Many (including us) have sought to push back against the rampant misinformation and analytic nonsense that passes for mainstream reporting and analysis on the Iranian nuclear issue. But the misinformation (disinformation?) and nonsense continues—as exemplified by the recent “study” by Karim Sadjadpour and Ali Vaez, Iran’s Nuclear Odyssey: Costs and Risks, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). Late last week, our colleague at Iran Affairs, Cyrus Safdari, published a wonderfully sharp critique of Iran’s Nuclear Odyssey. While we encourage everyone to read it at Iran Affairs, we think it deserves the widest possible circulation, and therefore are pleased to re-post it below:
By Cyrus Safdari, from www.iranaffairs.com
While I applaud the conclusion that the US has to take a more realistic stance with respect to Iran’s enrichment program, the material on the nuclear program itself is, frankly, egregiously inaccurate and amounts to a series of bile-spitting non-sequiturs and outright falsehoods that should not have been published with the imprimatur of the CEIP. I won’t bore anyone with a page-by-page criticism, though there is in fact something worthy of criticism on every page, but all-in-all their arguments are the same gripes that have been tossed around in exile circles for a while now and are often contradicted within the same report. The contradictions are not highlighted but are instead artfully evaded, and we are also presented with footnotes to sources that either do not support the assertions they’re cited for, or even contradict them.
I’ll just limit myself to 5 issues and will save the funniest bit for the last:
1- The authors repeatedly emphasize that the size of Iran’s uranium deposits and the capacity of the facilities at Natanz are insufficient to support a totally independent domestic nuclear fuel program—leaving out that the Iranians have repeatedly stated that they did not plan to rely exclusively on domestic fuel to power their nuclear program, but had developed the program as bargaining chip and a hedge against price increases and foreign cut-offs. In fact, Mr Salehi specifically made this point in an interview published in the Financial Times in 2004:
“Natanz, with all its vastness, can supply only one reactor for a year. We are to construct seven reactors, we are starting the bid for the twin reactor in Bushehr in a year’s time, so for that one we need to buy our uranium from outside…We say that for other plants we are going to buy our fuel from outside, but we are not going to become hostage to their wishes. Once they know we can develop our own enrichment, then they will enter into bargaining with us—like any other country.” (SOURCE: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/52c8d7b8-027c-11d9-a968-00000e2511c8.html#axzz2QjGRroFt)
2- The most egregious section is entitled Concealment (1984-2002) on page 8, in which the authors go to great lengths to characterize Iran’s nuclear program as being secret and having military aims. They claim matter-of-factly that the motivation for the decision to restart the nuclear program was for it to serve as a “deterrence option” in the face of Saddam, and then they go to great lengths making a connection between AQ Khan and the program as proof of the military nature of the program. Strangely, the evidence they provide for this matter-of-fact statement about a military motivation is footnote 38, an opinion piece written by Rasool Nafisi in the Iranian.com in 2006, which in no way supports their assertions of fact. (In his article, Mr Nafisi in turn refers to correspondence between Commander Rezai and Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988, in which Rezai stated that Iran could not hope to win the war with Iraq unless there was a massive—and totally unrealistic—increase in Iran’s armaments including nuclear weapons. Khomeini did not take this seriously, and as Mr Nafisi himself writes in the article, some have latched onto this correspondence and spin it as the long-sought evidence of Iran’s nuclear weapons aims.)
Sajadpour and Vaez also claim that “Iran’s uranium enrichment program was thus born in secret” and assert that the facility in Natanz was “clandestine”, and that China had provided nuclear material to Iran in secret, etc. etc. Reality begs to differ with all of this. First of all, Iran was not legally required to formally declare the facility at Natanz when the ISIS/MEK “exposure” of the site occurred, and the same applies to the heavy water project. And while the timeline as presented by the authors shows a large gap in Iran’s enrichment program between 1979 when “work was suspended” and 1986 when the AQ Khan “Doctor No” character is introduced, there was in fact a lot more going on—events which, when not deliberately ignored, paint an entirely different image than the impression the authors’ try to convey.
