Iran’s Nuclear Program and the New York Times

When the George W. Bush administration was preparing the public in 2001-2003 for the invasion of Iraq by selling it lies and exaggerations, it was greatly aided by the New York Times. The Times columnist Thomas Friedman was a forceful advocate of the invasion, promising that if Saddam Hussein’s regime is overthrown, Iraq will blossom into a democracy. Friedman also claimed that the Iraqi democracy will become a model for the Islamic nations of the Middle East. Twelve years later and hundreds of thousands of people killed, we know how accurate Friedman’s "predictions" were.

Other Times journalists also contributed mightily to the hysteria surrounding Iraq and its nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Together with Michael R. Gordon, the Times chief military correspondent, Judith Miller kept publishing on the front page of the Times propaganda from Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress and the neocons. The two kept claiming that Iraq had active programs for producing weapons of mass destruction, most infamously the lie about the aluminum tubes that Iraq was supposedly buying to use them in its nuclear weapon program. Chalabi and the neoconservatives were almost exclusively the sources for the two. Dick Cheney would use their articles as "evidence" to support his calls for war. It was not that Miller and Gordon were gullible and could be fooled easily. Miller was sympathetic to the neocons’ and Chalabi’s cause, and Gordon has always sided with the hawks.

Likewise, exaggerations, innuendoes, and speculations are rampant about Iran’s nuclear program and, once again, the Times is playing a leading role in spreading them. Gordon, who never paid any price for his contributions to the hysteria and lies regarding Iraq, and David E. Sanger, a senior Times journalist are leading the way. Sanger, in particular, does not just report on Iran’s nuclear program, or the negotiations between Iran and P5+1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. As I show below, he injects his own personal opinion and whatever agenda that he might have into his reporting, presenting them as "facts." He has been aided not only by Gordon, but also by two other Times journalists, William J. Broad and Steven Erlanger.

The National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007 – reaffirmed in 2010, 2011, and 2012 – stated that [if] Iran did have a nuclear weapon research program, [but] it ended it in 2003. Yet, years after the original NIE and even after its reaffirmations, the Times journalists keep claiming or insinuating that Iran still has a nuclear weapon program. For them time has stopped: it is still 2005, when they were hoping that Iran would give up its entire nuclear infrastructure.

Consider the following statement in a report by Erlanger on 4 January 2012:

The threats from Iran, aimed both at the West and at Israel, combined with a recent assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran’s nuclear program has a military objective, is becoming an important issue in the American presidential campaign.

The emphasis is mine. The fact is, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has never claimed that Iran has a nuclear weapon, or is trying to make one, or has made the political decision to do so. In fact, the IAEA has consistently reported that it has found no evidence that Iran’s known nuclear sites and materials – and all evidence indicates that they are all that Iran has – have been used for non-peaceful purposes. What the IAEA has said is that, given the sophistication of the program, it might have a possible military dimension (PMD). Even this claim was first made by the IAEA in its November 2011 report, after Yukiya Amano took over as the Director-General of the Agency and completely politicized the Agency (see also here and here). We will come back to the PDM issue shortly

After a while the Times removed Erlanger’s statement from its website without any explanation or apology for misleading its readers. But, an outrageous lie by Clifford Krauss, another Times journalist, published on the same day that Erlanger’s report had been published, is still posted on the Times website. Krauss claimed that

"Various Iranian officials in recent weeks have said they would blockade the strait, which is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, if the United States and Europe imposed a tight oil embargo on their country in an effort to thwart its development of nuclear weapons."

Emphasis is mine. No Iranian official has ever made such a statement, which would be tantamount to confessing that Iran has a nuclear weapon program. In fact, Washington’s hawks have insisted on Iran "confessing" that it had such a program in the distant past, but the confession has never been made.

