(updated below - Update II)
Ever since Iran reported the existence of its Qom enrichment facility to the IAEA, one central assertion has been repeated as fact over and over by the American media to make the story as incriminating as possible: namely, that Iran only disclosed this because they discovered they had been "caught," i.e., they found out that the West knew of this facility and they thus had no choice but to disclose it. That assertion has been fundamental to the entire Iran drama. After all, if Iran voluntarily notified the IAEA of the Qom facility before it was even operational and thus agreed to have the facility inspected, it's impossible to maintain the melodramatic storyline that Iran was planning something deeply nefarious here and got "caught red-handed." The assertion that Iran was forced into disclosure is vital to the entire plot, and it's been constantly repeated as fact.
But ever since this episode began, I've read countless accounts from numerous sources and never once saw a single piece of evidence to support this claim -- and I've been actively looking for it and asking if anyone has seen such evidence. Today in Time Magazine, Bobby Ghosh writes of an exclusive interview he conducted with CIA Director Leon Panetta about Qom, in which Panetta claims the CIA knew of the facility for three years. After describing Panetta's account of how the CIA discovered the site and how they learned it was designed for uranium enrichment, this paragraph appears:
U.S. officials believe that it was only when Iran found out that its cover had been blown that it chose to own up to the plant's existence -- although how it might have learned of Washington's discovery remains unclear. On the eve of the U.N. General Assembly last month, the Iranians sent the IAEA a terse note, acknowledging the presence of the Qum facility.
Does that sound like the CIA actually knows whether Iran ever even discovered "that its cover had been blown," let alone that this was the reason the Iranians disclosed the facility to the IAEA? Obviously not. Time can say only that U.S. officials (unnamed, of course) "believe" that this happened -- based on what? -- but cannot even say how Iran might have learned of the U.S. discovery (that's "unclear"). Plainly, at least according to this account and every other that I've seen, there are no known facts to support the claim that this is what motivated Iran's IAEA disclosure. It's just something that gets asserted without any challenge or questioning.
Just this weekend, a New York Times Editorial flatly asserted: "Of course, Iran didn’t even acknowledge that it was building a plant near Qum until last week after it was caught red-handed." In fact, the Times has no idea whether Iran's disclosure to the IAEA had anything to do with that or whether Iran even knew that the West had learned of the Qom facility. Worse, the very first news story the Times published about this matter -- the day after the Press Conference with the leaders of the U.S., Britain and France -- contained this sentence: "At some point in late spring, American officials became aware that Iranian operatives had learned that the site was being monitored, the officials said." There's no evidence at all for that critical claim, and the Time article today unintentionally casts doubt on it by making clear that this is nothing more than a "belief" of unnamed American "officials."
Obviously, it's possible that the U.S. really did learn three years ago that Qom was an enrichment facility, that Iran somehow found out that this was the case, and that it was this that prompted the Iranians to disclose to the IAEA. But that's a mere possibility, an unproven assertion from government officials which, at least as of now, they're not even claiming is certain. But it's also obviously quite possible that Iran voluntarily disclosed this facility to the IAEA because they're willing to allow inspections, believe their NPT obligations require disclosure 180 days prior to operability (which is what they've claimed since 2007), and intend to use it for civilian purposes and thus have nothing to hide. Since the claim about Iran's motives for disclosure is the linchpin of all the hysteria -- the vital fact that makes what Iran did appear sinister -- shouldn't newspapers refrain from repeating it as though it's proven and make clear to their readers that this is but one of several possibilities: one for which absolutely no evidence has been presented?
UPDATE: FAIR has an instructive review of some of the reckless (though very familiar) media hysteria regarding Iran over the last couple of weeks.
UPDATE II: In a Wall St. Journal Editorial today, Rupert Murdoch's print employees accuse "the [Bush] Administration's internal critics on the left" of manipulating the intelligence to cause the 2007 NIE to conclude that Iran stopped active work on a nuclear weapons program back in 2003 (apparently, the CIA is overrun with "leftists"), and to do so, the WSJ Editors haul out this same dubious assertion as though it's proven, unchallengeable truth:
The Qom site—too small for civilian purposes but ideal for producing weapons-grade uranium— is supervised by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and was only declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency after Tehran got wind that the nuclear watchdogs knew about it.
It's virtually impossible to find anyone railing against Iran without relying on the "fact" that Iran only notified the IAEA of the Qom facility after (and because) "Tehran got wind that the nuclear watchdogs knew about it" -- even though there's absolutely no evidence for it.
The WSJ Editorial does unintentionally highlight one towering contradiction in all of these claims: if (a) the CIA has known about the Qom facility for three years (as Panetta claims); and (b) it's so clear that it is designed for military, not civilian uses, then (c) why did the NIE -- the consensus of American intelligence agencies -- conclude in 2007 that "Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program remains frozen"? That conclusion was affirmed at a time when the CIA knew of the Qom facility. Doesn't that rather obviously raise serious doubts about how "clear" it is that the facility could only be designed for military purposes?