Misleading AP tales can't damage 'Teflon Iran'

Sharmine Narwani
Sharmine Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Middle East geopolitics. She is a former senior associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University and has a master’s degree in International Relations from Columbia University. Sharmine has written commentary for a wide array of publications, including Al Akhbar English, the New York Times, the Guardian, Asia Times Online, Salon.com, USA Today, the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera English, BRICS Post and others. You can follow her on Twitter at @snarwani
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When a US media outlet broke a misleading story on the Iran nuclear file this week, many in the West found themselves rushing to defend the Iranian position. Only few months ago, they would have been the ones to leak, seed and spread the disinformation.

The Associated Press (AP) on Wednesday published an “exclusive,” claiming to have seen a draft of a hotly debated ‘confidential agreement’ between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the monitoring organization that safeguards the peaceful nature of member-states’ nuclear programs.

AP’s “unsigned draft” heavily suggests that Iran will, in effect, be investigating its own controversial military facility – Parchin – on behalf of the IAEA.

This made the deal’s critics howl with outrage. US politicians and pundits opposing the Vienna agreement between the UN Security Council P5+1 and Iran, quickly hit the media circuit - with AP’s sketchy details - to cement their case against the historic nuclear deal.

But then what followed was quite instructive on The New Order Of Things.

US administration officials, the director general of the IAEA, former IAEA officials  and a whole host of American media outlets stepped in to make the counter-argument. On behalf of the Iranians, mind you.

Not much was heard from the Islamic Republic itself.

Before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was concluded on July 14, Iran stood alone in what amounted to a global ‘public diplomacy’ onslaught against its peaceful nuclear program. No matter what information, data points, sampling or intrusive inspections Tehran offered up since 2002, it was always one more ‘question mark’ behind its accusers.

I recall a frustrated letter penned by Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, to the Agency’s board of governors on June 17, 2009, in which he argued:

“After six years of the most robust and intrusive inspection in the history of the Agency, and in spite of the continuous declaration of the Director General (of the IAEA) in over 20 reports to the Board of Governors, that there is no evidence of diversion of nuclear materials and activities to prohibited purposes (i.e., weaponization), the issue is still on the agenda. The simple question is: Why?”

He goes on to allege that the issue of Iran’s nuclear program remains on the table because of the political motivations of a few nations, who would like to turn the Agency into a “watchdog, with maximum intrusiveness in safeguards in order to interfere in the national security…of member states, under the pretext of proliferation.” Read his September 4 letter which outlines Iran’s grievances in detail.

Laptops, dossiers, dodgy foreign scientists, secret nuclear sites… the whole gamut of Hollywood-inspired smoking guns were tossed Iran’s way – usually seeded by the Israelis, Americans, Brits or the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK), a formerly US-designated terrorist group now happily embraced by Congress.

The problem with much of this manufactured evidence on Iran’s nuclear program was that the IAEA would use it as a pretext for more questions - often without allowing the Iranians to review the material in order to “protect” their sources. How could the Iranians respond to something they couldn’t examine?

All this changed when the JCPOA was agreed upon in Vienna in July. But the Americans have spent over a decade creating a cottage industry of flimsy evidence focused on Iranian “nuclear bombs” and “terrorism,” and Washington is now facing the monster it spawned.

An Iranian official explained this to me in Vienna, before the deal: “These are not real issues. This is more a matter of the US trying to prove the credibility of past issues. It was wrong, they know they were wrong, but they have a need to stick to the script.”

Twelve years of American credibility on the Iran ‘story’ is on the line, after all.

Some Facts about the IAEA and Parchin

On the issue of inspections at Parchin - this is a military facility that allegedly, pre-2003, dabbled in something the Americans 'find suspect.' In 2005, on two separate occasions, the Islamic Republic “voluntarily provided access” to the IAEA to inspect the site.

Since then, Western sources allege that Parchin has been “swept” and remodeled. So, either way, there is nothing anybody is going to find there 10 years later. Access to the site for a final inspection is more an exercise for Washington to tick a box for public consumption.

Nevertheless, the IAEA is a technically professional agency that has politically served western P5 (US, UK, France) interests for much of the past decade, and so it isn’t going to do this job haphazardly.

The IAEA says it has “hundreds” of confidential agreements with member-states. They manage access to non-standard sites all the time – the difference is only in how the access is customized to suit the needs of both parties. The Agency’s head Yukiya Amano, says:

“I can state that the arrangements (with Iran) are technically sound and consistent with our long-established practices. They do not compromise our safeguards standards in any way. The Road-map between Iran and the IAEA is a very robust agreement, with strict timelines, which will help us to clarify past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear programme.”

Whatever the process, the IAEA will obtain Parchin environmental samples whose origins and sanctity are unimpeachable. IAEA Inspectors could oversee the sampling, GPS-tracking devices could be strapped onto local inspectors – who knows? The Agency is bound by confidentiality to its agreements with members. Those are the rules.

