, the situation is bound to grow more tense. So for 2009, probably the big technical issue is when Iran establishes this breakout capability. It could be soon. 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, however.
(1) Albright's statement about the breakout capability is misleading, because he does not mention a lot of important details. A nation has that capability when it has enough LEU for conversion to HEU to make a bomb, and the facilities to do so. 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 needed to convert the LEU stockpile to HEU -- is 6 to 9 months, ample time for the international community to negotiate with Iran.
(2) But, that is not the most misleading part of Albright's response. He knows that the Natanz facility is not currently equipped to enrich the LEU to HEU and, even if it were, Iran could not convert the LEU to HEU there. So, he says, with seeming 100% certainty, that the process of converting LEU to HEU will take place in a secret facility. That is, he is sure that such a facility already exists. The IAEA has certified time and again that there is no evidence of the existence of a parallel enrichment program in Iran. So, apparently Albright knows something that the rest of the world does not. I'll come back to this point shortly. He also does not mention that Iran's stockpile of the LEU is safeguarded by the IAEA. So, the only way for Iran to actually produce HEU from LEU is, (a) to leave the NPT and expel the IAEA's inspectors from Iran, and (b) to take the LEU to the secret facility so quickly that all the satellites that are hovering over Iran, watching every move, would miss such a monumental event.
(3) All Albright is talking about is one nuclear bomb. So, assuming that Iran could fool the entire world, that it has everything that it needs, and with tremendous luck produce one nuclear bomb -- after going through another difficult process (and there is no evidence that Iran does have the capability to do so), namely, converting a nuclear device to a nuclear bomb -- it would have to explode it to test it. That would finish off Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium!
Still, Albright did not stop there. The ISIS recently posted an analysis in which it claimed that Iran was running out of yellow cake. When Albright was asked by Gwertzman about this issue, he responded by saying,
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 bought the fuel for at least ten years.
Assuming that the first part of Albright's response is correct (which it is not), the second part is totally misleading. Iran bought the fuel for the Bushehr reactor because when it signed the agreement with Russia, it had no enrichment plant. In addition, Iran bought the fuel for ten years, because it would take that long (at the current pace) to set up an industrial-scale enrichment plant with 50,000 centrifuges.
Then, he 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 and import the low-enriched uranium fuel that they need for those reactors.
Aside from suggesting that Iran should give up its rights under Article IV of the NPT, Albright makes one wonder whom he is 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 and parcel of the U.S. government and more generally the West, then he should stop all pretense to leading an impartial scientific institution, interested only in objective analysis of solid facts.
Albright and the ISIS have continuously published analysis in which they insinuate preordained conclusions based on totally unrelated facts. An example is a recent analysis by him, Paul Brannan and Andrea Scheel entitled "Iranian Entities Illicit Military Procurement Networks." They describe 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 Iran's nuclear program. Even they do not make such a claim. In a second analysis, Albright et al. claimed Iran was illicitly procuring a vacuum pump 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 the Wikipedia, indicates that there are at least 16 very different usages of such pumps (and, importantly, Wikipedia does not even list centrifuges as one of them). But Albright and company decided on their own that this purchase must have been for Iran's uranium enrichment program. Any reasonable expert would object to such so-called analysis because, (i) they are utterly unscientific and based on sheer speculation. (ii) They have little to do with the stated mission of the ISIS. (iii) The time of their release is very suspicious, and (iv) therefore, they can have one and only one goal: to add dangerous fuel to an already heated debate over Iran's nuclear program.
One of the most contentious issues between Iran and the IAEA is the laptop that was supposedly stolen in Iran and turned over to the United States, which allegedly has incriminating evidence of Iran's non-existent nuclear weapon program. The IAEA has repeatedly called on the United States to provide Iran copies of the documents that were supposedly in the laptop. The Americans have refused. The computer has never been analyzed for its digital chain of custody to reveal the dates in which the documents were stored in the laptop. These are two crucial issues that go to the heart of the subject. Yet, Albright has been totally silent about them. Why? The answer brings us to last piece of the puzzle, namely, Albright's source at the IAEA.