For example, In April 1979 Fereydun Sahabi, then Deputy Minister of Energy and Supervisor of the Atomic Energy Organization, specifically stated in an interview that while the nuclear program would be cut back, the Iranian “Atomic Energy Organization’s activities regarding prospecting and extraction of uranium would continue.” In fact, far from reinvigorating a “secret” nuclear program in the late 1980 as a deterrent to Saddam, Iranian national radio reported the discovery of Uranium in Dec 1981, March 1982, and again in Jan 1985.
The 1982 national radio broadcast specifically quoted the director of Isfahan nuclear technology center, Mr Saidi, as stating quite explicitly that Iran was going to import the necessary technology to develop the enrichment program, too.
Furthermore, Mark Hibbs, one of the consultants in this report, wrote in Nuclear Fuel magazine in 2003 that the Iranians and the IAEA had intended to launch a joint program to develop enrichment facilities in Iran but that the US stopped the IAEA from doing so in 1983. The motivations for the Iranians going to AQ Khan was thus not due to secret military aims as this report seeks to imply, but because the US had systematically obstructed Iran’s efforts to obtain the civilian nuclear technology that it was entitled to have under the NPT. (While the authors mention the US interference in multiple Iranian nuclear contracts with foreign nations, they pretend not to notice that this contradicts their own thesis of a “secret” nuclear program in Iran.)
Further information missing from this report is the fact that IAEA officials had visited Iran’s uranium mines at the invitation of the Iranians in 1992. And while the authors mention that US pressure ended Iran-Sino nuclear cooperation, they fail to mention that Iran told the IAEA in 1996 that they would complete the uranium conversion facility by themselves, and that the Iranians formally declared the facility to the IAEA in 2000—almost three years prior to the dramatic MEK/ISIS “exposure” of Iran’s supposedly “secret” nuclear program.
I won’t continue debunking the finer points in this section, but all of this information is a matter of public record (the Iranian radio broadcasts were translated by the BBC World Service and can be obtained on Lexis.) Therefore, I consider the authors’ presentation of such a one-sided and contra-factual narrative of events as evidence of bad faith and an agenda which taints the rest of the report, too.
3- The authors go on quite a bit about the supposed lack of attention paid to alternative energy sources in Iran, for example by repeatedly emphasizing the potential for natural gas. They fail to mention that Iran has massively increased its consumption of natural gas in recent years, and in fact today more than 75% of Iran’s electricity comes from natural gas. Furthermore they leave out hydroelectric power, which currently accounts for about 3% of Iran’s electricity production, and that Iran has invested heavily in constructing some of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world. Thus, to characterize Iran as mono-maniacally pursuing nuclear power is simply inaccurate and false. In fact, if anything the sanctions have harmed Iran’s development of alternative energy sources—in addition to investing in wind power, Iran is a manufacturer exporter of wind energy turbines, for example, but has had a hard time obtaining the material used for the rotors due the sanctions. Indeed much of the “costs” that the authors attribute to Iran’s nuclear program are actually costs of the sanctions and not the nuclear program itself, but while they insist that Iran should abandon its nuclear program, lifting sanctions is apparently beyond the pale. Here, I am not interested in debating the economics of nuclear power, as I am sure you can ask 10 economists and get 13 answers. Ultimately, as an investigation by a Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the British Parliament concluded, “arguments as to whether Iran has a genuine requirement for domestically-produced nuclear electricity are not all, or even predominantly, on one side” and neither the US or any other country has a right to tell Iran how to run its own economy, especially at the point of a gun barrel.
