Last night, on my way home after doing the late-night paper review on Sky News, I got involved in a minor Twitter spat with Iain Dale over the nature of Iran's nuclear programme. Iain is one of my favourite Tories - intelligent, open-minded, unpredictable, amusing. He's also my publisher - which means, of course, that I'm contractually obliged to say nice things about him.
@ns_mehdihasan on #skypapers "... Iran's nuclear programme, if it exists at all." No, it's clearly a CIA plot [bangs head against wall].
When I pointed out that I had been referring to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programme, not its NPT-approved nuclear energy programme, Iain responded:
@ns_mehdihasan "alleged weapons programme"? Come on. Even the IAEA reckons they're developing such a programme. Not being partisan at all.
So here's my challenge to Iain: if he can find even a single quote from the IAEA's latest report on Iran in which the UN's nuclear watchdog says, without caveat or qualification, that the self-styled Islamic Republic is building a nuclear bomb, developing nuclear weapons, or working on an active nuclear weapons programme, I will pay him the princely sum of £100. This is the "Iain Dale Iran challenge". In fact, it's open to anyone out there in the blogosphere - not just Iain.
But, before you start Googling and ctrl-F-ing, let me just point out that quoting the bits in the report where it says:
The information indicates that Iran has carried out the following activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device
The information indicates that prior to the end of 2003 the above activities took place under a structured programme. There are also indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.
The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme.
. . . will not be accepted. Why? Re-read those tentative sentences again - none of them state or conclude with any certainty or confidence that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons programme right now, let alone building nuclear bombs. They tend to relate to stuff that allegedly went on in or around 2003. In fact, in the same report, the IAEA admits that it
continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOFs declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement
And as the BBC's James Reynolds pointed out at the time:
The report says that Iran has carried out activities 'relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device'. But. . . the report does not state that Iran is actually building a nuclear weapon.
Here's Greg Thielmann, a former US State Department intelligence analyst who now works for the Arms Control Association (ACA), commenting on the IAEA's November report:
There is troubling evidence suggesting that studies are still going on, but there is nothing that indicates that Iran is really building a bomb. . . Those who want to drum up support for a bombing attack on Iran sort of aggressively misrepresented the report.
Oh, and here's the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, speaking on CBS, in January (that is, two months after the publication of the IAEA's Iran report which, according to Iain Dale, "reckons they're developing such a programme"):
Are [the Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.
On a side note, I've noticed how people who seem so keen to confront Iran over its nuclear programme tend not to have actually read the IAEA's report, or followed the history of Iran's strained relations with the IAEA. Iain clearly hadn't read it - when I asked him to quote from the report itself, rather than newspaper reports about the report, he responded by citing. . . a newspaper report!
Here's Iain's reasoning:
@ns_mehdihasan How strange. The NYT is the type of lefty liberal paper you normally quote approvingly. Stop being partisan :)
The New York Times is indeed a "lefty liberal paper", by US standards, but it also has an ignominious history of misrepresenting WMD "threats" in the Middle East. In 2004, after the Iraq war, the Times's public editor , Daniel Okrent, issued a now-notorious apology for the paper's failure to challenge the Bush administration's false and exaggerated claims about Iraq's supposed "weapons of mass destruction":
Some of The Times's coverage in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq was credulous; much of it was inappropriately italicized by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines; and several fine articles by David Johnston, James Risen and others that provided perspective or challenged information in the faulty stories were played as quietly as a lullaby. . .
. . . The Times's flawed journalism continued in the weeks after the war began, when writers might have broken free from the cloaked government sources who had insinuated themselves and their agendas into the prewar coverage. . .
. . . The failure was not individual, but institutional.
I only wish every journalist and blogger writing or tweeting on Iran right now would first have a read of Okrent's piece to avoid making the same mistakes again.