Insinuating that Iran still has a nuclear weapon program is a constant fixture of most of the Times journalists. But, an episode in 2012 demonstrated how the Times plays politics with reporting on Iran’s nuclear program, rather than reporting the truth. While Sanger has been the Times’ main reporter on Iran’s nuclear program, propagating his own views as "facts," in February and March of 2012, the Times suddenly published two reports, one by James Risen and a second one by him and Mark Mazzetti in which they reported that U.S. intelligence had reaffirmed its 2007 assessment that Iran had stopped its work on nuclear weapons. So, suddenly, the Times somehow became interested in reporting the truth by having Sanger sitting out these reports. This was the same Risen who, years earlier, had expressed his doubts about the claims that Iraq had an active program for producing weapons of mass destruction, but he had been relegated to inside pages of the Times. Instead, Miller and Gordon were the ones that had their exaggerations and lies reported on the front page of the Times.

But, Sanger has never changed. For years he consistently referred to "Iran’s nuclear weapon program." It was only after many critics pointed out that Iran has no nuclear weapon program, Sanger stopped using the term.

But, then, in practically every single report that he has filed with the Times, Sanger has implied the same by asserting time and again that there is a "military side of the nuclear program." In addition, every time there appears to be some progress in the negotiations between Iran and P5+1, Sanger has claimed that unnamed Iranian military leaders are either "objecting" or "resisting" or "opposing" the negotiations; see, for example, his report of March 14 with Gordon.

I am aware of only one time when Sanger could name and quote a low-ranking Iranian official linked to the military about "resisting." This was in a report with Broad on 23 November 2014 in which he mentioned a "Reza Saraj," head of the "intelligence faculty" of the IRGC, a nobody in Iran’s political or military hierarchy. In addition, if Sanger and Broad knew anything about Iran – which they do not – they would know that all types of people in Iran constantly talk about the nuclear program without amounting to anything.

Consider a typical sample of Sanger’s reporting. A report by him on 30 August 2014 began with "Amid signs that Iran’s military is resisting efforts to open its nuclear program to deeper inspection…," implying that there is a military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program. Sanger then stated, "Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s [a key figure in Iran’s nuclear program] expertise is central to any Western effort at stopping Iran from building a nuclear weapon, or in putting together the components that could be used to assemble a warhead that could fit atop one of Iran’s long-range missiles," implying that Iran is actually trying to build a nuclear weapon, or that the components for a weapon have been built and exist in Iran.

Sanger continued, "But the announcement comes just days after Iran said it would not allow inspectors in Parchin, a site they last visited years ago, and which has been extensively cleansed in recent years, according to satellite photographs that show earth-moving efforts around suspected test sites." Parchin is a vast industrial complex where since 1932 Iran has been producing ammunitions for its armed forces and high conventional explosives for civilian and military applications. It has already been visited by the IAEA inspectors twice in 2005, and Iran has also agreed to allow more visits in the future.

Sanger did not mention that the IAEA has not alleged that anything nefarious has taken place in Parchin after its two visits in 2005, or that Parchin is not even a nuclear site. He also failed to point out that, under its 1974 Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, Iran has no obligation to allow the IAEA to visit a non-nuclear site such as Parchin.

Sanger then mentioned new sanctions imposed by the State Department on a research organization in Iran that supposedly helps design and build the heavy-water research reactor in Arak. The reactor’s spent fuel will have plutonium. After quoting the State Department’s statement that the reactor, "as presently designed, would provide Iran the capability to produce plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel that could be used in nuclear weapons," Sanger added, "For the first time, the administration said in public that Iran was at work on a process that seemed aimed at allowing the country to reprocess plutonium, much as North Korea has" [emphasis mine].

Apparently, Sanger does not know the difference between producing plutonium as a byproduct of spent nuclear fuel, and having the technology and know-how to reprocess the spent fuel to separate its plutonium. Iran does not have any fuel reprocessing facility, nor is there any evidence that it has the know-how to do it. By shipping the spent fuel from Bushehr’s light-water reactor to Russia, Iran has also demonstrated its disinterest in reprocessing spent fuels. By somehow bringing North Korea in, Sanger insinuated that Iran is just another North Korea.

The Times journalists never bother to present analyses of objective experts that contradict their own preconceived notions. Regarding Parchin, for example, in an illuminating analysis, Robert Kelley, a former IAEA director for inspecting Iraq’s nuclear program, explained why he believes that Parchin cannot be the site of the alleged experiments with conventional high explosives. It has been alleged that in the distant past Iran carried out the experiments in a chamber in a building at Parchin. But, Kelley stated that

"A chamber such as the one claimed to be in the building is neither necessary nor particularly useful for developing a first-generation nuclear weapon. Such development tests have normally been done outdoors for decades."


