Logical Fallacies: The Financial Times on Syria and Uranium Stockpiles
On 8 January the Financial Times published an article by James Blitz, entitled ‘Fears raised over Syria uranium stockpile’, premised primarily on the ‘fears’ and otherwise subjective ruminations of unnamed ‘official’ and ‘expert’ sources, one the two named sources being former weapons inspector David Albright (discussed further below).
The claims of Blitz’s sources rest on the argument that, because we lack proof that something is false, it must be true (an ad ignorantiam argument). For example, Blitz states that, ‘Three satellite pictures of the Marj al-Sultan site taken in October, November and December of 2012 and shown to the FT [...] appear to show the gradual clearance of a large orchard there, for no apparent reason’. And so, the clearance has triggered fears that (a) the site is ‘a secret uranium conversion facility’, and (b) that tonnes of uranium have been transferred to the site. Because we do not have proof that the orchard has not been cleared for the transfer of uranium, this is cause for concern that this may be the case, according to the article.
Blitz’s sources claim that they have legitimate concerns about a uranium stockpile in Syria, enough uranium they say ‘to provide weapons-grade fuel for five atomic devices’, which could then be transferred ‘from Syria to Iran by air’.
The overarching concern of the article is that Iran would be provided with ‘a “vital resource” [which could] possibly be used to build a bomb’. This depends on a series of speculative claims made by Blitz’s sources turning out to be simultaneously true, with the addition of Iran ‘attempt[ing] to build another secret uranium plant’ (Blitz doesn’t expand on the meaning of ‘another’). To reach this conclusion, the following must all occur:
1. Syria must be in possession of 50 tonnes of unenriched uranium. (Blitz plainly states, in the opening paragraph, that cause for concern lies with ‘up to 50 tonnes of unenriched uranium’ – the implication being that such a thing actually exists – before later backtracking to suggest uncertainty with the inclusion of the clause ‘if it exists’ in reference to the uranium.)
2. The Marj al-Sultan site must actually be a uranium conversion facility. (The report notes that such claims are alleged: ‘what [the experts] allege is a secret uranium conversion facility that the Syrian regime built at the town of Marj al-Sultan near Damascus’.)
3. The uranium must be at the site. (‘Whether the uranium is at the site is unclear, the officials conceded’.)
4. Iran must be trying to ‘seize’ the uranium. (‘Iran, which is closely allied to the Syrian regime and urgently needs uranium for its nuclear programme, might be trying to seize such a stockpile’.)
Given that the above scenarios are at best uncertain and at worst hypothetical, the credibility given to the argument that this might result in Iran ‘building the bomb’ is questionable.
One of Blitz’s two named sources is David Albright, former weapons inspector and head of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). Put forward as a ‘leading expert’ on the Iranian nuclear programme, he is quoted as having concerns about the ‘whereabouts of this uranium’, which Blitz concedes may or may not exist. Albright’s past speculations on states he supposed had been hiding nuclear weapons is worth considering. In August 2002, eight months before the US-led invasion of Iraq, he was interviewed by The Guardian in an article entitled ‘Does Iraq have a nuclear weapon?’ Below are three quotes from the article, which highlight to some degree the lack of substance to his arguments:
‘People have argued that you could find nuclear facilities quickly as they are big, but Iraq knows how to make them small…The clock is ticking’.
‘You would think that if Iraq had a nuclear weapon, it would have done something to show it. But then you can’t be certain’.
‘Once it gets the gas-centrifuge programme, you have to assume that it could make [a bomb] in half a year’.
More recently, Albright has been the co-author of a report from ISIS entitled ‘New Satellite Image Shows Activity at Parchin Site in Iran’. The introduction to the report discusses a satellite image which ‘shows what appears to be a stream of water that emanates from or near the building’ that ‘raises concerns that Iran may have been washing inside the building, or perhaps washing the items outside the building’. This and other activities at the Parchin site that have been seen in the last year on satellite images, such as the movement of lorries, and the demolishing of a building, provide the sole basis for Albright’s argument that there has been a nuclear cover-up. In the Financial Times article, Blitz’s reference to ‘the gradual clearance of a large orchard’ is in a similar vein to the speculations that ISIS have made in the past about Iran.
As Albright’s targets are generally the official ‘enemies’ of the west, he receives respectful attention from the UK media, despite an absence of any factual substance to his work.
The ‘concerns’ Blitz reports on belong to his sources, so it is their judgement, and not just his, which is premised on fallacy. Blitz, however, has based his entire argument, without criticism, on the opinions of these officials, and has further developed them into a foretelling narrative, one which doesn’t stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.
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