Iran has certainly given reasons for other countries to be suspicious. In August 2002, an Iranian opposition group announced that Tehran had secretly constructed facilities that could be used to enrich uranium. That process is not only a key step toward civilian nuclear energy, but also the hardest part in making a bomb. Months later the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed the sites. As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is allowed to enrich uranium and use it for nuclear energy. But it has to be transparent about its efforts, which Iran wasn’t. Iran says it kept things secret only because Western countries had been blocking their attempts at an above ground program.”
Iran has spent the last six years in a complex dance with the international community, signaling a willingness to negotiate while also insisting that it will never give up its right to enrich. The press has duly detailed each step in the dance. It’s a kind of play-by-play commentary, one that—until the NIE—was often permeated with the assumption that Iran was intent on building weapons. “Iran’s intransigence is not only real; it also appears to be defeating attempts by the rest of the world to curtail Tehran’s nuclear ambitions,” a New York Times story explained last November 30, four days before the NIE gave a very different picture. The story—ON NUCLEAR SEESAW, THE BALANCE SEEMS TO SHIFT TO IRAN—by Elaine Sciolino, pointed to Iran’s apparent recent lack of interest in a deal to suspend its enrichment. Left unsaid was that Iran’s exact “nuclear ambitions” were unclear.
“The volume is always turned up on the reporting,” says Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the New America Foundation, who had also written (before the NIE) about the possibility that Iran had suspended its weaponization program. “It’s crazy Iranians doing crazy stuff all the time. Every negotiator is some hardliner, some caricature. It’s one of the reasons people were shocked by the NIE.”
The assumption that Iran wanted a bomb also encouraged hyperbolic reporting about Iran’s enrichment program itself. The same basic enrichment process can be used to create fuel for both civilian reactors and, after a time, bomb-grade uranium for weapons. But with Iran’s enrichment plant still subject to inspections from the U.N., there is no known evidence it has done the latter. Iran has more than tripled its ability to produce enriched uranium in the last three months, adding some one thousand centrifuges, ABC News announced in an “exclusive report” last April. Citing sources “familiar with the dramatic upgrade,” the report warned that “Iran could have enough material for a nuclear bomb within two years.” Last December’s National Intelligence Estimate concluded that it is “very unlikely” Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium by then. The ABC piece “was fly-by journalism,” says Lewis.
Another story by the Times raised even more hackles among nuclear experts, and this one had shades of the Iraq debacle. In November 2005, The New York Times published a front-page piece by David Sanger and William Broad detailing the contents of a purloined laptop apparently provided to the U.S. under unclear circumstances that was presented as proof that Iran was moving ahead with its nukes effort. The laptop had been alluded to in November 2004 by then Secretary of State Colin Powell, who caused a stir by alleging Iran was “actively working on delivery systems” for a nuclear bomb.
The Times story seemed to corroborate Powell’s controversial allegations. According to American officials, the paper said, documents from the stolen laptop offer the “strongest evidence yet that, despite Iran’s insistence that its nuclear program is peaceful, the country is trying to develop a compact warhead to fit atop its Shahab missile, which can reach Israel and other countries in the Middle East.” The story had plenty of caveats—including quotes from European diplomats doubting the evidence—but its thrust was clear.