"There are a range of experiments involving explosives and uranium that a country presumably would conduct as part of a nuclear weapon development program. Most of these are better done in the open or in a tunnel. They include basic research on neutron initiators using very small amounts of explosive and grams of uranium and on the very precise timing of a neutron initiator using a full-scale conventional explosion system and many kilograms of uranium. The alleged chamber at Parchin is too large for the initiator tests and too small for a full-scale explosion. If it exists at all, it is a white elephant."

As nuclear physicist Yousaf Butt pointed out, "If someone is going to build a chamber like the one alleged in the secret evidence passed to the IAEA, they will want to do experiments and make measurements.  They will want to measure things with, for example, very high speed optical cameras, flash X-ray systems, neutron detectors, [and] various electric timing and pressure detectors. The collar that is shown in the alleged graphic of the chamber gets in the way of the optical, X-ray and neutron measurements. So it would be better not to have it there at all. The collar of the alleged chamber also means that when the chamber is used up to its design capacity, it could well fail on the ends, the entrance door or the windows and cable ports for the measurements." But, Sanger and company are oblivious to such expert and objective analyses.

In another report on 28 September 2013, Sanger first mentioned that President Hassan Rouhani flying home [after his first visit to the United Nations as Iran’s president] "to the difficult politics of dealing with Iran’s military and its mullahs." Once again, the insinuation was that there is a military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program. Sanger either does not know, or chooses to ignore the fact that Iran’s military leaders are loyal to the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Khamenei has thrown his full support behind the nuclear negotiations. In addition, Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, has publicly supported the nuclear negotiations.

Then, Sanger revealed his own preferences for outcome of the nuclear negotiations, which he has consistently repeated ever since: "On the list [of demand by the US] is dismantling a multibillion-dollar heavy-water reactor [in Arak] nearing completion … and halting production at, and ultimately destroying, a deep underground site, called Fordo, designed to be immune from Israeli air attack and American cyberattack." For a long time Sanger also kept demanding that Iran should have only a "token number" of centrifuges.

In another report on 20 July 2014, Sanger once again emphasized the role of Iran’s military in the nuclear program, hence implying once again that there is a military dimension. He stated, "Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian military have opposed any agreement that dismantles existing facilities and does not allow Iran, in the near future, to produce as much as it wants."

Some of Sanger’s most outrageous claims were in his report of 22 November 2014. Writing on what a final agreement between Iran and P5+1 might look like, Sanger stated, "Years later [after the 1990s], American intelligence assessments concluded that before 2004, Iran had developed a full-scale weapons program… Intelligence assessments suggest that while Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, halted the most visible elements of the program in late 2003, there has been sporadic work since, in a secret complex of military bases and in universities" [emphasis mine].

First, if Iran did have a nuclear weapon program – and no evidence on it has ever been publicized – it was a research program, not a "full-scale program" that implies weapon production. Second, there is absolutely no evidence that since 2003 there has been sporadic work on nuclear weapons in "a secret complex of military bases and in universities," and even the politicized IAEA does not make such a claim. In which universities or military complex are such works being done? Sanger does not name any because he does not know any.

In a report with Broad on 23 November 2014 Sanger repeated the claim about "continued sporadic work" on nuclear weapons, and again in their report of 19 February 2015, attributing it to "US intelligence."

In the same 23 November 2014 report, Sanger and Broad mentioned "several murky government institutes that American officials say are cover organizations for a weapon effort" [emphasis mine]. Note that the claim is that the institutes are, not were, cover organizations, implying once again that there is currently a nuclear weapon program in Iran, never mind that we do not even know if they were in the past.

Another outrageous claim by Sanger was in his report of 19 September 2013, in which he claimed that, "Unless a good deal of the current infrastructure is dismantled [Sanger’s aforementioned preference], Iran will be able to maintain a threshold nuclear capability – that is, it will be just a few weeks, and a few screwdriver turns, from building a weapon." Except for the most extreme Israeli elements, no one has made such outlandish claim. Where is the evidence? Sanger did not provide an iota of it.

