Wash. Times editorial ignored key facts to exaggerate Iranian ability to produce nuclear weapons

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

A Washington Times editorial gave readers a distorted impression of how quickly Iran could construct nuclear weapons.

A December 5 Washington Times editorial omitted key facts about the process of nuclear weapons production, giving readers a distorted impression about the time it would take Iran to construct nuclear weapons. The editorial stated that "Israeli intelligence estimates that Iran has produced 45 tons of uranium hexafluoride gas since June, enough for at least three or four nuclear devices, and Tehran's capability to develop this material continues to grow every day that it continues its illicit nuclear activities." But the editorial did not mention that, regardless of how much uranium hexafluoride gas Iran has, the gas alone cannot be used directly to make nuclear weapons. Instead, the uranium must first be enriched to a weapons-grade level. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and news reports on U.S. intelligence, Iran is at least two years away from being able to enrich uranium on its own.

Nuclear weapons rely on "enriched" uranium, which has a higher concentration of the easily split uranium type of atomic weight 235 (known as U-235) than occurs naturally. While natural uranium contains, on average, 0.71 percent of nuclear-fissile U-235, nuclear reactors require uranium that has been enriched to roughly 5 percent U-235, while nuclear weapons-grade uranium contains 90 percent or more U-235. Prior to enrichment, raw uranium is converted into uranium hexafluoride gas, which Iran has done. Efforts to defuse international tensions surrounding Iran's nuclear program have recently focused on a Russian offer to enrich Iran's uranium to reactor-grade levels, so that Iran would not possess its own operational uranium enrichment facility, which it could use to create weapons-grade uranium [The Washington Post, 11/17/05].

Iran publicly resumed converting uranium yellowcake to uranium hexafluoride on August 8. But, as The Washington Post noted in a November 17 article reporting on Iran's subsequent conversion of "a new batch of uranium," "[t]he work [of conversion] at the facility in the town of Isfahan does not bring Iran significantly closer to nuclear capability." The article later quoted David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, who told the Post that "Iran's move at Isfahan was 'mostly symbolic' but the Iranians will 'end up with a larger stock' of converted uranium that they can store away for the day when their own enrichment facility is completed."

When Iran will have the capability to produce enriched uranium is unknown, but news reports have indicated that the IAEA and U.S. intelligence believe that the Iranians could not produce enough weapons-grade uranium for at least two years. The Independent, a British newspaper, interviewed IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei and reported on December 5 that "[a]lthough IAEA officials have said it would take at least two years for [the underground enrichment plant at] Natanz to become fully operational, Mr. El-Baradei believes that once the facility is up and running, the Iranians could be 'a few months' away from a nuclear weapon." The article noted that Iran so far has not begun the process of re-opening the plant at Natanz. U.S. intelligence reportedly believes it will take longer. An August 2 Washington Post article reported that "[a] major U.S. intelligence review has projected that Iran is about a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon, roughly doubling the previous estimate of five years, according to government sources with firsthand knowledge of the new analysis." The article also reported that the intelligence review, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, "extended the timeline [for Iran's achievement of the ability to produce a nuclear weapon], judging that Iran will be unlikely to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for an atomic weapon, before 'early to mid-next decade,' according to four sources familiar with that finding. The sources said the shift, based on a better understanding of Iran's technical limitations, puts the timeline closer to 2015 and in line with recently revised British and Israeli figures."

The Washington Times editorial ran the same day as a post on the Drudge Report website that blared, "Iran 'months away' from nuke." Both the Drudge Report headline and the Jerusalem Post article it linked to misrepresented a comment from ElBaradei regarding the status of Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program by taking it out of context. As previously documented above (and first noted by the weblog Raw Story), ElBaradei told The Independent that Iran would be " 'a few months' away from a nuclear weapon" after the Natanz enrichment facility became "fully operational," which the article, citing "IAEA officials," said would take at least two years.

From the December 5 Washington Times editorial, titled "Iran, Israel and Nukes":

In a Dec. 14, 2001, speech, former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (long depicted by the Europeans as an Iranian "moderate"), declared that, if the Muslim world had an atomic bomb, it would be in good shape after a nuclear exchange with Israel, because a nuclear bomb would destroy the Jewish state, while Muslim countries (with their much larger populations) would survive. The man who defeated him in this year's presidential election, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking in October at a conference in Iran titled "The World Without Zionism," vowed that a wave of Palestinian attacks would destroy Israel. "There is no doubt that the new wave in Palestine will soon wipe this disgraceful blot from the face of the Islamic world," he declared. "Anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation's fury," while any Islamic leader "who recognizes the Zionist regime means he is acknowledging the surrender and defeat of the Islamic world."

Israeli intelligence estimates that Iran has produced 45 tons of uranium hexafluoride gas since June, enough for at least three or four nuclear devices, and Tehran's capability to develop this material continues to grow every day that it continues its illicit nuclear activities.

With Tehran making its genocidal intentions clear, Israel is not waiting around to see if European Union or American diplomacy will change Iran's behavior. Ironically, Germany, which has played a leading role in Western kowtowing to Tehran, may hold part of the key to ensuring that Israel retains its deterrent against attack.

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National Security & Foreign Policy
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