4- In criticizing Bushehr, the authors repeatedly use “Chernobyl “as a scare word, never mind that the reactor at Chernobyl was fundamentally of an entirely different design than the sort of light-water reactor used at Bushehr which has an excellent safety record and is used worldwide. They also repeatedly refer to the UAE and Germany as a model for Iran, but leave out quite a few facts. Let us put aside the fact that Germany and the UAE are very fundamentally different countries and cannot be compared to Iran, whether in terms of economic development, strategic considerations or energy demand. The media often report that Germany has phased out nuclear power and has instead substituted renewable sources (specifically, solar power) but in fact Germany has already started to experience energy shortfalls, which have been compensated for by non-renewable sources such as natural gas imports, a significant increase in coal power (making up for 80% of the shortfall, according to Wikipedia) and nuclear-generated electricity from the Czech Republic. And, while the US “123 Agreement” with UAE does indeed require the UAE to “renounce” (as the authors put it) enrichment or reprocessing of nuclear material (thus earning the agreement the “Gold Standard” label in non-proliferation circles) in fact the agreement is only limited to US-origin nuclear material, and furthermore the agreement specifically allows the UAE to renegotiate the deal in the future. Countries more comparable to Iran have not agreed to give up enrichment as part of a bilateral 123 Agreement with the US, and recently S Korea stopped negotiations over their renewal of their 123 Agreement with the US over this issue. In short, the UAE deal is not only not a model for Iran, it isn’t even a model for other countries. As one arms control wonk pointed out recently, far from serving as a Gold Model, the UAE agreement is little more than “a sui generis case unlikely to be replicated that creates a misleading impression about U.S. leverage over certain partners.” (SOURCE: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/08/01/it_s_not_as_easy_as_1_2_3)
5- And finally, we come to a bit of comedy. According to the authors, the fact that the US and Israel released the Stuxnet virus on Iran and assassinated nuclear scientists there is proof that Iran can’t be relied upon to run a nuclear program which safeguards nuclear material from non-state actors who are presumably out to steal Iran’s enriched uranium. Here, the authors site an AP article as proof of an impending disaster at Bushehr due to Stuxnet (footnote 195.) However, if you actually read the AP report cited, you’d see that that it has been misrepresented. According to the AP article cited, the report in question was issued by “a nation closely monitoring Iran’s nuclear program”—Russians, Israelis, Chinese?—and the report itself actually stated that “such conclusions were premature and based on the ‘casual assessment’ of Russian and Iranian scientists at Bushehr.” The AP article then goes on to quote a cyber-security experts and Russian nuclear experts stating that Stuxnet could not in fact have damaged Bushehr.
But aside from that, the argument itself is weirdly illogical on several counts. First of all, the US and Israel, which everyone assumes were behind Stuxnet and the assassinations, are not “non-state actors.” Furthermore, nuclear scientists in any country tend to die when bombs are attached to their cars, and Stuxnet went on to wreak havoc well beyond Iran’s borders (in fact by some accounts Iran wasn’t even the primary victim of the virus). But what I am really curious to know is what the authors think these mythical non-state actors can do with stolen Iranian enriched uranium because, aside from tossing it at someone’s head, the stuff isn’t actually particularly dangerous. It has low-level radioactivity, but certainly cannot be used for a bomb. In gaseous form, it is highly corrosive—but so is Fluorine, an industrial gas which can be purchased commercially far more easily. Of course once irradiated, fuel rods made from enriched uranium are highly radioactive, but in the case of any attempted theft of the stuff the first victim would be the fool who tried to steal it.
As I said, I am not going to bore anyone with debunking what is a series of half-baked claims that are hardly new or interesting, especially since it doesn’t seem that too many people have actually read the entire report. The more interesting question for me is what role the Carnegie Endowment had in vetting this report before it was published under their name. After the Iraq war, the Washington Post and New York Times submitted a weak mea culpa for misleading their readers about “WMDs in Iraq” (even though particularly in the case of the New York Times, the lessons learned were quickly forgotten as Michael Gordon once again pushed out scaremongering articles consisting of a long series of anonymous government official quotes, etc.) but there has been no real accounting for the role of the think tanks in pushing that nonsense. I am not aware of any academic study of the role of think tanks in that fiasco, and don’t expect to see it now but if such an academic study is undertaken, this report by Mr Vaez and Sadjadpour should serve as Exhibit A of one-sided and inaccurate, agenda-driven reports published under the guise of scholarship. Where is the peer review? Where is the balance? Where is the accountability?
—Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett