Glaring Front Page Error by David Sanger, New York Times as Iran Nuclear Negotiations Near Deadline

See the update below, as of about 2:45 pm, the Times has changed the wording of the erroneous paragraph without adding a note of the correction. Oops. I got off on the wrong paragraph when I checked back. See the comment from Tony Papert below.

For someone who has written on a range of technical issues for many years, the error committed last night by David Sanger could not be worse nor come at a worse time for the important events he is attempting to cover. In an article put up last night on the New York Times website and apparently carried on page A1 of today’s print edition, Sanger and the Times have garbled a key point at the heart of the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations as they near the critical November 24 deadline for achieving a full agreement on the heels of last year’s interim agreement.

The article ostensibly was to announce a major breakthrough in the negotiations, although Gareth Porter had worked out the details of the progress last week. Here is what Porter deduced:

The key to the new approach is Iran’s willingness to send both its existing stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) as well as newly enriched uranium to Russia for conversion into fuel for power plants for an agreed period of years.

In the first official indication of the new turn in the negotiations, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marzieh Afkham acknowledged in a briefing for the Iranian press Oct. 22 that new proposals combining a limit on centrifuges and the transfer of Iran’s LEU stockpile to Russia were under discussion in the nuclear negotiations.

The briefing was translated by BBC’s monitoring service but not reported in the Western press.

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, who heads the U.S. delegation to the talks, has not referred publicly to the compromise approach, but she appeared to be hinting at it when she said on Oct. 25 that the two sides had “made impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable.”

As Porter goes on to explain, such an arrangement would allow Iran to maintain a large number of centrifuges continuing to enrich uranium, but because there would be no stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU), the “breakout time” (time required to highly enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon) would remain at about a year. By having Russia convert the LEU to fuel rods for Iran’s nuclear power plant, that LEU would be removed from any easy pathway to a weapon. This would provide Iran the “win” of maintaining its present level of around 10,000 operational centrifuges but give the P5+1 its goal of a longer breakout time. The key here is that unlike a proposal in 2005 where Russia would take over enrichment for Iran, this new proposal would allow Iran to continue its enrichment program while shipping virtually all of of its LEU to Russia for conversion to fuel rods.

Sanger appears to start off on the right track with his article:

Iran has tentatively agreed to ship much of its huge stockpile of uranium to Russia if it reaches a broader nuclear deal with the West, according to officials and diplomats involved in the negotiations, potentially a major breakthrough in talks that have until now been deadlocked.

Under the proposed agreement, the Russians would convert the uranium into specialized fuel rods for the Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran’s only commercial reactor. Once the uranium is converted into fuel rods, it is extremely difficult to use them to make a nuclear weapon. That could go a long way toward alleviating Western concerns about Iran’s stockpile, though the agreement would not cut off every pathway that Tehran could take to obtain a nuclear weapon.

But about halfway through the article, Sanger displays a shocking ignorance of the real points of recent negotiations and somehow comes to the conclusion that Russia would be taking over enrichment for Iran rather than converting LEU into fuel rods:

For Russia, the incentives for a deal are both financial and political. It would be paid handsomely for enriching Iran’s uranium, continuing the monopoly it has in providing the Iranians with a commercial reactor, and putting it in a good position to build the new nuclear power reactors that Iran has said it intends to construct in the future. And it also places President Vladimir V. Putin at the center of negotiations that may well determine the future of the Middle East, a position he is eager to occupy.

Somehow, Sanger and his New York Times editors and fact-checkers are stuck in 2005, suggesting that Iran would negotiate away its entire enrichment program. Such a drastic move would never be contemplated by Iran today and we are left to wonder whether this language found its way into the Times article through mere incompetence or more nefarious motives meant to disrupt any possible deal by providing false information to hardliners in Iran.

At the time of this writing (just before 9 am on November 4), the Times still has not added any correction or clarification to the article, despite the error being pointed out on Twitter just after 10:30 pm last night (be sure to read the ensuing Twitter conversation where Laura Rozen and Cheryl Rofer work out the nature of the error).

Update: And now, around 2:45 in the afternoon, I see that the Times has changed the erroneous paragraph. So far, I don’t see a note that a correction has been made. Here is the edited paragraph:

Russia’s calculus is also complex. It stands to gain financially from the deal, but it also has an incentive to see the nuclear standoff between Iran and the rest of the world continue, because an embargo keeps Iranian oil off the market. With oil prices falling, a flood of exports from Iran could further depress prices.

