The following was submitted by a reader as a response to a New York Times article claiming “Iran was blocked from buying nuclear materials at least 75 times.”
On Nov 16, The New York Times published an article entitled “Iran Blocked from Buying Nuclear Materials at Least 75 Times, Group Reports”. Has Iran been knocking at every door in the world offering to buy weapons-grade uranium? Not exactly. The bold, alarmist title is much more strongly worded than the fine print can support.
The 12-paragraph article is based on the revelations made to the NYT by a secret source from a secret country. In short, the source reveals that some member states of the Nuclear Suppliers Group have blocked 75 attempted purchases by Iran. As the title has already informed us, these were attempted purchases of “nuclear materials.”
Our second exposure to the materials in question occurs in the first paragraph of the text, where they are referred to as “nuclear-related,” but not quite “nuclear.” We must tread halfway through the article to learn that they are in fact “dual-use” materials. In other words, at least one of their potential applications is nuclear-related, but they also have non nuclear-related applications. It is not until the very last paragraph of the article that we are presented with a list of these materials: “Among the listed items … were nickel powder, petrochemical plant components, compressors, furnaces, electron microscopes, radiometric ore-sorting machines, valves and tubing, lasers, a rotary drilling rig, a mass spectrometer, and a nitrogen production plant.”
At a time when politicians openly discuss a military attack on Iran—when even the use of nuclear weapons is on the table—identifying the distinction between nuclear and dual-use materials is crucial. After all, we remember how Secretary Rice told CNN in September of 2002 that aluminum tubes sought by Iraq were “only really suited for nuclear weapons programs”. “There will always be some uncertainty,” she added, but urgent action was needed because “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
Under the official guidelines of Nuclear Suppliers Group itself, “nuclear” materials are covered in the IAEA Information Circular 254, Rev.8, Part 1, and “dual-use” materials are discussed in the IAEA Information Circular 254, Rev.7, Part 2 . The term “nuclear material” is usually taken to refer to uranium, plutonium, thorium, and their alloys. This interpretation is consistent with the Information Circular, Part 1 . A broader interpretation includes byproduct materials, results of atomic reactions involving the above, as may be inferred from the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 . However, regardless of the technical definition of the term, or the relevance of the technical definition to common usage, it is clear that an electron microscope is dual-use equipment and not “nuclear material.” But the NYT gives the most alarming description the highest prominence by placing it in the title.
The title’s reference to “at least 75 times” is also interesting. The impact of this figure is significantly diluted when we learn that these attempts occurred over 9 years. It is not entirely clear why nine-year old trades would be of any interest at this time since information this old is probably well absorbed by the IAEA. Once again, the title promotes a more alarmist view than the text itself can support.
Most important, it is not a secret that Iran has a nuclear program. The issue is not whether Iran once attempted to purchase tubing or radiometric ore-sorting equipment. The issue is whether the NYT provides any evidence of a weapons program, sheds any light on Iran’s alleged military intentions, or provides any information above and beyond what the IAEA already knows. The article published on Friday carries an eye-catching title, but offers nothing else.
The article notes that the end users in Iran “included the government of Iran and the country’s atomic energy organization and power, engineering, petrochemical and oil-refining and gas companies, aircraft industries, schools, universities, engine manufacturers, mineral research centers, a helicopter support company and a plasma physics center.” Lest the gullible reader be dulled into complacency, the NYT explicitly provides further guidance. The next paragraph reminds us that “Western diplomats have contended that Tehran uses front companies to receive technology and convert it to weapons production without being detected.” No such guidance is provided on another occasion, where the article states, “The list of trade denials was made available by a diplomat from a country interested in exposing the extent of Iranian efforts to acquire so-called dual-used items that can be converted into weapons production.”
The article omits the following key points: No evidence exists of an active Iranian weapons program. In addition, IAEA inspectors have resolved some of their outstanding questions through discussions with Iran in the last several months . In response, Israel7 and the Bush administration  have launched attacks on the IAEA director, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. This week’s IAEA report has found that Iran has been largely truthful in its claims . Administration officials who for years touted “a history of deception,” have now turned to dismissing resolution of these questions as inconsequential. In the last several days, the US, Britain and France have released a new set of “tough questions,”  timing the release to coincide with and downplay the IAEA report. The NYT article also appears in the same time frame. Perhaps the secret source form the secret country is attempting to use the Times as a “front company,” rehashing inconclusive and dated information to sustain the atmosphere of innuendo needed to maintain the Administration’s extremist policy on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Irancove @ November 21, 2007