Where’s the media interest in IAEA safeguards outside of the Iran inspections regime? The Agency has, over the years, amassed considerable tools and networks to ensure the quality of its results. These include a sprawling inventory of 45,000 pieces of equipment of 140 different varieties, 20 qualified laboratories worldwide, access to satellite data to supplement physical analysis, and 850 staff members from 95 different countries. Furthermore, the Agency has 182 safeguard agreements in force with member-states, has conducted more than 2,700 inspections, generated 3,000 safeguards statements and reports, and currently has more than 193,500 ‘significant quantities’ of nuclear materials under safeguard.

So the AP story claiming ‘self-inspection’ has already been challenged by experts galore this week – by former IAEA officials and inspectors here and here, and by Amano himself, who expressed dismay at the “misleading” information circulating about the Parchin inspection in a rare public statement on this issue.

The IAEA safeguards practices continue to evolve, both according to the challenges they confront and to improve efficiencies. A member of an IAEA team assembled to test the viability of off-site environmental sampling told me recently that they had conducted an exercise in a Mideast state to take samples from outside the perimeter of a target facility. Perhaps some of those lessons will have already been applied to the Parchin inspection protocol – but likely only if the process was found to meet IAEA standards.

More facts, less spin

Hot button issues like Parchin and other ‘possible military dimensions’ (PMDs) of Iran’s nuclear program will not go away anytime soon. But the debate has changed already with the entrance of atypical ‘deal defenders' – a crop of elite, Western establishment politicians, journalists and analysts – who are pitching the arguments that Iran has previously been unable to make heard.

JCPOA opponents are short of material to fling at deal defenders these days. The Vienna agreement is basically a fair one (if implemented according to its stated intent) that has been scrutinized ad infinitum by six world powers and the Islamic Republic of Iran, after all.

So silly minutiae, non-issues that play well to the suggestible masses, grabs the headlines instead. Take another issue that has had some airtime on social media and in the US press recently: Three weeks ago, another AP report headlined that Iran will not allow US (and Canadian) IAEA inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities. Newsweek magazine said, for JCPOA opponents, this step “will only compound doubts over whether the IAEA will be able to oversee the terms of the deal.”

But Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi insisted the Vienna agreement mentions that inspectors “should be from countries that have diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

And an IAEA spokesperson provided further context by referencing an August 28, 1961 memorandum by the Agency’s director general on “inspectors,” which states:

“The (member) State shall inform the Director General, within 30 days of receipt of such a proposal, whether it accepts the designation of that inspector...If a State, either upon proposal of a designation or at any time after a designation has been made, objects to the designation of an Agency inspector for that State, it shall inform the Director General of its objection. In this event, the Director General shall propose to the State an alternative designation or designations.”

This is standard procedure for member states of the IAEA – nothing suspect or unusual here. It is common sense that a nation will not allow nationals from adversarial or hostile states to inspect its national security-related or prized technological sites.

It is highly unlikely that Iran will veer from the letter and intent of the JCPOA now or in the foreseeable future. The Islamic Republic has been subject to the most intrusive inspections in the history of the IAEA and has taken tremendous hits from an international sanctions regime that sought to strangle Iran’s economic and political systems – all in service of cleaving to its “inalienable right” to pursue an indigenous civilian nuclear program.

In Iran’s view, “international law” serves the country best – and Tehran’s public and private fights are mostly about foreign actions that circumvent the rule of law as applied to relations between states – via illegal or unjust sanctions, sabotage, propaganda, blackmail, assassination, etc.

The JCPOA helps Iran plod along its desired nuclear and economic trajectory with legally-binding ‘safeguards’ against the external trickery and ploys it has been subjected to in the past. Providing, of course, those same Western parties don’t exploit loopholes and revert back to their old tricks, as Iranian conservatives constantly warn.

In its past nuclear-file battles, Tehran usually lacked two key weapons: the ability to fight back against evidence it was not allowed to see, and the ability to communicate its messages to a global audience.

In one fell swoop, the Vienna agreement provided both tools. Buried in the details of the JCPOA is one line regarding any concerns the IAEA has about undeclared nuclear materials, activities or locations: “The IAEA will provide Iran the basis for such concerns and request clarification.”

An Iranian negotiator privately told me in Vienna that the deal must provide Tehran with direct access to any evidence suggesting inconsistency in its nuclear activities. Iran has been denied this in the past. With evidence to touch and feel, it will be much easier for Iran to refute or disprove allegations against it.

Post-deal – and as long as US administration calculations remain pro-deal - Iran’s opponents no longer have an unfettered ability to use the UNSC P5 and IAEA to float unsubstantiated charges against Tehran. This is why we can expect the charges to now come hard and fast through media channels and “leaks.”

And that brings us to Iran’s second “gain” in the aftermath of the Vienna agreement. Having bought into and become fully vested in the JCPOA, the six powerful members of the P5+1 will act, in a sense, as a communications channel for the Iranians, whose ‘facts’ have long been ignored in the media. It is currently in the interest of the P5+1 to make this deal ‘stick’ – and so Iran has experienced enormous relief in its counter-messaging activities related to its nuclear file.

The Islamic Republic just became ‘Teflon Iran.” And Western punditry and establishment figures seeking to spoil the JCPOA environment can now expect a lot more mutiny from within.

Until the Western political pendulum swings back the other way.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.