Saturday, September 26, 2009

A One-Sided Story on Iran

Siddharth Varadarajan's report on the Iran issue yesterday was considerably one-sided. To start with, the headline:

"U.S. overshadows G20 summit with Iran nuclear hype"

Whether the Iran nuclear allegation is more prominent news than the G20 summit or not is a matter of opinion, not fact. Since this was supposed to be a news item and not the title of an op-ed, it ought to have been phrased differently.

The text has this to say:

...U.S. officials say Iran had been forced to admit the existence of the new plant because it feared imminent exposure by Western intelligence agencies — an unverifiable claim that has, nevertheless, been dutifully echoed by the American media...

The Pittsburgh announcement was made jointly by the leaders of the US, UK and France (the German Chancellor also apparently associated herself with the remarks: the full text of the remarks may be read here). Firstly, the intelligence agencies of the first three countries have all declared their previous knowledge of this facility. How likely is it that they are all lying? Secondly, the agencies have claimed they have satellite photographs of this facility from as far back as 2006 and it is even less likely that such a specific assertion will be made if such evidence is not being held in the first place. Thirdly, given that Iran's nuclear program has been put in the spotlight in recent years, it should not be all that surprising if Western intelligence agencies have been aware of the existence of this facility for some time. Fourthly, reporters are briefed by government officials all the time and in most cases, the information cannot be cross verified by other means. Do reporters always preface every sentence in such reports saying the claims and assertions are unverifiable (Varadarajan's own recent report on the thermonuclear test is a good example)? Fifthly, governments are more prone to revealing half-truths than outright lies and there may be more to this matter than what the public has been told but that hardly implies that the limited facts released in this instance are wrong.

Next, he makes the argument about its legality. I quote relevant excerpts:

Tehran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA obliges it only to provide design information “not later than 180 days before the introduction of nuclear material” into a new facility. Indeed, the Iranian government insists it informed the IAEA about the plant in line with its declared intention of being more transparent with the Agency.

The facility is said to be in the preliminary stage of development, with the introduction of uranium still several months away. Any international inspection of the facility could only come after that point, not before. That is why the IAEA never considered the Natanz facility — whose existence was revealed only in 2002 — a violation of Iran’s safeguards agreement.

In 2003, Iran agreed to a modified ‘subsidiary arrangement’ requiring it to inform the IAEA as soon as a decision to construct a new facility was taken. But Tehran withdrew its adherence to the arrangement four years later, in retaliation for U.N. sanctions.

In March 2009, the IAEA’s Legal Adviser was asked by some member governments to qualify in legal terms Iran’s non-implementation of the new disclosure rules. His reply made it clear that there was considerable ambiguity and the matter was not as clear cut as the U.S. and its allies claimed it to be. While Iran could not unilaterally withdraw its adherence to the new arrangement, the Legal Adviser said its actions “should be seen in proper context.” Elaborating, he said that since the old rules had been considered consistent with a country’s safeguards obligations for 22 years, “it is difficult to conclude that providing information in accordance with the earlier formulation in itself constitutes non-compliance with, or breach of, the Safeguards Agreement as such.”

Though Iran may be on a reasonably firm legal ground, the politics of its latest disclosure could swing either way.

All of this is true but it misses the central point of these allegations which ought to have been a vital if not primary element of the story. This facility at Qom was not built in a day. Western agencies have alleged that the construction has been going on at least since 2006, a time when the Iranian government was still bound by the modified subsidiary arrangment it had undertaken to abide by meaning that it ought to have revealed its intent to construct this facility at that time itself. Iran may now claim that its 2003 undertaking was not legally binding but if this allegation is true, it means that Iran violated it before formally withdrawing from it. At the very least, it indicates a serious breach of trust on Iran's part. This element is completely missing from the story.

To many people in India, newspapers are a primary source of their information; they read them to learn what is going on more than to find out additional facts that rebut what they have already learnt elsewhere. This item appears intended not so much to inform an ignorant reader as to present a defense of Iran's position through a one-sided statement of facts.


Shyam said...

Did Hindu cover this?

Thyagarajan said...

At this rate, maybe we should depute Sid Varadarajan to the PMO office in China(Unfortunately Khare phure (A.K.A) Harsh Khare has already taken up that position in India