The IAEA, Iran And ‘Fantasy Land’
Earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its much-trailed report ‘presenting new evidence’, said the BBC, ‘suggesting that Iran is secretly working to obtain a nuclear weapon.’
Relying on ‘evidence provided by more than 10 member states as well as its own information’, the IAEA said Iran had carried out activities ‘relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device’.
Having looked deeply into the claims, veteran journalist Seymour Hersh commented this week in an interview with Democracy Now!:
‘But you mentioned Iraq. It’s just this — almost the same sort of — I don’t know if you want to call it a “psychosis,” but it’s some sort of a fantasy land being built up here, as it was with Iraq, the same sort of — no lessons learned, obviously.’
Indeed, informed scepticism in the corporate media has been muted or non-existent – the image of Iran as a ‘nuclear threat’ has yet again been imposed on the public mind. Any reasonable news reader and viewer would find it extremely difficult to question the emphatic declarations offered right across the media ‘spectrum’.
Thus, a Guardian editorial asserted: ‘It really is time to drop the pretence that Iran can be deflected from its nuclear path.’
Two days earlier, the Guardian’s diplomatic editor, Julian Borger, anticipated the report’s publication on his ‘Global Security Blog’ with a piece titled ‘Iran “on threshold of nuclear weapon”’. The accompanying photograph helpfully depicted a giant mushroom cloud during a 1954 nuclear test over Bikini Atoll. His article was linked prominently from the home page of the Guardian website.
In a later article, Borger gave prominence to a quote from an unnamed ‘source close to the IAEA’:
‘What is striking is the totality and breadth of the information [in the IAEA report]. Virtually every component of warhead research has been pursued by Iran.’
Presumably all-too-aware of increased public scepticism in the wake of Iraq, the anonymous source continued in the Guardian:
‘The agency has very, very, high confidence in its analysis. It did not want to make a mistake, and it was aware it had a very high threshold of credibility to meet. So it would not be published unless they had that high level of confidence.’
In similar vein, a New York Times report opened with:
‘United Nations weapons inspectors have amassed a trove of new evidence that they say makes a “credible” case that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device,” and that the project may still be under way.’
The Daily Telegraph declared its version of the truth unequivocally in a leader titled ‘Iran’s nuclear menace’. It noted that the IAEA report ‘has for the first time acknowledged that Tehran is conducting secret experiments whose sole purpose is the development of weapons.’
Presumably drawing on clairvoyant powers, the editors added:
‘Indeed, the IAEA has known for years that Tehran was building an atomic weapon, but has been reluctant to say so.’
The title of an editorial (November 10, 2011) in The Times was similarly categorical and damning: ‘Deadly Deceit; Iran’s bellicose duplicity is definitively exposed by an IAEA report’:
‘Tehran’s decade-long nuclear programme is obviously not intended purely for generating electricity. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed this week that it has credible evidence that Iran has worked on the development of nuclear weapons.’
The editorial stamped this with the required emphasis:
‘This will sound, and is, a statement of such banality that it ought not to need saying.’
And then continued without a shred of uncertainty:
‘The IAEA report is extensive and understated. Founded on intelligence sources from ten countries, it explains in detail how Iran has established a programme to develop the technologies for a nuclear weapon. Its findings are entirely consistent with all that has been known and exposed before. Indeed, the IAEA is late in stating them.’
For anyone relying solely on corporate news media coverage, the case against Iran was closed. All that remained was to decide the necessary course of international action: ramped-up ’diplomacy’, international sanctions and perhaps – the threat was left ‘lying on the table’ – war.
What is so breathtaking is that the apparent consensus on Iran, like the case against Iraq, is a fraud.
Burying The Cable – WikiLeaks And IAEA Chief Yukiya Amano
One of the stunning omissions in corporate media coverage of the IAEA report are the WikiLeaks disclosures concerning IAEA chief, Yukiya Amano. According to a US Embassy cable from a US diplomat in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, Amano described himself as ‘solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.’
Amano’s predecessor as IAEA chief was Mohammed ElBaradei who had refused to bow before US war-mongering, and who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As ElBaradei came to the end of his term in 2009, the Americans sensed an opportunity to work with someone more compliant. They lobbied successfully on Amano’s behalf. Following his election as IAEA chief, a US cable reported on a meeting with him:
‘This meeting, Amano’s first bilateral review since his election, illustrates the very high degree of convergence between his priorities and our own agenda at the IAEA. The coming transition period provides a further window for us to shape Amano’s thinking before his agenda collides with the IAEA Secretariat bureaucracy.’
