[Note: Siobhain Butterworth is the reader’s editor of The Guardian newspaper.]
Dear Siobhain Butterworth,
I am writing about Julian Borger report Decision time for US over Iran threat and the newsdesk podcast interview of Julian Borger by Jon Denis on the 11th November, the day after the release of the IAEA director general’s report on the Iranian civil nuclear programme. I wrote a letter to the editor but have received no reply or acknowledgement and, as far as I can tell the issues have not been addressed so I am writing to you. I still find these Guardian reports highly disturbing.
In Decision time for US over Iran threat Julian Borger says:
The installation of 3,000 fully-functioning centrifuges at Iran’s enrichment plant at Natanz is a “red line” drawn by the US across which Washington had said it would not let Iran pass. When spinning at full speed they are capable of producing sufficient weapons-grade uranium (enriched to over 90% purity) for a nuclear weapon within a year.
In the newsdesk podcast, Jon Denis introduces his interview with Julian Borger by saying:
Iran has installed 3000 centrifuges. That is enough to enrich uranium to make a nuclear warhead within a year—that’s according to a report by Mohammed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA.
And the interview proceeds:
JB: It says that they now have 3000 centrifuges installed and they are feeding uranium gas into those centrifuges [and] they are up and working. The significance of that is that if those 3000 centrifuges were spinning full speed and working properly for the course of a year they could produce enough weapons grade uranium to make a bomb and for the US we know that that is the read line they have drawn down, past which they don’t want Iran to go.
JD: What happens if Iran does pass these red lines?
JB: The US is faced with a choice. Whether to relax the red line, abandon it and retreat to a red line further back, or to take action. This is the tough choice facing the US administration, but also the choice that is facing the Israeli government; at what point do you believe that there is some point of no return in the Iranian nuclear programme and take military action to set it back? It certainly raises the tension.
And towards the end of the interview we find:
JD: What is Iran’s view of this IAEA report?
JB: Iran’s view is that it is a complete vindication of Iran’s position. Most of the report was about Iranian cooperation with the investigation that the IAEA is carrying out into the past nuclear activities. That is the main subject of the report, it just noted in passing that Iran had come to this important benchmark. There were positive notes in the report about Iranian cooperation though it pointed out that it was far from perfect but President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seized on the positive note to say ah look you see we were right all along.
Here are my questions.
1. Why is The Guardian reporting that ‘according to a report by Mohammed ElBaradei’, Iran now has the capacity to ‘enrich uranium to make a nuclear warhead within a year’? The IAEA report says no such thing, but it does say:
Since February 2007, Iran has fed approximately 1240 kg of UF6 into the cascades at FEP. The feed rate has remained below the expected quantity for a facility of this design. While Iran has stated that it has reached enrichment levels up to 4.8% U-235 at FEP, the highest U-235 enrichment measured so far from the environmental samples taken by the Agency from cascade components and related equipment is 4.0%. Detailed nuclear material accountancy will be carried out during the annual physical inventory taking which is scheduled from 16 to 19 December 2007. Since March 2007, a total of seven unannounced inspections have been carried out at FEP.
To enrich uranium for electricity generation requires uranium enriched to about 4.8% while a nuclear weapon requires uranium enriched to over 80%. While Iran was reporting to the IAEA that it was achieving the 4.8% level the IAEA can only find evidence that levels of 4.0% are being achieved and that uranium is being fed through the cascades at a lower than expected rate.
Indeed Iran had already announced that it had 3,000 centrifuges operating as we can see from a report in the Jerusalem Post on the 7th November:
US experts say 3,000 centrifuges are in theory enough to produce a nuclear weapon, perhaps as soon as within a year.
If the relevant clauses in the report cast doubt on the performance levels that the Iranians are claiming they are achieving and need to fuel their electricity programme, how can The Guardian summarise the IAEA report as confirming that the Iranians are achieving the vastly higher levels of performance that would be needed to make a bomb within a year?
2. Why has The Guardian seized on ‘a note in passing’, that merely adjusts downwards the Iranian public claims about the effectiveness of their enrichment programme, to dominate its report of the IAEA report? Only when Jon Denis got round to asking about the Iranian position at the end of the podcast interview did we find that most of the report was confirming the progress that was being made in clearing up IAEA outstanding questions concerning past activities.
3. Why does The Guardian say that if the Iranians continue to exercise their inalienable right under the NPT to enrich uranium for their electricity generating programme, under tight IAEA supervision, that a ‘tough choice [is] facing the US administration’ […] ‘but also the choice that is facing the Israeli government; at what point do you believe that there is some point of no return in the Iranian nuclear programme and take military action to set it back?’ There are many people that believe that the NPT is being exploited for political purposes by the USA to pursue regime change in Iran and that Iran is merely exercising its rights under the NPT signed and ratified by USA, UK and Iran. There are many others that say that even if Iran is positioning itself to weaponise its civilian nuclear programme that it is many years away and that the policy of coercion leading inevitably to military action and war would be a catastrophe, not least for nuclear nonproliferation. Why is The Guardian saying that the US and Israel are facing a tough choice as to whether to attack Iran if she continues to enrich uranium under IAEA supervision.
The truth is that many independent experts believe that the Iranian uranium makes a very unpromising starting point for a weapons programme. This is what Frank Barnaby of the Oxford Research Group had to say last year in Iran’s Nuclear Activities:
Iran will, however, have to solve a difficult technical problem before producing significant amounts of highly enriched uranium. Iranian uranium is reportedly contaminated with large amounts of molybdenum and other heavy metals. These impurities could condense and block pipes and valves in the gas centrifuges. In spite of this problem, the Iranians should be able to enrich uranium to the low enrichment needed for civil nuclear-power reactor fuel. But they would not be able to enrich above about 20 per cent in uranium-235.
They would, therefore, not be able to produce uranium enriched enough for use in nuclear weapons. To do so they would first have to remove most of the molybdenum. They would need foreign technical help – from, for example, China or Russia – to solve this problem.
Many doubt if the Iranians will be able, in the foreseeable future, unaided, to enrich their own uranium to the high levels needed for nuclear weapons.
I hope it is unnecessary to remind anyone of the appalling failures of the press in allowing itself to be manipulated in the government’s preparation of public opinion before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Many people who have looked at this issue closely conclude that the US government is manipulating intelligence and the nuclear nonproliferation framework for political ends, and these are not crackpots. Given the importance this issue has for us all, the following should really be essential reading for everyone, never mind journalists reporting on this story. It is but a tiny sample.
- Scott Horton’s radio interview with Gordon Prather puts the many of the issues in context. He makes a devastating assessment about who seems to be trying to mislead in their statements and those that have a much, much better record.
- Gareth Porter discusses how the Iran NIE has been held up for over a year while it gets cleaned of dissenting voices in the US intelligence community.
- Scott Ritter’s book Target Iran: the truth about the US government’s plans for regime change in Iran has the executive summary in the title but remains essential reading.
My final question is this and it really subsumes all the others. Why is The Guardian uncritically reporting and indeed adopting the US government’s line on the Iranian enrichment activities?