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    Middle East
     Feb 24, 2009
IAEA douses furor over Iran report
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is increasingly appearing like a dysfunctional fire station - it's become an agency designed to put out fires triggered by the heat of nuclear proliferation, and yet can't help but ignite a few flare-ups along the way.

The recent handling of Iran's nuclear issue has been such a brushfire for the United Nations' watchdog. The latest report by director general Mohammad ElBaradei has instigated a media furor over the disclosure that the IAEA had previously underestimated the volume of enriched uranium at Iran's nuclear facilities by some 30%.

From the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and London's Mirror, the Guardian and the Financial Times, among other

 

leading international newspapers, the reaction has been a steady stream of alarmist commentaries. Many reports regard this an Iranian "milestone" in reaching "nuclear break-out capability".

At a crucial time when the Barack Obama administration is pursuing carefully quilted diplomacy to reach out to Tehran, such new alarms are bound to impact the tempo and speed of the White House's approach. Israel has already criticized Washington's tactics as "too slow".

Small wonder then that last Friday the news about Iran's "nuclear milestone" coincided with news from Israel that prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu has prioritized Iran's nuclear program as "the greatest existential threat to Israel".

Netanyahu and his hawkish colleagues in the emerging new Israeli government have much to thank from the IAEA for maintaining a cloud of question marks over Iran and its true nuclear "ambitions". Such uncertainties are turned all the more potent by the alarmist spins in the pages of the New York Times and other leading dailies.

And spin they did ever so expertly. A Los Angeles Times report was headlined "Iran has enriched enough to make a bomb, report says" while the New York Times went out of its way to convey the impression that Iran had deliberately "understated" the magnitude of its enriched uranium. The New York Times added serious fuel to this raw information by citing an "anonymous" IAEA official who claimed that "theoretically" Iran is capable of making a nuclear bomb. However, the unnamed source was careful to include important qualifiers, such as "if" Iran kicks out the IAEA or switches off the IAEA surveillance cameras.

More important, such reports give the IAEA a sour reputation. After all, it is fully outside the norms and standards of the UN atomic agency to have one of its senior officials brief reporters and yet refuse to go on the record officially in the name of "diplomatic sensitivities". The anonymous official seems completely oblivious to the double standard of engaging in such "theoretical" posturing that militates against the IAEA's own norms and principles.

"Theoretically, if you count how many uranium 235 atoms there are in 1,000 kilograms of LEU, you will have enough uranium 235 atoms for a significant quantity of [highly enriched uranium]. So in theory, this is possible, but if they use [Natanz], they are not there yet," the senior IAEA official was quoted as saying.

Have any of these high-brow gentlemen at the IAEA ever openly entertained such guess work about other countries, such as Japan, which has enough enriched uranium to manufacture a couple of dozen bombs within months? Why focus only on Iran? Hasn't the time come for the IAEA to level the playing field now that the era of the George W Bush administration's frenzy of Iran disinformation has formally, if not actually, come to a close?

A glance at the Obama administration's reaction to the IAEA report raises issues about the latter question. The US government spokesperson, Gordon Duguid, was quick to denounce Iran and parrot the line that Iran must suspend all its "uranium-enrichment related reprocessing". This despite the fact that all the IAEA reports - including this most recent one - state categorically that "there are no indications of ongoing reprocessing activities" at Iran's nuclear facilities.

Wouldn't it be nice if the US officials first bothered to read - or read carefully - the reports that they rely on to sledgehammer Iran? It would be equally important for Washington, and the wealth of Iran-bashers in the Western media, to ponder the IAEA clarification on the issue of Iran's under-reporting the volume of its enriched uranium that has been communicated to this author by the agency's spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming.

IAEA's clarification
Fleming's letter to this author, dated February 22, 2009, states: "There have been a number of reports in the media commenting that Iran has under-reported the production of low enriched uranium at Natanz. In this regard, it is important to note that:
  • As clearly indicated, 'estimates' of production quoted in IAEA reports to the Board of Governors have been just that, ie best estimates made by the operator (this is also the case for the estimate of production - 171 kg between 18 November 2008 and 31 January 2009 - given in the latest report);
  • Such estimates are based on the operator's predictions of how the plant will perform - they are not formal declarations by the country;
  • In contrast, the figures given in the IAEA's latest report for the amount of low enriched uranium actually produced as of 17 November 2008 (839 kg of UF6) were based on actual measurement made by the operator that have been carefully verified by the Agency.

    It is also important to note that:
  • No nuclear material could have been removed from the facility without the Agency's knowledge since the facility is subject to video surveillance and the nuclear material has been kept under seal;
  • The Agency has no reason at all to believe that the estimates of the low enriched uranium produced in the facility were an intentional error by Iran - they are inherent in the early commissioning phases of such a facility when it is not known in advance how it will perform in practice;
  • Iran has provided good cooperation on this matter and will be working to improve its future estimates."

    Despite the IAEA's candid reaction to the erroneous media spin on its latest report, the question of fair play and the need for the agency to stop playing politics with the Iran file continue to loom large. The same applies to respected nuclear scientists, such as David Albright who has expressed serious "surprise" at the IAEA's finding about the magnitude of enriched uranium in Iran (which is not half as surprising and certainly not uncommon, according to Fleming's letter).

    Albright's exaggerated response, as well as the distorted spins seen in the New York Times, raise serious questions about the ability of the Obama administration to pull off anything meaningful from its diplomatic track with Iran, especially considering the constant bombarded of such Iran-phobic feedback.

    As long as the US media, experts and key players in the "administration of knowledge" about nuclear Iran continue to churn out alarmist reports it is doubtful that any meaningful change in the US's approach toward Iran will be forthcoming. Still, the IAEA's timely clarification gives some small hope that the brushfire of Iran's nuclear stand-off may be fading out - rather than spinning out of control.

    After all, the same IAEA report repeatedly confirms that there is no evidence of military diversion and that the environmental samplings at the enrichment facilities confirm Iran's declaration.

    As for the thorny issue of Iran's heavy-water reactor under construction in Arak - where Iran has unilaterally rewritten the scripts for IAEA inspections in reaction to the UN sanctions deemed "unjustified" - it is fairly certain that as part of a quid pro quo to normalize Iran's file, Tehran is willing to re-adopt those provisions of the subsidiary agreement with the IAEA that permit the latter's verification of design information.

    Iran is in the mood for compromise. This stance is reflected in the IAEA report that Iran has de-accelerated its enrichment-related activities as a gesture to the Obama administration. This important information should have had the upper spot in the Western media's stories on the IAEA report. Yet only the Washington Post saw fit to highlight this angle in the headline of one of its news articles on Iran.

    Hopefully, after learning of the IAEA's important clarification - which in essence exonerates Iran of any nuclear foul play - the rest of the Western media will follow suit.

    Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

    (Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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