This ‘very high degree of convergence’ would presumably be useful in hyping the alleged ‘nuclear threat’ of Iran.
A US mission cable from Vienna commented that Amano was ‘DG [Director-General] of all states, but in agreement with us.’
The Guardian reported the Amano cable in a blog back in November 2010, but not in the paper itself. Our newspaper database search revealed that not a single UK national newspaper has mentioned the WikiLeaks cable revealing that Amano is ‘solidly in the U.S. court’ in coverage of the latest IAEA report. The sole exception we could find anywhere in the UK print media was an article in the New Statesman by Mehdi Hasan.
Rather than report this vital evidence from WikiLeaks, the British media have either tried to silence or vilify its founder, Julian Assange. This is a truly damning indictment of the ‘free press’.
By contrast, Seymour Hersh is a rare voice of rationality exposing this latest propaganda hype. On Democracy Now!, Hersh commented of former US Vice-President Dick Cheney:
‘Cheney kept on having the Joint Special Operations Force Command, JSOC — they would send teams inside Iran. They would work with various dissident groups — the Azeris, the Kurds, even Jundallah, which is a very fanatic Sunni opposition group — and they would do everything they could to try and find evidence of an undeclared underground facility. We monitored everything. We have incredible surveillance. In those days, what we did then, we can even do better now. And some of the stuff is very technical, very classified, but I can tell you, there’s not much you can do in Iran right now without us finding out something about it. They found nothing. Nothing. No evidence of any weaponization. In other words, no evidence of a facility to build the bomb. They have facilities to enrich, but not separate facilities for building a bomb. This is simply a fact. We haven’t found it, if it does exist. It’s still a fantasy.’
Hersh said that Iran did look ‘at the idea of getting a bomb or getting to the point where maybe they could make one. They did do that, but they stopped in ’03. That’s still the American consensus. The Israelis will tell you privately, “Yes, we agree.”’
He described the new IAEA report as ‘not a scientific report, it’s a political document’, noting that ‘Amano has pledged his fealty to America.’
Amano had been ‘a marginal candidate’ for the position of IAEA chief but the US wanted him in place:
‘We supported him very much. Six ballots. He was considered weak by everybody, but we pushed to get him in. We did get him in. He responded by thanking us and saying he shares our views. He shares our views on Iran… it was just an expression of love. He’s going to do what we wanted.’
In a blog on The New Yorker website, Hersh added that one of the classified US Embassy cables from Vienna described Amano as being ‘ready for prime time.’ The cable also noted that Amano’s ‘willingness to speak candidly with U.S. interlocutors on his strategy … bodes well for our future relationship.’
In his Democracy Now! interview, Hersh pointed out that his blog piece was thoroughly researched and checked by The New Yorker, and that it included expert testimony shunned by the major newspapers:
‘These are different voices than you’re seeing in the papers. I sometimes get offended by the same voices we see in the New York Times and Washington Post. We don’t see people with different points of view… And I get emails, like crazy, from people on the inside saying, “Way to go.” I’m talking about inside the IAEA. It’s an organization that doesn’t deal with the press, but internally, they’re very bothered by the direction Amano is taking them.’
Hersh cited Robert Kelley, a retired IAEA director and nuclear engineer who previously spent more than thirty years with the US Department of Energy’s nuclear-weapons programme:
‘He noted that hundreds of pages of material appears to come from a single source: a laptop computer, allegedly supplied to the I.A.E.A. by a Western intelligence agency, whose provenance could not be established. Those materials, and others, “were old news,” Kelley said, and known to many journalists. “I wonder why this same stuff is now considered ‘new information’ by the same reporters.” ’
An assessment of the IAEA report was published by the Arms Control Association (ACA), a non-profit organisation campaigning for effective arms control. Greg Thielmann, a former US State Department and Senate Intelligence Committee analyst who was one of the authors of the ACA assessment, told Hersh:
‘There is troubling evidence suggesting that studies are still going on, but there is nothing that indicates that Iran is really building a bomb. Those who want to drum up support for a bombing attack on Iran sort of aggressively misrepresented the report.’
