Transcribing Obama Administration Iran Spin, Sanger Advances False “Breakout” Capability

Marcy will be along later to discuss the shiny thong thing aspect of David Sanger’s New York Times article where he was awarded today’s transcription prize by the Obama administration and allowed to “break” the story in which the US for the first time admitted its role in cyberwarfare against Iran’s nuclear program. What I want to concentrate on here is how in putting forward the cyberwarfare story, Sanger unquestioningly accepts the administration’s framing that Iran is just a short “breakout” away from having multiple nuclear weapons.

Consider this key paragraph:

These officials gave differing assessments of how successful the sabotage program was in slowing Iran’s progress toward developing the ability to build nuclear weapons. Internal Obama administration estimates say the effort was set back by 18 months to two years, but some experts inside and outside the government are more skeptical, noting that Iran’s enrichment levels have steadily recovered, giving the country enough fuel today for five or more weapons, with additional enrichment.

All Iran needs is “additional enrichment” for “five or more weapons”. That assumption is false on many levels. First, because Iran’s enrichment activities are closely monitored by onsite IAEA inspectors, any activity aimed at above the 20% level which is their current upper bound would be detected quickly. That statement is backed up even by David Albright, who has been busy fanning the anti-Iran rhetoric on the Parchin front. Adding further doubt to a rapid breakout of enrichment is that even in this same article, Sanger notes that Iran’s centrifuge technology is old and unreliable. Albright supports that observation as well, and notes that installation of additional capability has been slowed by technical issues that don’t seem related to cyberattacks.

The second major flaw in Sanger’s transcription above is that more than just “additional enrichment” is needed. The whole cat and mouse game at Parchin is playing out because in addition to enrichment of uranium to weapons grade, Iran will need technology for initiating the nuclear chain reaction that results in the weapon being detonated. Sanger makes no mention at all of this technical barrier for which there is no evidence that Iran has made an appropriate breakthrough.

Heck, the “enough uranium for five bombs” framing requires us to count the material enriched to only 3.5%. That makes it surprising the US and Israel aren’t claiming that Iran has enough uranium for an unlimited number of bombs if you count the uranium in the ground that they haven’t mined yet.

Roja Heydarpour, writing at The Back Channel, brings us this bit of reassurance from David Albright that any Iranian attempts at enrichment to weapons grade would be caught quickly: Read more

Parchin Game of Cat and Mouse Escalates: Razed Buildings, Earthmoving Probably Don’t Affect Controversial Chamber

For a brief period yesterday afternoon, initial news reports had me thinking that perhaps proof had finally emerged that Iran has indeed carried out work on a nuclear weapon and was taking actions in an attempt to hide the after-effects of that work. As new details emerged, however, it became more clear that an elaborate game of cat and mouse is being played out between Iran and those who accuse them of weapon development, but overall there still seems to be no conclusive proof that weapon development at the controversial Parchin site has been carried out.

That is a pattern that has played out several times now. “Diplomats” provide anonymous information to a reporter in Vienna on new accusations about nuclear weapon development work in Iran. The first version of the story put out by the reporter contains only a vague accusation but is delivered with a sensationalized headline suggesting that new and important evidence supports the conclusion that Iran is carrying out work at Parchin aimed at developing a neutron trigger device for a nuclear weapon . Subsequent expansion of the article reveals that the “evidence” is much weaker than initially portrayed and that technical details tend to contradict the accusations for the large part.

Until yesterday, that pattern had played itself out three times since March, each with George Jahn of AP playing the role of the reporter in Vienna. First, there was the claim in March that Iran was trying to clean the Parchin site to remove evidence of work on a trigger device. It took several weeks after the initial claim, but finally a satellite image purporting to show evidence of “washing” the building at Parchin was produced in early May when David Albright displayed satellite images showing puddles in the parking lot outside the suspect building. Of course, Albright’s claim of “washing” away the radioactivity is ludicrous, as traces would remain, especially if the wash water is simply allowed to pool in the parking lot of the building. Albright and Jahn did not give up, however, and Jahn subsequently came up with a cartoon depicting the chamber (it’s even the same color as the real chamber!). The huge hole in those accusations, though, is that if the accused neutron trigger work with uranium were indeed being carried out at Parchin, then the process of neutron activation would have resulted in both the structural steel of the chamber itself and most likely the structural steel of the building housing the chamber being radioactive throughout the thicknesses of the steel. This would mean that Albright’s claims that Iran could “cleanse” the chamber and the building by grinding and washing surfaces were impossible. Instead, in order to clean the site:

The only way that Iran would be able to hide evidence of work on a neutron trigger device at Parchin would be to dismantle and remove the entire chamber. It most likely would be necessary to raze the entire building as well, since the structural steel in the building surrounding the chamber also likely would have been made radioactive by the neutrons.

Jahn’s third sensational headline followed by less sensational details related to the finding of traces of uranium enriched to 27% rather than 20% at the enrichment site at Qom instead of at Parchin, but this still fits the overall pattern.

Another aspect of attempts to clean evidence of work with radioactivity is removal of the upper layers of soil.

Yesterday, Fredrik Dahl of Reuters took over George Jahn’s role as the reporter in Vienna to release a sensational headline only for the real story to fall short of the accusations (apologies to Jahn for my initial–now deleted–tweets on this revelation, which I attributed to him when I reacted first to the headline and only later noticed the story was from Dahl and not Jahn). I have counted at least five versions of Dahl’s story as it was updated through the day yesterday and this morning. Here is complete article as it appeared in its initial form: Read more