Say what? “AP: Diagram suggests Iran working on nuclear bomb”

Those unnamed officials “from a country critical of Iran’s nuclear program” are at it again. This week they leaked an illustration to to the Associated Press which supposedly demonstrates that “Iranian scientists have run computer simulations for a nuclear weapon that would produce more than triple the explosive force of the World War II bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.” The AP headline is sure to bring in hits, but is it accurate reporting?

“The diagram leaked to the Associated Press this week is nothing more than either shoddy sources or shoddy science,” write physicists Yousaf Butt and Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. “In either case, the world can keep calm and carry on,” say the experts, whose article should be read in full.

Butt and Dalnoki-Veress use the word “shoddy”, but that may be an understatement when evaluating the central point of George Jahn’s “exclusive” report:

The graphic has not yet been authenticated; however, even if authentic, it would not qualify as proof of a nuclear weapons program. Besides the issue of authenticity, the diagram features quite a massive error, which is unlikely to have been made by research scientists working at a national level.

The image released to the Associated Press shows two curves: one that plots the energy versus time, and another that plots the power output versus time, presumably from a fission device. But these two curves do not correspond: If the energy curve is correct, then the peak power should be much lower — around 300 million ( 3×108) kt per second, instead of the currently stated 17 trillion (1.7 x1013) kt per second. As is, the diagram features a nearly million-fold error.

This diagram does nothing more than indicate either slipshod analysis or an amateurish hoax.

The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald couldn’t help but poke some fun at the recent stream of second-rate graphics being fed to the press about Iran’s alleged deviant nuclear activities:
…this graph – which is only slightly less hilariously primitive than the one Benjamin Netanyahu infamously touted with a straight face at the UN – has Farsi written under it to imbue it with that menacing Iranian-ish feel, but also helpfully uses English to ensure that US audiences can easily drink up its scariness. As The Atlantic’s Robert Wright noted: “How considerate of the Iranians to label their secret nefarious nuke graph in English!”. It’s certainly possible that Iranian scientists use English as a universal language of science, but the convenient mixing of Farsi and English should at least trigger some skepticism.
Even if there is merit to this story (Jahn did include a somewhat critical expert quote about the diagram), it’s hardly “explosive news” according to Greg Thielmann at the blog of the non-proliferation focused Arms Control Association:
…the Associated Press story does not change the U.S. Government’s assessment that Iran would require, not a few weeks, but many months to build a deliverable nuclear weapon, if it decided to do so. Secretary of Defense Panetta recently estimated that it would take two to three years, similar to the estimate made by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In order to implement such a crash program, Iran would need to expel IAEA inspectors, use existing facilities and stockpiles to produce weapons grade uranium, and probably test a nuclear device, all of which would raise the alarm to the international community.

And Greenwald reminds us why journalists need to be especially accurate and skeptical when reporting on Iran’s nuclear program:

The case for the attack on Iraq was driven, of course, by a mountain of fabricated documents and deliberately manipulated intelligence which western media outlets uncritically amplified. Yet again, any doubts that they are willing and eager to do exactly the same with regard to the equally fictitious Iranian Threat should be forever dispelled by behavior like this.

As always, the two key facts to note on Iran are these: 1) the desperation to prevent Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon has nothing to do with fear that they would commit national suicide by using it offensively, but rather has everything to do with the deterrent capability it would provide – i.e., nukes would prevent the US or Israel from attacking Iran at will or bullying it with threats of such an attack; and 2) the US-led sanctions regime now in place based on this fear-mongering continues to impose mass suffering and death on innocent Iranians. But as long as media outlets like AP continue to blindly trumpet whatever is shoveled to them by the shielded, unnamed “country critical of Iran’s atomic program”, these facts will be suppressed and fear levels kept sky-high, thus enabling the continuation and escalation of the hideous sanctions regime, if not an outright attack.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.