The New York Review of Books Gets It Wrong on Iran
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” — Aldous Huxley
A post on The New York Review of Books blog today demonstrates a striking lack of understanding of the Iranian nuclear program, a sensationalized reading of the contents of the latest IAEA Safeguards Report, and a near-total regurgitation of official Israeli talking points regarding the imminent danger of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Written by Jeremy Bernstein, whose past commentary on Iran reveals his penchant for alarmism disguised as pragmatic realism, the article – entitled “Iran and the Bomb: An Update” – deliberately ignores all available evidence showing that Iran not only has no active nuclear weapons program but is also uninterested in developing an atomic bomb. This is a shame considering Bernstein knows a great deal about nuclear weapons and proliferation.
Bernstein’s post oozes with hasbara, from his contention that “the Israelis will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons” because “Iran’s nuclear program is [a] matter of existential importance” to his description of the newest IAEA report as “a very disturbing document.” He worries that, despite clandestine efforts to sabotage the program, Iran is now “producing enriched uranium at a faster rate” and has “produced some thirty kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium,” which he disingenuously describes as “the boundary between low and highly enriched uranium and is the stepping stone to the degree of enrichment needed to make a weapon.”
What Bernstein intentionally leaves out of his hysterical hand-wringing is the fact that Iran has been enriching uranium to 19.75% (which is almost invariably rounded up to 20% to sound more ominous, since enrichment to 20% and above constitutes “high-enriched” uranium, rather than “low-enriched”) for the sole purpose of continuing to provide much needed medical diagnostic isotopes for scanning and treating over 800,000 cancer patients. Iran turned to this higher level of enrichment only as a last resort to replenish its supply of medical isotopes which, after more than two decades, has been depleted (the last batch of 23 kg of 19.75% LEU was obtained in 1988 from Argentina). In advance of running out, Iran tried to purchase more on the open market under full IAEA supervision, yet this move was prevented by the United States and the subsequent LEU swap deal was canceled after the U.S. refused to act in good faith. The “stepping stone” of 19.75% LEU that Bernstein warns about is currently saving the lives of Iranian cancer patients.
Bernstein also omits the inconvenient fact that nuclear weapons grade uranium must be enriched to at least 90%, which is a considerably higher than the almost 20% needed for medical use. He also suggests that the Iranian use of laser technology “strongly suggests that the uranium is intended for use in a weapon” and insists that the Iranian plan to build ten new enrichment facilities is evidence of the intention to produce nuclear weapons, determining, “There is no imaginable need for such a proliferation of facilities for a peaceful program.”
With this statement, it would seem that Bernstein’s imagination does not include the possibility of an attempt to destroy Iran’s perfectly legal, constantly monitored enrichment capabilities, in which case the more facilities, the better for Iran’s own deterrence and the survival of its program. The idea of Iran protecting its own research, resources, and investments naturally frustrates those like Bernstein, who are threatened by the Islamic Republic’s sovereignty, self-determination, and self-defense.
Yet Bernstein himself acknowledges that such actions have already been taken by the United States and Israel in the form of the Stuxnet virus, which Bernstein laments was not particularly successful. (He also doesn’t describe the Stuxnet sabotage as a clear violation of the law and quite possibly an act of war). Moreover, Bernstein suggests that an Israeli military attack on Iran is not merely a possibility, it is inevitable. “It is very clear what the Israelis will do. They must have drawn a line in the sand,” he writes. “Perhaps they will wait until the Iranians test or perhaps they won’t.”
Bernstein never once mentions the legality of the Iranian nuclear program or the inalienable right of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” In this way, he seems to share the paradoxical views of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who addressed Iran directly on Meet the Press in July 2009, saying, “You have a right to pursue the peaceful use of civil, nuclear power,” and then immediately contradicted herself by insisting, “You do not have the right to have the full enrichment and reprocessing cycle under your control.”