There is more. In their analysis of 19 February 2015, Sanger and Broad make their own allegations. Whereas in its November 2011 report the IAEA alleged that Iran conducted experiments with conventional high explosives, Sanger and Broad represent it as a fact, stating that, "Iran had avoided answering why it conducted studies of experiments with conventional explosives." This is a reference to the allegations about the Marivan site in Iran’s western province of Kurdistan. The IAEA had demanded to visit the site, but after Iran invited the Agency to visit, the Agency turned it down. This is the same IAEA that had asserted in its November 2011 report that "it had received generally consistent ‘information’ that large scale high explosive experiments" for nuclear-weapon development had been carried out in the region of Marivan" (paragraph 43 of the Annex).

Sanger and Broad also stated that, “The other outstanding question centers on computer modeling studies of how the subatomic neutrons released in a chain reaction move and multiply.”

This is apparently a reference to a story by the Associated Press that contained graphs with incorrect timescale and wrong power (energy) correspondence. The amateurish graph was quickly debunked and rejected by many experts, including Butt and Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, and also the author. Once again, Broad and Sanger pretended that the story is still a valid one.

Their analysis of 8 March 2015 with the provocative title, "What Iran won’t say about the bomb," had been written as if Broad and Sanger were trying to scuttle the nuclear negotiations. Consider the followings:

Sanger and Broad spoke of Iran’s "plutonium complex." There is no such complex in Iran. As pointed out earlier, Iran also does not have any reprocessing facility for spent nuclear fuel, and no plutonium-producing complex.

Then, they returned to the notorious "laptop of death" and the old allegations about Iran’s work on nuclear weapons prior to 2003, related to the aforementioned PMD of Iran’s nuclear program. They made the grandiose declaration that before 2003 "American intelligence officials believe Iran operated a full-scale equivalent of the Manhattan Project." As usual, the source is some faceless, anonymous officials. As the Persian proverb goes, "The bigger the lie, the easier it is to believe it."

Then, without uttering the word "laptop" they presented a diagram that repeated the old allegations about Iran’s alleged nuclear weapon program before 2004. The original source for all the allegations is the laptop that supposedly contained all the documents, and was stolen and brought to the West in 2004. But, similar to Amano in his report of November 2011 on Iran’s nuclear program, Broad and Sanger claimed that "investigators at the IAEA, drawing on intelligence from member states as well as their own investigations, have assembled a secret trove of reports, correspondence, viewgraphs, videos and blueprints that purport to show Iran’s skill in warhead design," which was summarized in the diagram.

Why do Broad, Sanger, Amano, and others do not mention the laptop, when in fact in February 2008 Olli Heinonen, then IAEA’s deputy director general for safeguards, had made a presentation to the Agency’s Board of Governors, making exactly the same allegations and referring to the laptop? Because the laptop story has been discredited so completely by, among others, the author, Gareth Porter, and Michel Chussodovsky ,that it is embarrassing for them to mention. But, even here, Broad and Sanger did not present the complete picture.

Regarding conventional high-explosive detonators, in its November 2011 report the IAEA had asserted that there are "limited civilian and conventional military applications" for them. But, the open source literature indicates that the technology is widely used in the mining, aerospace and defense industries. Nothing of the sort was mentioned by Broad and Sanger.

Regarding the detonators that ignite explosives that focus the shock wave inward to compress bomb fuel, Iran had been alleged to have experimented with such compression. Broad and Sanger did not mention it, but this was a reference to the Marivan site.

If the allegations about Marivan were true, they would indeed be very serious. But, Sanger and Broad did not ask the crucial question: Why did the IAEA turn down the invitation to clarify such serious allegations? Because, as Gareth Porter pointed out, the IAEA does not even know where to look. In addition, the Agency may have doubts about the accuracy of the allegations. But, Sanger and Broad focus solely on what Iran has not done without even explaining Iran’s reasons, instead of mentioning the IAEA allegations and then refusing to pursue them. If they had bothered to search for "Marivan" on the IAEA website, they would have found out that the website produces no link.

