Iran: Speculation on Parchin Site Propagates through Guardian Reporting

The Editors, 5 June 2012

Categories: Iran | The Guardian | Middle East |

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On the issue of the ongoing 'Iran Crisis' (in BBC speak), the evidence presented to us about the potential development of nuclear weapons by Iran remains heavily based on speculation, and has in recent months focussed on the hypothetical musings of a Washington think-tank, based on satellite images of an Iranian military base, and those of anonymous 'diplomats' speaking off the record.

In March 2012, the Associated Press (AP) reported on speculative theories by anonymous IAEA 'diplomats' concerning the Iranian military site of Parchin (IAEA officials did not comment). Looking at satellite images, they saw 'unexplained activities at the site'. Of the myriad potential functions of trucks and 'equipment' visible in the satellite images, the report's anonymous sources claimed that there had 'almost certainly' been 'attempts to clean [the site] of radioactive contamination', erasing 'evidence of tests of a small experimental neutron device used to set off a nuclear explosion'.

At the time, Julian Borger, The Guardian's diplomatic editor, wrote a reasonably impartial opinion piece in his Global Security Blog, rightly addressing the lack of evidence for such claims about the Parchin site, which 'rais[es] the question of where the report came from'. However, we can see even in Borger's reiteration of the AP report how facts become contorted:

AP: 'Two of the diplomats said the images suggested that crews at the Parchin military site may be trying to erase evidence of tests of a small experimental neutron device used to set off a nuclear explosion.' (Emphasis added.)

Borger: 'it [the AP report] quotes two unnamed diplomats as saying that an "experimental neutron device" had been tested there.'

The AP report is speculative, whereas Borger’s statement, an interpretation of that very report, is assured (omitting that crucial disclaimer, ‘may’). This is the risk in reporting the unofficial suppositions of anonymous sources, that they are relayed as fact in subsequent analysis.

Two months later, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a Washington-based think-tank, started looking at satellite images of Parchin. On 8 May they wrote that a ‘stream of water that appears to emanate from the building raises concerns that Iran may have been washing inside the building, or perhaps washing the items outside the building’, concluding that:

Iran should immediately allow IAEA inspectors into the Parchin site and allow access to this specific building. It should also explain the purpose of the activities seen at the building in this recent satellite image.

Following that, on 30 May, ISIS again looked at satellite images as a pretext to push for access to the Parchin site, and reported that two buildings (neither one the suspected building but ‘two small buildings at the same site as the suspected testing chamber’) had been razed. Again the report concludes that:

Iran should immediately allow the IAEA access to Parchin and explain the significance of these apparent cleanup activities.

This time, Borger responded more compliantly, in a blog post entitled ‘More signs of a clean-up at suspect Iran site’. At Parchin, he writes, ‘events are moving considerably faster’. (To recap, these events are (1) the presence of earth moving trucks, (2) water coming from a building and (3) the razing of two buildings near a suspect building, over a period of nearly three months.) With such uncritical assessment as this, the suspicion of a ‘clean-up’ of incriminating evidence roots itself in the discourse around the issue.

This level of speculation in reporting, though perhaps the accepted output of Washington think-tanks, should certainly not be the remit of the news media. The stream of concerns and claims without substance continues, providing no definitive answers but urging further international concern as governments continue to weigh the options for potential military attacks.

The Butler report, which in 2004 retrospectively investigated the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, reiterated that, for all we know, the weapons of mass destruction might even be ‘hidden in the sand’, but that pretext for war never materialised. Accordingly, is it now too much to ask for our media to maintain a level of analysis and investigation beyond that of the practice of regurgitating the off-the-record insinuations of anonymous officials?

Categories in which this article appears: Iran | The Guardian | Middle East |

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