Think Progress, Media Matters Downplay Iranian Nuke Threat

Part I: Groups Distort Iranian capabilities, intentions

January 31, 2012

Recent reports by several left-leaning news outlets have downplayed new intelligence indicating Iran’s nuclear program is more dangerous than previously thought, according to nuclear specialists and former government officials.

"For political reasons, those denying Iranian ill-intent are never going to accept evidence that Iran seeks nuclear bomb technology," said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

"Likewise," he added, "some people will claim that the moon landing was done in a movie studio, or that 9/11 was an inside job — the only proof that will convince them is a mushroom cloud over Israel."

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) disclosed new intelligence in a November report indicating that the Iranian regime continues to clandestinely enrich uranium and that unresolved questions surround its past nuclear weapons work. This, despite recent setbacks – including the assassination of several nuclear scientists and the Stuxnet computer virus, which wreaked havoc on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges – that were thought to have slowed the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Despite a mounting body of evidence detailing Iran’s past and current nuclear work, liberal groups such as the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s Think Progress blog and the Huffington Post, among others, have published numerous reports questioning the IAEA’s recent findings on Iran.

The reports state that the IAEA’s evidence is hazy and that there’s no way to prove Iran desires a weapon.

Several nuclear experts and former U.S. government officials described this reporting as fundamentally flawed, however, warning that all credible evidence indicates that Iran is on the cusp of crossing the nuclear threshold.

"They are certainly moving on [the] path" towards weaponization, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper declared at a recent Senate intelligence briefing on Iran.

During the same briefing, Gen. David Petraeus, director of the CIA, referred to the IAEA’s report as "the authoritative document" on Iran’s nuclear program.

That’s why those working to discredit the nuclear watchdog group’s findings "are distorting what the IAEA says," explained David Albright, a physicist and founder of the non-partisan Institute for Science and International Security.

Albright believes that the goal of these misleading reports is to hamstring the Obama administration and prevent it from taking a more confrontational stance toward the Iranian regime, which has refused to answer IAEA’s questions about its nuclear operation for years.

"People are scared of military strikes and some groups have a vested interest in downplaying anything about the Iranian nuclear program," Albright said.

Stuxnet, for instance, which was widely reported to have dealt a critical blow to Iran’s uranium enrichment operation, "didn’t actually do that much damage," said Matthew Kroenig, a nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The virus didn’t really slow their trajectory at all."

On this and other fronts, much of the media’s coverage has been "fairly superficial," Albright added.

The IAEA’s most recent report reveals that Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons since the mid-1980s with public activities peaking around 2002 before apparently moving underground.

"It shows the length of time that program has existed and how it hasn’t really gone away," but has instead "become more secretive and covered," Albright explained.

Think Progress, meanwhile, has worked to undermine the notion that Iran desires a nuclear weapon. For instance, after the release of the November study, the site reported that "the IAEA did not definitively conclude that Iran resumed a nuclear weapons program," and that "uncertainty remains whether the Iranian regime has made a formal decision to obtain a nuclear weapon."

The Huffington Post has also gone out of its way to chastise those who believe Iran ultimately desires the bomb.

This does not track with IAEA findings, however. As the IAEA's director general, Yukiya Amano, recently put it," what we know suggests the development of nuclear weapons."

Even Democrats with knowledge of the situation dismiss CAP’s reports as unreliable and say that liberal outlets are undermining the public debate about the Iranian threat.

"It’s just so hard to take them seriously," said a senior Democratic Capitol Hill aide who works on issues pertaining to Iran. "These guys write on their blogs and have their magazine pieces, but it just doesn’t matter – and it certainly does not matter on the Hill. I just don’t think CAP’s Middle East policy is taken seriously."

The Democrat added that "people on the left shouldn’t be in the business of minimizing the threat of deranged anti-Semitic dictators like [Iranian] President Ahmadinejad."

Another key IAEA finding is that Iran continues to produce large amounts of uranium enriched to nearly 20 percent. This brings the Iranian regime much closer to possessing weapons-grade material and far exceeds the levels required by their current civilian nuclear program.

"Once they’re siting on a stockpile of 20 percent [enriched uranium], they’re extremely close to the ability to quickly enrich that to weapons grade," said Stephen Rademaker, a former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation.

"By the end of this year, they are going to have about 250 kilos of this 20 percent enriched uranium, which is a matter of concern for the international community," noted Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director general who has inspected Iran’s centrifuges on the organization’s behalf.  "Once you have 25 kilos of this [bomb grade] material, in one month’s time you can produce enough uranium for a nuclear bomb."

Further enrichment "would be very significant and a tell tale indicator" that Iran has made the decision to pursue nuclear weapons, Petraeus recently noted. "There is no commercial use for that."

"Factually," Petraeus added, "the amount of 20 percent enriched uranium that they have exceeds any requirement, for example, for the Tehran research reactor for the foreseeable future, so there are already concerns about that."

But, despite these revelations, "there is a narrative out there that a lot of people want to tell about how the Iranians are having a lot of problems, how sanctions are biting them and how Stuxnet set them back," Rademaker said. "Even with all those things, the program has hardly been crippled. To the contrary, it’s doing quite well.

Part II on Think Progress, Media Matters and the Iranian nuclear program due Wednesday.