Will they ever get around to adding a note? I’ll keep an eye out. Well dang, this is embarrassing. I went to the wrong paragraph when I looked back. The article is still unchanged. Thanks to Tony Papert in comments for catching my bone-headedness.

17 replies
  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Thanks for the credit, Jim!

    As I said last night, I’m not inclined to make a big deal of the “enrich” part of that article. I know that Sanger should know better, but there would be a series of editors who could introduce an error. And I’ve seen similar errors in other places. People focus on enrichment and they don’t know the technical part, so it pops up as a substitute for “nuclear manufacturing processes we aren’t aware of.”

    That said, Russia would be only too happy to provide enrichment services for Iran, for a price of course, and the suggestion has come up in the negotiations before.

    The limiting factor is that Iran is almost as distrustful of Russia as it is of the United States. I’m not at all fond of the speculation and don’t do it myself publicly because I think it can do more damage than help. But some feel it important to say “I told you so,” so I guess it won’t stop.

    • Jim White says:

      Yes, normally I would also be happy to ascribe this to an error caused by not appreciating the science underlying the situation. It gives me pause this time, though, because enrichment itself has been such a central part of the negotiations for a couple of years now, so both Sanger and his editors should have a much better idea of what is actually being discussed now. Further, since, as I pointed out in the post, this article would now seem to give ammunition to hard-liners in Iran who have been pushing hard to maintain every bit of enrichment capability Iran has developed, this is a particularly bad time for such language to be put out there. That’s why I feel it is important to ask the question of whether or not the mistake is innocent.

    • Jim White says:

      You called it. They just now edited out the word “enriching” and so far they haven’t added a note at the bottom of the article.
      Of course, the damage has already been done with the inaccurate version being in the print edition.

      • Tony Papert says:

        It still hasn’t been corrected, Jim. You picked up a later paragraph in the story, which is actually unchanged. Paragraph 9 still says, :It [Russia] would be paid handsomely for enriching Iran’s uranium,…”


  2. Don Bacon says:

    Regarding this “major breakthrough in the negotiations” we’ve heard this song before, in 2010, with Obama backtracking on his support for Iran LEU export because Israel objected.
    Following a meeting with the Brazilian President Lula and the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, in the Nuclear Security Summit in New York, President Obama on 20 April 2010 wrote to President Lula that “Iran’s agreement to transfer 1,200 kg of Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) out of the country would build confidence and reduce regional tensions…” Then came the pull-back.
    Apr 30, 2010-Turkey, Brazil brokering Iran nuclear deal
    May 16, 2010-Turkey, Brazil seal deal on Iran nuclear fuel swap
    May 17, 2010-Israel fears Iran nuclear deal will delay UN sanctions
    May 17, 2010-U.S. Is Skeptical on Iranian Deal for Nuclear Fuel
    May 18, 2010-U.S. outmanoeuvered as Iran signs nuclear deal with Turkey and Brazil
    May 18, 2010-Iran’s Nuke Deal Irritates Washington
    May 19, 2010-Brazil, Turkey defend nuclear deal with Iran, urge Security Council to give talks more time
    May 19, 2010-Brazil-Turkey Deal with Iran Undermines Big Power Politics
    May 26, 2010-What Did China Get for Backing Iran Sanctions?
    June 9, 2010-Security Council Imposes Additional Sanctions on Iran
    Aug 30, 2010-Iran atomic chief says fuel swap talks finished
    So in the intervening four plus years Iran has stuck it out despite increased sanctions and US/Israel terror attacks, and has brought the US back to the table, in defeat. Also Russia might benefit by becoming a major player in a world issue, again, but there are some down sides for Russia too, primarily the getting of Iran back as a major oil seller, a competitor in a down market.
    I note that the US has already shifted a bit to other anti-Iran tirades rather than nuclear: Human rights (seriously), support of terrorism (seriously), and voter irregularities (ditto).

  3. Don Bacon says:

    Many are suggesting Republican victories today with a potential takeover of the Senate with could heighten the Senate’s power to reject any treaty with Iran which would allow enrichment.
    That possibility, if occurring, might promote an increased US treaty effort in the lame duck.

