When the International Atomic Energy Agency is about to release a report on an official enemy like Iran, you can be fairly confident that contents of the report–or what people believe should be in it–will be leaked to elite newspapers by anonymous sources in or near the IAEA, who will tend to make more alarming charges than the agency will eventually make in public.
That started happening this weekend. At the Washington Post, Joby Warrick had a piece on Monday headlined, "Iran Close to Nuclear Capability, IAEA Says." The most telling indication of what was going on was right in the lead:
Intelligence provided to UN nuclear officials shows that Iran's government has mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon, receiving assistance from foreign scientists to overcome key technical hurdles, according to Western diplomats and nuclear experts briefed on the findings.
Read that closely and you can see that the key allegation is not that the IAEA will necessarily report any such thing, but that "intelligence" has been directed their way that makes such allegations. The United States and other countries have been lobbying the IAEA for years to take a harder line on Iran's nuclear program–a fact that renders the New York Times' headline, "U.S. Hangs Back as Inspectors Prepare Report on Iran's Nuclear Program," rather odd. The Times, a bit like the Post, reports–via the usual leaks–that the IAEA will come down fairly hard:
An imminent report by United Nations weapons inspectors includes the strongest evidence yet that Iran has worked in recent years on a kind of sophisticated explosives technology that is primarily used to trigger a nuclear weapon, according to Western officials who have been briefed on the intelligence.
That's what the big papers are saying–but there are some good, critical pieces worth reading in order to get a good handle on this story. Bob Dreyfuss at the Nation writes that the Iraq lesson should be foremost in people's minds:
In this case, the Post reports, the IAEA has "acquired satellite photos of a bus-size steel container" used to field test "the kinds of high-precision conventional explosives used to trigger a nuclear chain-reaction." The IAEA may be right, but those photographs ought to raise hackles among experts who were burned once, and badly, over Iraq's nonexistent WMD program.
Dreyfuss adds that much of the case seems built around a "former Soviet nuclear scientist" allegedly advising Iran–but that the advice seems to have been happening in the mid-1990s. And this Moon of Alabama blog makes the case that the scientist in question is an expert on nanodiamonds and detonation–which would require the kinds of facilities that are allegedly being flagged as nuclear weapons-related.
And on a more journalistic level, see how Antiwar.com writes about anonymous sources:
According to Western diplomats who refused to reveal their identity, the evidence will include satellite images of what of is supposedly a large steel container used for high-explosives tests related to nuclear arms as well as intelligence that Iran made computer models of a nuclear warhead.
FAIR raised the point two years ago that Iran nuclear claims can look a lot like Iraq WMD claims– and the media should exercise the skepticism that was missing in 2002 and 2003. It's hard to say they've learned the lesson.