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The Myth of 'Weapons-Grade' Enrichment

By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

23/06/08 "
Asia Times" -- -- Talk about the double standards at the United Nations. Whereas UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly condemned Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's rhetoric against Israel, expressing "shock and dismay", he has remained ominously, and inexcusably, silent about the blatant Israeli threats of military attacks on Iran, thus undermining the world's confidence in his ability to steer the global community clear of yet another major war in the Middle East caldron.

Having turned a blind eye to Iran's formal protest at the UN regarding Israel's explicit threats, Ban may need to revisit his own statement of June 7, 2007, "The secretary general points out that all members have undertaken to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state."

In light of new media disclosures about Israel's advanced plans to launch a major air offensive against Iran's nuclear installations, bound to inflict serious civilian casualties and trigger the volatile region into a "fireball", to paraphrase the reaction of the head of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammad ElBaradei, who has stated categorically that he would resign immediately if Iran is attacked, Ban is borderline on the verge of skirting his official obligation by refusing to issue a stern statement on this serious matter of war and peace.

ElBaradei's comments followed confirmation by sources at the Pentagon and other US government agencies that Israel recently carried out a full rehearsal of an air assault on Iran's nuclear sites.
Should Israel deliver on its stated threats and drop its bombs on Iran, thus triggering a major conflict in the Middle East, with dangerous and unanticipated consequences, then the UN will be widely regarded a key casualty of this crisis, and would be blamed for failing in prudent crisis-management.

Unfortunately, compounding the UN's shortcoming above-cited is a related failure of mainstream media in the US and Europe to criticize Ban's flawed approach to the Iran crisis, or to address the systematic disinformation and planned paranoia about Iran's nuclear program put forth by Israel and its allies.

Instead, the US media in particular have allowed themselves to become an unwitting accomplice of Israel's anti-Iran propaganda machine, dutifully recycling the line that Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons, has amassed "weapons-grade" enriched uranium, and is thus on the verge of arriving at "the point of no return" with respect to bomb-making.

In a word, the race to dupe public opinion about a "clear and present danger" posed by Iran's nuclear program, to justify Israel's threatened attack (with the US's tacit approval) is in full gear and the US media are by and large about to receive another "F" card, just as they did with the US's 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the "pluralistic" media became a shell of itself by blindly echoing the White House's spin about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed, it is remarkable how little the US media have learned, or evolved, since then and how frozen their will is when it comes to their sedimented inability to criticize the state of Israel, recalling the criticisms of US editorials by former president Jimmy Carter in his book, Worse than Apartheid. In fact, the rather uniform, uncritical and conformist behavior of the US media shows that they are worse than Israel's own media, they occasionally display signs of independence from the government on foreign policy matters.

It is not 'unsupervised' or 'weapons-grade'
From the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to the Boston Globe, the Dallas News and so on, a common thread running through their editorials and opinion pages nowadays is a fundamental distortion of facts about Iran's nuclear program that has gone unnoticed despite the patently obvious and flagrant nature of this distortion.

With leading nuclear experts, media pundits and members of the US Congress recycling it, this serious distortion has now acquired the status of a truism about Iran, and a dangerous one that lends itself to an unprovoked attack on Iran by Israel and or the US.

But, no matter what the influential position of their signatories, the narratives in the US media that persist in their claim that Iran has manufactured "weapons-grade" enriched uranium simply cannot stand the weight of scrutiny and are refuted by the IAEA's findings to the contrary. These narratives routinely refer to the IAEA's reports on Iran, yet turn a blind eye to those reports' explicit references to Iran's "low-enriched uranium" (up to 4%).

To give a few examples, Graham Allison, a leading US nuclear expert at Harvard University, recently penned an article in the Boston Globe [1] stating: "Iran is operating 3,492 centrifuges in a cascade that has produced 500 pounds of low-enriched uranium. This is one-third of what is required for Iran's first nuclear bomb."

Similarly, in an article in The Wall Street Journal, US Congresswoman Jane Harman, who chairs the powerful Homeland Security Intelligence Committee, cites Iran's steady progress in installing new centrifuges and the dangers posed by "unsupervised, weapons-grade material" in Tehran's hands. [2]

Never mind that IAEA reports clearly confirm that all of Iran's enrichment-related facilities are under the agency's "containment and monitoring", or that IAEA inspectors have had nine "unannounced visits" at the enrichment facility in Natanz since March 2007.

Thus, for instance, in a front-page article in the New York Times, [3] dated June 20, Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt break the sensational news about Israel's extensive maneuvers in preparation for an attack on Iran, indirectly rationalizing Israel's belligerency by omitting any mention of the IAEA's latest report confirming the absence of any evidence of military nuclear diversion and, instead, confining themselves to the following comment: "In late May, the IAEA reported that Iran's suspected work on nuclear matters was a 'matter of serious concern' and that the Iranians owed the agency 'substantial explanation'."