Albright's current contact at the IAEA, with whom he is "extremely tight" (in the language of several sources), is Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's deputy director for safeguards, who is in charge of the current inspection in Iran. Heinonen, who tries to deceive people into believing that he is impartial by reminding them that he is from Finland, has been leading a crusade against Iran. Against the IAEA protocol for his high position, Heinonen constantly leaks sensitive information to the press, and spreads baseless or at least unproven allegations about Iran's nuclear program.
As one example of Heinonen's bias, consider the following: In February 2008, ElBaradei submitted a report to the Board of Governors of the IAEA in which he declared that Iran's six minor breaches in its Safeguards Agreement have been addressed to the IAEA's satisfaction and that, as a result of Iran's cooperation, the IAEA had gained a better understanding of the history of Iran's nuclear program. Right after that report, Heinonen made a provocative and tainted presentation to the Board of Governors, based entirely on the laptop. "Alarming," he called it. This enabled the U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA, Gregory Schulte, who is a master at exaggerations and innuendos, to declare that
As today's briefing showed us, there are strong reasons to suspect that Iran was working covertly and deceitfully, at least until recently, to build a bomb. Iran has refused to explain or even acknowledge past work on weaponization. This is particularly troubling when combined with Iran's determined effort to master the technology to enrich uranium. Uranium enrichment is not necessary for Iran's civil program but it is necessary to produce the fissile material that could be weaponized into a bomb.
In addition to Schulte's utter arrogance in deciding that Iran does not need its own uranium enrichment, one must ask, how can Iran explain a document that has never seen? How can Iran acknowledge something that it has not done? It is really straightforward to confront Iran on this issue: Present copies of the documents to Iran, and analyze the laptop's digital chain of custody.
What is Albright's position regarding all of this? Silence! He probably knows that at least some of the documents were fabricated and inserted in the laptop and, therefore, an analysis of the laptop's digital chain of custody would easily reveal that. He knows most definitively that given Iran's history of having its scientists assassinated, its experts would not carelessly reveal the names of important personnel in a memo, which is supposedly in the laptop. But, Albright has kept silent because he is "tight" with Heinonen. Just like Judith Miller, if Albright says anything about this issue that Heinonen does not like, he will lose his source inside the IAEA, the same source who presumably gives him ElBaradei's reports on Iran and other information that are not supposed to be distributed publicly.
Heinonen is "tight" with Albright because he realizes that leaking information to Albright and ISIS to present to the public gives it a veneer of legitimacy. It is better for a former UN weapon inspector and nuclear expert and his "scientific, non-profit" institution to spread unproven "facts," than the deputy IAEA chief for inspection. Heinonen is a true heir to Pierre Goldschmidt, who served in the IAEA in the same capacity, and who has made many ridiculous statements regarding Iran since moving to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In addition to Albright and Heinonen being "tight," there might be another factor at play. Many times in the past Albright claimed that Iran could not reach certain milestones in its nuclear program, because it just does not have the technological and scientific capabilities. Yet, time and again he was proven wrong. That is because he and other Western experts have a hard time accepting that Iran, a nation that has been under the most severe U.S. sanctions for more than two decades, has succeeded in setting up a complete indigenous cycle for producing nuclear fuel. As the author told William Broad and David Sanger of The New York Times in an article that was published in the Times on March 5, 2006,
We'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.
Some may point to Albright's opposition to attacking Iran's nuclear facilities as an indication that he is against war with Iran. But, if the article by Albright, Paul Brannan, and Jacqueline Shire, is studied carefully, one finds that it is not that they are against war per se, but that they do not think bombing will solve the "problem." Instead, they advocate sanctions. But sanctions are low-intensity wars. Sanctions killed at least 500,000 Iraqi children in the 1990's. The number of civilians killed as a result of invading and occupying Iraq ranges anywhere from 200,000 to 1 million, which is completely comparable with the number of the Iraqi children killed in the 1990's.
It would be a pity if David Albright continues down this path and allows himself to be used as a tool like Judith Miller. He can still contribute usefully 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 and prejudiced one at that.