Washington Post's Flawed Thanks For Netanyahu

Ali Gharib on how the Post made a mistake, but won't back down from its fawning over Netanyahu.

Yesterday, an editorial in the Washington Post suggested that those of us who prefer diplomacy to war with iran should offer our thanks to Benjamin Netanyahu for his U.N. General Assembly speech last September. That was the one where Netanyahu held up a cartoon bomb chart that didn't actually mean much, but where he laid out what he thought was a clear "red line" on the Iranian nuclear program: that the Islamic Republic shouldn't be allowed to grow its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium to the level at which it could convert to enough weapons-grade material to build a weapon.

The editorial board, in its recounting of events, noted that lots of people made fun of Netanyahu. "But then a funny thing happened: The regime began diverting some of its stockpile to the manufacture of fuel plates for a research reactor"—a form of nuclear fuel that's much more difficult to convert to weapons-grade. "According to the most recent report of international inspectors, in February," the Post added, "it had converted 40 percent of its 20 percent uranium to fuel assemblies or the oxide form needed to produce them. As a result, Iran has remained distinctly below the Israeli red line." This, the Post contends, has given the space and time needed to conduct diplomacy.

Establishing this causal chain relies on the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hocjust because Event B happens after Event A doesn't mean that A led directly to B. But the Post editorial board forgot to mention something that poses an even more fundamental challenge to their case: with Iran's conversion to fuel plates, Event B actually came before Event A. It was left to Matt Duss to point out at ThinkProgress that the Iranians had already converted a bunch of their medium-enriched stockpile in the Summer of 2012, even before Netanyahu's speech. That conversion was noted in an IAEA report made public in August, a month before the U.N. General Assembly. (In October, Haaretz's Amos Harel reported that the new timeline Netanyahu gave in his speech was based on the fact that Iran had already converted part of its stockpile, and the Israeli Defense Minister confirmed as much at the end of that month.)

I e-mailed the Post's editorial board editor Fred Hiatt, in case he hadn't seen Duss's blogpost. He had, apparently, and said a "correction or clarification" was in the works. Shortly thereafter, it appeared online, as a correction that read: "The editorial reported that Iran began diverting part of its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to produce fuel rods following a speech to the United Nations by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last September. Some uranium was also diverted before the speech. The editorial has been updated." As ThinkProgress noted in an update of its own, the Post added the phrase with "more" to this sentence: "The regime began diverting more of its stockpile to the manufacture of fuel plates for a research reactor" (emphasis added). The board nonetheless remained steadfast in support of Netanyahu. "However," Hiatt wrote me, "we continue to believe that pressure from Mr. Netanyahu prompted Iran to reduce its stockpile so that it would not approach the red line he set."

This wasn't a novel piece of analysis; it first appeared when Netanyahu gave himself a pat on the back. I took note, along these lines, that the New York Times reporter David Sanger was far too credulous when he uncritically reported last month that Netanyahu saw Iran's conversion of fuel as "a vindication of the red line he laid down at the United Nations." (I think the Iranians are likely to eventually exploit the gap between Netanyahu's red line and the Obama administration's, which I think matter far more to the Iranians; we'll see how this plays out.)

This isn't the first time the Post editorial board has been sloppy in its work on Iran. They issued a correction recently for misattributing an alarmist view of Iranian ICBM work that emanated from the notoriously unreliable halls of Congress (and has been pushed by another Israeli official, Ambassador Michael Oren). And, over the Winter, they badly mischaracterized now-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's views on Iran. It's good to know, though, that in this latest case the Post editorial board's thankfulness for Benjamin Netanyahu's anti-war efforts are based not on the logic of observing events in sequence, but rather on their continued beliefs. For that clarification, at least, we can all be thankful.