The BBC ‘Notes’ Privately That There Are Dissenting Views
On November 9, 2011, a BBC news piece carried a side bar ‘analysis’ by James Reynolds, the BBC’s Iran correspondent. We wrote to him the same day:
I hope you’re safe and well there. In your analysis which is included in the BBC News article ‘UN nuclear agency IAEA: Iran “studying nuclear weapons”’, you note that:
‘The agency stresses that the evidence it presents in its report is credible and well-sourced.’
You then add:
‘Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has dismissed the IAEA as puppet of the United States. His government has already declared that its findings are baseless and inauthentic.’
You attribute such views to Iran, an officially-declared enemy of the West. A more balanced approach might be to report that a US Embassy Cable published last year revealed that Yukiya Amano, the IAEA director general, is ‘solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision’.
And according to a recent New York Times report: ‘the Obama administration, acutely aware of how what happened in Iraq undercut American credibility, is deliberately taking a back seat, eager to make the conclusions entirely the I.A.E.A.’s, even as it continues to press for more international sanctions against Iran.’
Shouldn’t these crucial facts be noted in your analysis?
The NYT report continues:
‘When the director of the agency, Yukiya Amano, came to the White House 11 days ago to meet top officials of the National Security Council about the coming report, the administration declined to even confirm he had ever walked into the building.’
Isn’t all this relevant in assessing the context, realpolitik and implications of the IAEA report? Can you not find critical commentators outside the Iranian government whom you can quote?
Given the stakes involved, would you perhaps consider addressing the above points in your analysis in future, please?
Rather than address any of the above points, Reynolds emailed back:
‘thanks for your message. I appreciate your comments and insight.’ (Email, November 9, 2011)
Just over a week later, a new BBC piece appeared in which the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany claimed to have ‘deep and increasing concern’ over Iran’s nuclear programme. We emailed Reynolds again (November 18, 2011):
Have you considered interviewing sceptical and informed commentators?
For example, you could approach the experienced investigative journalist Gareth Porter. He says that the recent IAEA report’s ‘dubious intelligence [is being] used as pretext for tougher sanctions’:
Porter’s analysis is backed up by Robert Kelley, a nuclear engineer who has carried out IAEA inspections. Kelley believes that ‘the report misleads and manipulates facts in [an] attempt to prove a forgone conclusion.’
He also says that the IAEA report ‘recycles old intelligence and is meant to bolster hard liners.’
Shouldn’t you also be including such important and informed views in your reporting for BBC News?
Not hearing from him, we nudged Reynolds on November 21 when he again avoided addressing the points made:
‘I received your message – thanks. I shall reflect on the points you raise.
‘It is always important for me to hear from licence-fee payers – the lifeblood of the BBC.’ (James Reynolds, email, November 21, 2011)
We tried once more to elicit a response from the BBC’s Iran correspondent that actually addressed the points put to him:
I appreciate your reply.
But with the resources of the BBC at your disposal, you surely cannot be unaware of the informed commentators and important points presented to you [in the previous emails]. It is notable that you do not appear to have included them in any of your BBC reports to date. Why not?
Nor have you reported – although I may have missed it – that IAEA chief Yukiya Amano is regarded by the US, according to a WikiLeaks cable, as ‘solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.’
Why remain silent about this astonishing fact? Isn’t this crucially relevant for public understanding of what is happening over Iran? Perhaps there are editorial reasons that are making it difficult for you to properly report these vital issues? (Email, November 22, 2011)
To no avail: the response was even more terse this time:
‘points noted.’ (James Reynolds, email, November 22, 2011)
Curiously, ‘the lifeblood of the BBC’ deserves no better than this.
Can journalists really have forgotten the propaganda offensive that predated the March 19, 2003 invasion of Iraq – a tsunami of disinformation in which they were accomplices? Have they really learned nothing? What gives them the right to absolve themselves and to start with a clean slate now that Iran is the next hyped ‘threat’?
Surely now more than ever – as the spectre of yet another war in the Middle East looms, perhaps the greatest conflagration yet – it is vital that journalists should be wary of repeating propaganda claims over Iran.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Please write to:
Julian Borger, diplomatic editor of the Guardian
Email: [email protected]
James Reynolds, BBC Iran correspondent
Email: [email protected]
Jeremy Bowen, BBC Middle East editor
Email: [email protected]
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