The NYRB post is also full of innuendo and insinuation, all of which relies on the foregone conclusion that Iranians are inherently devious and genocidal. At one point Bernstein dismisses the understandable Iranian contention that its Safeguard Agreement is legally binding and can not be exceeded just because the IAEA requests access to facilities not covered therein. With regard to Iran’s objections to IAEA overreach, he writes, “One can draw one’s own conclusions.” Apparently, Bernstein would suggest that anyone refusing to voluntarily subject themselves to a full body cavity search without a proper court order or warrant would imply that the person must be guilty of something. It’s the old illegal eavesdropping argument all over again: if you have nothing to hide, why object to a little wiretapping? Only terrorists care about the law! Abiding by the Constitution? Draw your own conclusions!
Bernstein’s warmongering relies on the deliberate omission of the recent confirmation by Pulitzer Prize laureate Seymour Hersh that there is literally no evidence that Iran has militarized, or has even considered weaponizing, its nuclear energy program – a fact well-known by both the U.S. and Israeli governments and their myriad intelligence agencies after considerable spying, surveillance, and infiltration. Naturally, even though he wrote this post days after the publication of Hersh’s new report, Bernstein makes absolutely no mention of it.
He does, however, betray his own ignorance about Iranian society when we expresses shock “that there seems to be no visible dissent against [the nuclear energy program] in Iran” and that he has “never heard [any Iranian] say anything negative about the country’s nuclear activities—quite the contrary, they seem to be a source of pride.” The reasons why there is no Iranian objection to the nuclear program are many; for one, Iranians make the important distinction between nuclear power and nuclear weaponry. To suggest that the Iranian public considers its legal nuclear energy program identical to a hypothetical atomic bomb program is incorrect. Also, Iranians are aware of the political nature of the efforts to halt its nuclear program, a scientific and technological achievement about which Iranians are indeed proud, as it decreases Iran’s dependence on foreign powers and moves Iran exponentially closer to energy self-sufficiency. Iranians are also well-informed as to their national rights as affirmed by the NPT and recognize American attempts to curtail those rights (as well as Israeli bluster and hypocrisy). Bernstein must know that, in 1953, the CIA – at the behest of the British government – engineered a coup to overthrow Iran’s burgeoning democracy and installed a brutal U.S.-backed dictator due to Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh’s efforts to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. As such, why is he surprised that Iranians refuse to allow similar domination over its energy sector almost six decades later?
Bernstein also trots out tired claims about the clandestine nature of Iran’s nuclear facilities and states that IAEA inspectors were “denied” access to the newest facility outside Qom. In February 2003, after Iran announced officially the existence of the Natanz facility (which it did within the timeframe mandated by Iran’s Safeguard Agreement with the IAEA, specifically, no later than 180 days before the site becomes operational), a spokeswoman for the IAEA confirmed, “This comes as no surprise to us, as we have been aware of this uranium exploration project for several years now. In fact, a senior IAEA official visited this mine in 1992.”
Furthermore, much ado was made about Iran’s Fordow facility near Qom, which was supposedly “revealed” to the world by Barack Obama last September. In reality, though, Iran had already announced this site to the IAEA earlier that week. IAEA spokesman Marc Vidricaire said, “I can confirm that on 21 September, Iran informed the IAEA in a letter that a new pilot fuel enrichment plant is under construction in the country.” Obama’s revelatory press conference was held on September 25th.
Under its safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Iran is not obligated to inform the Agency of any new facilities until six months before the introduction of nuclear material to the site. As such, since the Fordow enrichment plant was not yet operational, and wouldn’t be for another 18 months, Iran had broken no rules. In fact, the site was announced a full year before it needed to be. As Ali-Akbar Salehi, Iran’s nuclear chief, remarked, “This installation is not a secret one, which is why we announced its existence to the IAEA.” Ahmadinejad himself even felt the need to point out that the agreements and guidelines between Iran and the IAEA do not require approval by the United States. “We have no secrecy, we work within the framework of the IAEA,” he said. “This does not mean we must inform Mr Obama’s Administration of every facility that we have.”