Broad and Sanger also mentioned the allegations that Iran has carried out computer simulation of how a bomb core releases subatomic particles in chain reactions. What they did not mention was that, even if the allegations were true, the simulation is allowed under the Safeguards Agreement and the IAEA regulations. In addition, the same calculations and results are also applicable to a nuclear reactor, and there is no way to prove that, even if the calculations were carried out, they were intended for the design of a weapon.

Kelley pointed out several other errors by Broad and Sanger. For example:

Broad and Sanger stated that Iran is accused of studying "long distance firing." But, Kelley pointed out, "the idea that Iran is sending high-voltage pulses to ignite detonators 10 kilometers away is a complete misconception."

Broad and Sanger also alleged that Iran has tested mock core components in high explosive experiments. But, Kelley pointed out that, "The IAEA has said that these components are made of high-density materials such as tungsten – which would be an extremely poor choice for such experiments and very expensive. The allegation itself smacks of poor science and engineering."

In effect, by bringing up the old allegations about the PMD, most, if not all of which, is unauthenticated, Sanger and Broad constantly move the "goalpost." Even the highly politicized IAEA is reexamining the "evidence" that it has been given for the PMD of Iran’s nuclear program, because at least some of it appears to have been planted.

In an excellent commentary, Butt summarized the state of affairs regarding the PMD. Briefly, Iran has provided a lengthy response to the IAEA allegations, declaring that many of the allegations are fabricated or erroneous, but also has presented documents for its civilian uses of the conventional high explosives about which the IAEA had made allegations. Iran has also stated that nothing has been substantiated regarding the PMD dossier to which Tehran is supposed respond. In an official letter to the IAEA, Iran also stated that the "forged documents have no sign to prove that they are of Iranian origin and… the documents are full of mistakes and contain fake names…" Some of such fakeries had been pointed out by the authors nearly seven years ago.

Iran’s stance is supported by two former Director-Generals of the IAEA. Hans Blix has expressed his long-held belief that there is "as much disinformation as information" on the alleged weaponization efforts by Iran. His successor Mohamed ElBaradei also had doubts about the purported Iranian documents passed to the IAEA, saying, "No one knew if any of this was real." But, Broad and Sanger would have none of it. They keep repeating the same allegations.

In their report of 14 March 2015, Sanger and Gordon not only repeated the baseless claims about Iranian military leaders "opposing the negotiations" and the existence of the "military side of the [nuclear] program," they also again mentioned the allegations about the PMD aspect of Iran’s nuclear program. And in their latest report on 21 March 2015 Sanger and Broad once again mentioned "Inside Iran, there will be pressure to keep making slow progress on a nuclear program that is central to the ambitions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps ."

In describing the vast sabotage program by Israel and the United States against Iran, Sanger and Broad write essentially as bragging agents for the US and Israel intelligence agencies, seemingly oblivious to the fact that not only is the sabotage program is illegal and an act war against Iran, but also that such programs can potentially cause huge civilian casualties.

Another aspect of reporting by Sanger and Broad is the pundits they speak to. The experts that they always quote are almost always Washington hawks that have a long record of opposing Iran’s nuclear program, but also being anti-Iran altogether. One such pundit is Gary Samore, the president of anti-Iran, pro-Israel group, United against Nuclear Iran. The group has been sued for defamation by Greek businessman Victor Restis. The Obama administration has intervened in the lawsuit on the ground that on the grounds that trying the case will reveal the secret information in UANI’s possession. Another pundit frequently quoted is David Albright, president of Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, and a leading hawk that has contributed greatly to creation of the hysteria surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. A third "pundit" is Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a pro-Israel, anti-Iran group who has been planting anti-Iran propaganda throughout the mass media.

The only way that I can interpret what the Times journalists do is that, they do not want any nuclear agreement with Iran, unless Iran capitulates and completely gives up its nuclear infrastructure. But, that is not going to happen. So, these journalists do not report; they have their own agenda, and by pretending to report, they advocate the agenda. If they want another illegal war of destruction and bloodshed in the Middle East, this time against Iran, they should say so explicitly.

Author: Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.