What ought to have been added was that the same IAEA report states unequivocally that it had received "no credible information" regarding the alleged "weaponization studies", nor has the agency detected any nuclear activity connected to those alleged studies. Besides, the same IAEA report more than a dozen times stresses the evidence of peacefulness of Iran's nuclear program.

Yet none of this seem meritorious of attention of even veteran New York Times reporter Michael Gordon, better known for his association with discredited reporter Judith Miller, who loyally dished out Israel's disinformation about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to the newspaper's global readership in 2002-2003. Yet Gordon is now emboldened to lend his penmanship to Israel's warmongering against Iran, through narrow, selective attention to IAEA reports and distorting the atomic agency's findings.

To turn to another example of flawed coverage of Iran by the US media, a recent editorial in the Dallas News [4] states categorically that the IAEA "has recently accused Iran of developing its program of enriching uranium". The editors appear unaware that the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a signatory, does not prohibit Iran's uranium-enrichment program.

The IAEA has never declared Iran in material breach of its obligations and, certainly, has never "accused" Iran of pursuing a program sanctioned under the NPT. Rather, the governing board of the IAEA has simply requested from Iran to suspend its sensitive nuclear program as a "confidence-building measure", that is, as a time-bound and thus temporary "legally non-binding" step.

Yet, by dispensing with such important nuances and critical distinctions between low-enriched uranium and "weapons-grade" uranium, a growing segment of the US media has now fully integrated itself in Israel's incessant anti-Iran campaign, aimed at exerting maximum pressure, even if that means twisting the facts and standing them on their head.

Israel's 60-year history is replete with examples of its leaders misguiding the public with their threats, such as when they painted Egyptian leader Gemal Abdul Nasser as a "Hitler of the Middle East", when, in retrospect, the historical record has established the carefully-orchestrated media campaign to justify Israel's pre-emptive strike at Egypt (and other Arab states) in June 1967.

History often repeats itself and today Israel is reportedly poised to take on Iran, despite the absence of any "smoking gun" and the fact that neither Israel nor the US has "proved that Iran's nuclear program is military", to paraphrase Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. One would think that after the Iraq fiasco, the bar for instigating warfare in the Middle East would be set relatively higher. Yet the exact opposite seems to be the case now, with the lame-duck President George W Bush, who upped the ante against Iran in his recent European tour, reportedly tilting in favor of the "wild card" in a military scenario with Iran, ie, Israel.

Concerning the latter, although US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has signed a letter from the "Iran Six" countries to Iran, accompanying with an incentive package, pledging to respect Iran's sovereignty, Rice's hawkish colleagues in the Bush administration apparently have a different scenario in mind. (The "Iran Six" includes the United States, France, China, Russia, England and Germany.)

Thus, Mike McConnell, the US national intelligence director, told the right-wing Fox TV last Sunday that Iran was a year or two from developing its first nuclear bombs. McConnell's alarmist estimate on Iran is clearly at odds with the US's National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, released late last year, that confirmed that Iran's nuclear program was, and had been since 2003, peaceful.

McConnell's own deputy, Donald M Kerr, has repeatedly defended the NIE report before the US Congress, stating that the US intelligence community does not plan to "revise" it.

Various pundits, such as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, have criticized the NIE report for failing to refer to Iran's enrichment program as an evidence of weaponization. (See Kissinger's foggy lens on Iran Asia Times Online, December 18, 2007.) Yet, Kissinger and others critical of the NIE report overlook that as long as there is no evidence of Iranian enrichment above the "low-grade" that is qualitatively and technically different from "high-enriched" or "weapons-grade" enrichment, no one can accuse Iran of engaging in proliferation by simply pursuing a legal nuclear activity.

To return to Allison's piece above-mentioned, it is factually incorrect to assume that Iran's low-enriched uranium is "one-third" what is required for a nuclear bomb. First, only through extensive and a painstakingly difficult technological process of re-processing and re-enriching uranium to substantially higher levels (90% or more), can Iran's enriched uranium be utilized for manufacturing bombs.

Second, with the IAEA's robust inspection of Iran's enrichment facilities, any such diversion to "weapons-grade" enrichment would be instantly detected, simply because significant modifications, re-assembling and re-configuration of the cascades of centrifuges would be necessary and that could not possibly evade the IAEA's watchful eyes.

Yet, all of this is ignored, with the tacit suggestion that Iran's program is "unsupervised" when, in fact, it is one of the most exhaustively inspected and supervised nuclear programs in the world, in light of some 3,500 hours of inspection of its facilities since 2003.

In conclusion, misperceptions of Iran's nuclear activities form an important prerequisite for a major military offensive against the country. This is the concern as long as those misperceptions are propagated.

1. Sitting down at the nuclear table with Iran June 7, 2008.
2. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Is Obsolete June 20, 2008. Curiously, Harman in her diagnosis of NPT's obsoleteness does not even bother mentioning Israel's clandestine nuclear proliferation and the need to do something about it to further the cause of Middle East non-proliferation.
3. US Says Israeli Exercise Seemed Directed at Iran June 20, 2008.
4. US, Europe united toward Iran June 16, 2008.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online

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