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Media Misfire on Iran

Consider the following two headlines appearing today:

"Analysts Say a Nuclear Iran Is Years Away" - New York Times

"Iran Could Produce Nuclear Bomb in 16 Days, U.S. Says" - Bloomberg

Obviously, somebody got it wrong. Turns out it's Bloomberg, which should be excoriated not only for running a factually false headline - Iran could not produce a nuclear bomb in sixteen days - but also for compounding the error with a grossly misleading report:

"Iran, defying United Nations Security Council demands to halt its nuclear program, may be capable of making a nuclear bomb within 16 days, a U.S. State Department official said.

Iran will move to ``industrial scale'' uranium enrichment involving 54,000 centrifuges at its Natanz plant, the Associated Press quoted deputy nuclear chief Mohammad Saeedi as telling state-run television today.

``Using those 50,000 centrifuges they could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in 16 days,'' Stephen Rademaker, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, told reporters today in Moscow.

So what's the problem? The problem is that Iran only has 164 centrifuges in operation today. Rademaker was responding to a question about how quickly Iran could produce a nuclear weapon once it reached industrial scale capacity. As we learn much later down in the Bloomberg piece, experts estimate it would take more than 13 years to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon using just those 164 centrifuges.

There is no mention of how long it would take for Iran to construct and bring online the 54,000 centrifuges needed to build a nuke in sixteen days, though Bloomberg does report that Iran "plans to construct 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz next year" (The NY Times differs by reporting that Iran will begin "operating the first of 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz by late 2006").

So Bloomberg built its news report around a highly sensational, but essentially theoretical, estimate of how quickly Iran could produce a nuclear weapon if it only had 53,836 more centrifuges in operation than it does today. That's sloppy journalism, and it does a great disservice to readers trying to get a better understanding of a most important issue.