David Sanger and James Risen of The New York Times have posted a very important story about Iran's nuclear programme and negotiations with the "West":
By subtly putting its hands on the brakes of its uranium enrichment efforts, Iran may be signaling that it wants to avoid a direct confrontation over its nuclear program, at least in the near term, according to United States and other Western officials. The action has also led some analysts to conclude that Iran’s leaders are showing signs that they may be more interested in a deal to end the nuclear standoff with the West.
Pretty impressive coverage --- if you don't realise that the story is four months late: the Iranian measures, notably the conversion of more than 40% of its enriched 20% uranium to fuel plates for civilian-only use, were apparent in August.
The real story goes back to the International Atomic Energy Agency's report of 30 August. As we noted in a subsequent analysis, both of the report and of the distortions of it by high-profile analysts --- and New York Times favoured commentators --- like David Albright:
The critical numbers from the IAEA: of its 189 kilogrammes of 20% uranium, Iran was converting 98 kilos to plates for scientific and civilian use. And as Arms Control Now notes, the remaining 91 kilos is "not...enough material" for even one warhead".
Sanger and Risen note today, "Evidence began emerging last summer that the Iranians were diverting a significant portion of their medium-enriched uranium for use in a small research reactor, converting it into a form that cannot easily be used in a weapon."
However, on the day that the IAEA report was released, this is what Sanger wrote with Jodi Rudoren, the Jerusalem bureau chief of the Times:
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the International Atomic Energy Agency on Thursday offered findings validating his longstanding position that while harsh economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation may have hurt Iran, they have failed to slow Tehran’s nuclear program. If anything, the program is speeding up.
But the agency’s report has also put Israel in a corner, documenting that Iran is close to crossing what Israel has long said is its red line: the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a location invulnerable to Israeli attack.
The report does not notice the conversion of 20% uranium to fuel plates. Indeed, it has almost no numbers at all. Instead, it puts out this blanket declaration:
With the report that the country has already installed more than 2,100 centrifuges inside a virtually impenetrable underground laboratory, and that it has ramped up production of nuclear fuel, officials and experts here [in Jerusalem] say the conclusions may force Israel to strike Iran or concede it is not prepared to act on its own.
And here's Sanger on 25 October, this time with William Broad:
Intelligence officials from several countries say Iran in recent weeks has virtually completed an underground nuclear enrichment plant, racing ahead despite international pressure and heavy economic sanctions in what experts say may be an effort to give it leverage in any negotiations with the United States and its allies.
The installation of the last of nearly 3,000 centrifuges at a site called Fordo, deep under a mountain inside a military base near the holy city of Qum, puts Iran closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon, or come up to the edge, if its leaders ultimately decide to proceed.
Again, there is not a single reference to how much 20% uranium Iran is producing, let alone a mention of the amount taken out of potential military use through conversion.
In mid-November, Sanger's War-Is-Looming tone finally softened, as he returned to the Fordoo story, although he held out the further menace of nefarious activities at the Parchin military base:
Iran has finished installing all the critical equipment at a deep underground site where it is producing nuclear fuel that could quickly be converted to use in a nuclear weapon, international inspectors reported on Friday. But they said Iran has yet to ramp up production, leaving several months for President Obama and his allies to work on a diplomatic solution that could avoid a military confrontation.
The report, by the International Atomic Energy Agency, also said that satellite photographs show Iran has worked for months to alter another site [Parchin] that the agency has long suspected may have been used for weapons-related experiments. Inspectors have been barred, and the agency said it fears that the movement of earth and removal of equipment has been so widespread that its ability to “conduct effective verification will have been seriously undermined.”
Even though Sanger writes, "It [has become] clear that Iran’s production rate for 20 percent enriched uranium, the type that could be converted fastest to bomb fuel, has not been as rapid as Israel and the United States had first predicted," he does not refer to why that development "has not been as rapid".
Instead, it is only today that Sanger notices the issue of diversion to civilian-only use:
Evidence from a variety of sources, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, suggests that as Iran produced more uranium enriched to near 20 percent purity, a process that takes it most of the way to bomb-grade fuel, it began diverting some into an oxide powder that could be used in a small research reactor in Tehran. That diversion is believed to have begun in August.
So what explains the shift from four months of Iran "speeding up" a possible program for military use of uranium to today's "hands on the brakes"?
I suggest looking no farther than Sanger's citation of sources. At no point does he appear to have read the 30 August report from the IAEA. Instead, his initial story relied on Israeli officials to interpret it for him and the Times' bureau chief in Jerusalem. His subsequent stories in the autumn were led by "Western" officials who set out the line on Iran's enrichment plants.
It was only in November --- a few weeks after The Times had caught on to the story of "back-channel" discussions between the US and Iran, possibly leading to a resumption of high-level nuclear talks and a deal on enrichment --- that Sanger's "variety of sources" began pointing to civilian-only use for Iran's uranium.
And because Washington still envisages that it can get Tehran to agree to its conditions --- a suspension of all 20% uranium enrichment, a shipping of the existing stock outside the country, and a halt to operations at Fordoo --- it gave the lead to Sanger and Risen for their article today.
Those clues to the politics and propaganda of the Obama Administration, rather than journalism on Iran's nuclear programme, is the real value of The New York Times coverage.
Even it is sometimes months late.