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Telegraph mistakes Iranian plutonium production for news

As talks on Iran's nuclear program move ahead, experts weigh in on the meaning of the publication's "scoop" on a program that anyone paying attention has known about for years.

Iran nuclear talks 2013 2 27Enlarge
Iran's representatives led by their top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili (back 4th L) take part in talks on Iran's nuclear program in the Kazakh city of Almaty on Feb. 27, 2013. World powers and Iran were due to respond today to offers presented by both sides in a final day of talks aimed at breaking a decade of deadlock over Tehran's nuclear drive. (AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — As the crucial second day of meetings between Western powers and Iran got underway in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, a bombastic headline in London's Daily Telegraph sent the world atwitter: "Iran's 'Plan B' for a nuclear bomb: Iran is developing a second path to a nuclear weapons capability by operating a plant that could produce plutonium, satellite images show for the first time." 

A satellite image showed a menacing curl of steam rising from a squat, square building.

Immediately questions arose as to the very relevance of the Almaty talks if, in fact, Iran was pursuing a second, secret avenue towards a nuclear bomb.

In fact, the headline, while not entirely inaccurate, served mostly to reveal a large-scale political network that is operating, both for and against Iran, in the international news media.

The crucial — and incorrect — word in the Telegraph's otherwise largely accurate story was the word "first."

Everybody who is anybody among those who follow Iran's nuclear ambitions, it so happens, was well aware of Iran's pursuit of plutonium.

Interviewed on Israel Army Radio, Maj.-Gen. Amos Gilad, the director for Policy and Political-Military Affairs in the Israeli Ministry of Defense, sounded perplexed. "What scoop?" he asked, rhetorically.

"It’s a scoop only if you don't know what you're talking about. You'd think the Iranians had a bomb from what appears in that paper. A nuclear Iran would obviously be a major threat for the Middle East, but this isn't even news."

Next to its much more widely discussed uranium enrichment, Iran's attempts to produce polonium at its Arak plant have been known for years.

However, a related scoop unmentioned in the Telegraph item caught the eye of Dr. Ephraim Asculai, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.

In the last report issued by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran states that the heavy water plant at Arak, which is intended for use as a reactor fueled by natural uranium built on-site, will be producing military grade plutonium by the first quarter of 2014.

"The Telegraph article contains nothing new except for the fact that this is such a worrisome matter that every once in a while it should be on the headlines," Asculai said. "The steam? Really? We know there is steam there."

"But the announcement that the Arak plant will be functional within a year — that's interesting."

Unlike in the case of most of its uranium plants, even those enriching weapons-grade uranium, Iran has refused to allow the IAEA to inspect the Arak site for more than 18 months.

The Telegraph's emphasis on plutonium does highlight one of the many conundrums the West faces in its relations with Iran: non-compliance.

It also ads agency to a rumor that has swept over Jerusalem in recent days, which holds that President Barack Obama's message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on his first visit to Israel next month, will be in essence, "Sit tight; stop threatening unilateral military action; the American window of opportunity for military action against Iran opens in June."

The Iranians, Gilad said, "Have no Plan B. They have a single plan, and that is to make a nuclear bomb. Uranium, plutonium, it doesn't matter."

The talks in Almaty this morning ended with the announcement of further talks in Istanbul next month. Following an eight month suspension of talks, this itself was seen to be a positive step.

"The Iranians are happy to talk about anything and everything and say every meeting was positive,” Gilad said. “But this does not mean they have the slightest intention to give up their nuclear project."

He added that "the western powers are in no way naïve. We keep talking because we have to exhaust all diplomatic options and try every sanction, but there is an absolute consensus internationally that this is a top priority. There is no disagreement: President Obama says all options are on the table, and means it."

Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli expert on Iran, suspects the Telegraph "scoop" may be part of a larger political picture. "I think this could be due to the fact that Iran has not been cooperating with IAEA on the Arak plant for at least a year and a half, so the purpose of this article may be to increase pressure on Iran to be more cooperative."

On his blog, Iran-Israel Observer, Javedanfar speculates about the innumerable "conspiracy theories" surrounding all matters Iranian.

"Oh, I've heard this one before," sighs Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at Washington's Middle East Institute. "Is this a surprise for anyone?" 

The big headline, he says, is likely "part of a political game. Its timing seems to suggest that it’s a nudge aimed at the Iranians, to remind them that the world's attention is not going to wander off."

Still, he said, for all of Iran's investment in its nuclear project, for all the recourses given up and all the pain its people have been made to suffer, "to my knowledge a smoking gun has yet to be found."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/iran/130227/daily-telegraph-mistakes-plutonium-enrichment-news