  4. Don Bacon says:

    Rofer: People focus on enrichment and they don’t know the technical part,..
    Yes. Many people don’t know that the presence of highly enriched uranium, in a gaseous state, mistakenly called “breakout,” allows a nuclear weapon. Or perhaps they know and intend to obfuscate?
    There is insufficient appreciation of the nuclear weaponization process. Many observers incorrectly jump quickly from highly enriched uranium gas (HEU) to a nuclear weapon. The situation is further confused by labeling the achievement of HEU as “breakout”, incorrectly implying that a nuclear weapon somehow pops out of gas centrifuges.
    A nuclear weapon cannot be made of gas. The gas must be converted to metal, a difficult and very dangerous process because of the high potential for a critical accident (like a nuclear reactor without shielding) that would kill anyone in the room or nearby.
    Then an implosion warhead would have to be constructed. Warheads are complicated little machines. The entire detonation process happens within a tiny fraction of a second so the hard part is constructing a warhead with reliable separation capabilities throughout the various stages. Testing is mandatory to make sure the thing works. … etc.

    • orionATL says:

      thanks for those details, e.g., enriched gas can’t make a bomb, nuc weapons can’t be delivered in the back of a van.

      those critical intervening steps always seem to be ignored altogether or elided over in american media discussions of iran’s nuclear program. israeli declarations and “discussions” are simply dishonest, misleading propaganda.

      as for american domestic politics and iran’s nuclear program, it won’t just be republicans piling on. democrats will be falling all over each other to show their fealty to belligerant, ignorant, wealthy american zionists.

      • Don Bacon says:

        You’re welcome.
        The Iran critics play it both ways. They talk about breakout being the production of HEU, which if you have a lot of, it can be used to make a bomb quickly (not mentioning that the enrichment process is under close IAEA supervision), and then they’ll talk about PMD and visiting military installations looking for nuclear weapons work.
        It’s all BS, from guys like Sanger, but it pays off for the US, which is expanding its military footprint in the Gulf, now 40,000 troops and new investments, and also enjoying brisk foreign military sales to Gulf despots.
        One more thing: Sanger, and “journalists” like him, wouldn’t have a job if he told the truth. He just wouldn’t.

    • didi says:

      The gas you talk about is UF6 or uraniumhexafluoride. Regardless of the concentration of U235 it is an extremely aggressive chemical. I have worked with it. I very much doubt that even the lowly enriched materials are shipped to Russia in the form of UF6. Much more likely is some uraniumoxide which forms when UF6 reacts with water generating a lot of heat. In essence the Russians will get “yellowcake”.

  5. Don Bacon says:

    This NYTimes piece by David Sanger in May 2010 illustrates what he thought of that Iran nuclear agreement. It was a merely a “a deftly timed attempt to throw the sanctions effort off track.”

    U.S. Is Skeptical on Iranian Deal for Nuclear Fuel
    Published: May 17, 2010
    WASHINGTON — The United States, Europe and Russia responded with extreme skepticism to Iran’s announcement on Monday that it had reached an agreement to ship roughly half of its nuclear fuel to Turkey, saying they would continue to press for new sanctions against Tehran.
    image: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran gave a victory sign after the signing of a nuclear swap deal in Tehran on Monday. With him were President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, left, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, right.
    Nonetheless, officials from several countries said that the deal, negotiated with the leaders of Turkey and Brazil, was a deftly timed attempt to throw the sanctions effort off track….

  6. Richard Steven Hack says:

    This article was written by David Sanger. So its NOT an “error” – it’s deliberate Israeli propaganda. Sanger has NEVER written an article on Iran that wasn’t biased against Iran and consisted mostly of regurgitated Beltway propaganda. These sorts of “errors” are always deliberate.

    • Don Bacon says:

      Exactly. Sanger knows what he’s doing, he’s done it for many years, and his mission is directed by the government via his minders at NYtimes. Sanger doesn’t make “mistakes” like this.
      One more thing: Sanger, and “journalists” like him, wouldn’t have a job if he told the truth. He just wouldn’t.

  7. thomas Hussey says:

    Sanger’s reporting are representative of the efforts of what I call the Treason Lobby in the U.S. Congress and media. It is composed of people who are attentive only to what Israel wants and not to what the American people want and need, which is an end to 35 years of hostility between two nations with a long history of friendly relations. After all, it took us less than twenty years to begin the diplomatic effort to reach out to China after the end of a bloody war in which thousands of Americans died. How many Americans have died at Iranian hands since 1979?
    We should long since have arrived at a time for honest reporting on Iran and a rejection of the Israeli propaganda that is doled out to our Congress and media and from there spoon-fed to the American public.

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