Polonium? You’ve Gotta Be Joffeing!

Joseph Joffe yelling at Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the Munich Security Conference on February 2, 2014
Joseph Joffe yelling at Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the Munich Security Conference on February 2, 2014

Only a journalist like Josef Joffe, at a forum like the Munich Security Conference, would be allowed to ask an error-laced question intended to lead policymakers into tripping themselves up. The irony of what transpired on Feb. 2 in the Bavarian city was that Joffe tripped not the quarry but the hunter in his intended game. Let’s unpack what happened:

Josef Joffe, who inhabits a space somewhere between academia and journalism, but who can always be counted on for cringe-inducing questions and overly-clever observations which, in fact, aren’t always that clever, was chosen to “clarify some facts” from the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during this year’s final panel
. The Munich Security Conference is, of course, that Who’s Who event of trans-Atlantic foreign- and defense-policy decision-makers. The fact that much of the world’s great events seem to be transpiring outside Nato’s realm has made the conference increasingly quaint.

In steps Joffe, the 69-year-old bubble-gum chewing (was that Nicorette?) journalist at the 1:02:00 mark of the Iran panel, which in addition to Zarif, also featured International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and U.S. Senator Christopher Murphy. The video is online. I encourage you to watch the comical swagger.

This is what Joffe asked:

“Mr. Minister. I wish we had a few more like you in our Western diplomatic services who can handle words and arguments so nicely as you do. this whole argument has revolved around trust, verification and facts. I think there’s a nice little case study, which you mentioned yourself, which is the Tehran Research Reactor which went online, I don’t know, 1967. What you forgot to say is that it was fueled with highly enriched uranium under the Shah’s reign. So by 1991, the United States, which delivered this stuff, thought maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to give weapons grade uranium to the Iranians. And then the Iranians went around and begged a little bit and scaled down the reactor to the use of 20 percent so that it can be ostensibly for the use of medical purposes. That’s under safeguards and that’s good. However, there’s a little thing that’s called polonium, which this reactor produces. It’s a tiny, tiny quantity which is extremely important for creating neutron, neutron eruptions, which trigger nuclear explosions. And that our friends from the IAEA say that they cannot control. So why not start with that old clunker, which is worthless to begin with, and really open it up and say ‘you know, you think we’re making plutonium here, why don’t we go and check it out.’ That builds trust! Not [your] appeals to trust. I think if we can start with these things, as we have, I think we’ll be doing fine.”

Joffe’s history of the TRR is decent but he tips his hand when he starts suggesting that Iran had to go “begging” for fuel in 1991. In fact, Iran made a commercial agreement with Argentina to refuel the Tehran Reactor. Where Joffe really shows he’s a journalist and not a nuclear expert is during his question about polonium. While he seems to think that polonium is produced in the normal course of reaction in the research vessel, it is in fact a product created by irradiating stable bismuth-209. Absent bismuth-209 there is no polonium. It is really an academic debate, since it’s not even a safeguard-listed material.

Let’s move on to Joffe’s question about “neutron eruptions.” The so-called “Urchin” was the bi-metallic Polonium and Beryllium neutron generator used to initiate fission explosions in early nuclear weapons. The open source literature shows that tritium has become the more modern and manageable source to expand the fission reaction in a bomb.

Any journalist who’s been covering this issue since the days when Robert Joseph and Gregory Schulte roamed the halls of the IAEA knows that some elements sought to make Iranian experiments with Polonium dating to the 1980s as the “smoking gun” proving there was a weapons program. The trouble is, at least so far as polonium is concerned, those questions were resolved in 2008 and the IAEA dropped the issue from its file:

“Based on an examination of all information provided by Iran, the Agency concluded that the explanations concerning the content and magnitude of the polonium-210 experiments were consistent with the Agency’s findings and with other information available to it. The Agency considers this question no longer outstanding at this stage. However, the Agency continues, in accordance with its procedures and practices, to seek corroboration of its findings and to verify this issue as part of its verification of the completeness of Iran’s declarations.” 

While we’ve already established that Joffe’s no nuclear expert, the next question begs: who has been briefing him and what game are they up to?  Were there no better questions to ask the Iranian Foreign Minister in public?

Javad Zarif responded:

“I don’t know whether I should take that as a compliment, but I will. We didn’t build that reactor. It was a part of Atoms for Peace. The United States built it. We didn’t ask for highly-enriched uranium to fuel that reactor. It was the United States that did it at that time. Then it decided to convert it to medium-enriched uranium, or low-enriched uranium because 20 percent is just the border line between medium and low. [aside to audience member] Sorry Dr. Solana, I’m not a physicist, you know this more than I do
. And we did, we brought it down. We did, we had to. But then the United States had to give us the fuel. Why didn’t it? Because they don’t have to

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. That’s the problem. Now that reactor is under full IAEA safeguards. The IAEA controls it. The polonium issue — it’s not plutonium, it’s polonium. We didn’t design that to come out of that reactor. And the reactor is under IAEA safeguards. As I said very clearly to you: nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and nuclear technology for weapons are twin sisters, or twin brothers. It’s the role of the IAEA to make sure that the more benign parts of nuclear technology are implemented and the other side is not and we are open to that. The IAEA has full access to Tehran nuclear reactor and it’s under inspection, has always been, and we’ll continue to work with the IAEA to answer any questions they may have about it.”

For the uninitiated, Zarif really boiled down Iran’s argument for why it feels the need to continue making 20 percent fuel plates. When he tries to correct a slip-up in the question (yes, polonium with plutonium were mixed up) we’re treated to an entertaining cutaway at the 1:05:00 mark of the intrepid reporter Joffe yelling back to the minister. It really was all laughable, especially when considered the clubby circumstance of a journalist even being in the same room with all the uniforms and the suits. Most reporters covering the event were hunkered down in a barely-heatened hanger next door watching the proceedings on television.

But the real punch line to the whole comedy routine didn’t come until Yukiya Amano decided that he too needed to chime in, even if the question was not asked of him. This is what he said:

“Thanks for the intervention. As Minister Zarif mentioned, the Tehran Research Reactor is under IAEA safeguards and we can tell that stays in peaceful purpose. You have raised issues of polonium. Polonium can be used for civil purpose like a nuclear battery but it can also be used for a neutron source for nuclear weapons. We would like to clarify this issue, too.”

Did you get that? Right at the end? The IAEA would like to clarify Iran’s polonium experiments, like there was anything left to clarify. You know the rest of the story. Reuters wrote about it. They were followed by CNTV.

This is how mis-information is made, ladies and gentlemen. Accuracy matters. Words matter. Sometimes they make a difference in decisions about war and peace.

One must ask, what is going on at the IAEA?

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