Tuesday, September 22, 2015

22-Sep-15: If Iran's march to a nuclear arsenal leaves US officials comfortable and satisfied, how should the rest of us feel?

Before we drill down into what has just happened in Iran, and some astounding words of explanation from an official spokesperson for the US government, a few words of introduction.

The intentionally-unsigned nuclear weapons development deal that media reports keep wrongly calling a “signed” agreement, made in July between Iran and the United States (accompanied by a few other countries that also did not sign) is being widely hailed by those who support it as unprecedented in its rigor and of vast significance. Whatever people think of its merits, it's clearly one of the most weighty pacts to have happened in our lifetimes.

Over here in Israel where Iran's blood-curdling threats of murder and destruction ["25-Aug-15: Hard to ignore how much Iran believes its old goals are the right goals"] are not merely the stuff of headlines (or footnotes) but amount to a genuine, massive-scale physical threat, there's wall-to-wall opposition to it, along with fear, trepidation and incomprehension. 

We can't help but notice how most Americans, far less threatened than we are but no less capable of reading news reports, agree with us.

As the ultimate owner of the process, President Obama himself spared no superlatives in singing the praises of the framework that preceded the pact:
"This deal is not based on trust. It's based on unprecedented verification," he said. Part of that verification, Obama said, was "the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history.” [Public Radio International, April 8, 2015]
Then once the agreement was finally not signed, the praise from figures deep within the political process rose several notches, starting with the president himself who, speaking from the White House, said
We don't trust Iran... But this deal doesn't rely on trust. It relies on verification [and] The commitment to Israel is sacrosanct...
The amen choir rapidly chimed in, mainly along partisan party-political lines. Democratic senator from California Dianne Feinstein called it
historic. It offers a verifiable, diplomatic resolution to one of our most pressing national security challenges. This is a strong agreement that meets our national security needs and I believe will stand the test of time. I stand behind the U.S. negotiating team and will support this agreement in the Senate.. .Iran will be subject to unprecedented and highly intrusive inspections to verify it is living up to its commitments. The IAEA will have 24-hour access to all declared nuclear sites and this agreement provides a process for inspection of military bases. No sites are off limits to inspection... [Source, July 14, 2015]
California's second Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, spoke of the unprecedented inspections and verification regime in endorsing it. Along similar lines, Bill Nelson, Florida's Democratic senator, reiterated that:
this agreement can't be built on trust. We must have a good enough mechanism in place to catch them when and if they cheat; in other words, don't trust but verify. [C-SPAN, August 4, 2015]
Large parts of the mainstream media joined in. For instance: "Iran nuke deal depends on most intrusive inspection system ever", McClatchey, July 14, 2015]

And there were the lobbyists:
That's why this deal is so important: by subjecting Iran to the most intrusive inspections regime in history, it leaves nothing to trust. Inspections at all nuclear sites. 24/7/365 monitoring. Tracking every ounce of uranium. It all adds up to unprecedented assurance that Iran cannot cheat their way to a weapon undetected. [From the Iran Deal Facts website, the work of a political group closely aligned with the White House]
In fact, there has been colossal amount of parroting going on as those on the side of this agreement provide reasons political or moral or logical for why it could hardly be better, and how trust doesn't come into it. Not at all. Not even a little.

This leaves those of us astounded at the unforgivable weakness being displayed by the US side, along with the ongoing unbalanced concessions, wondering what's really going on. And wondering whether the news of this past weekend has caused the holders of any of these utterly-certain viewpoints to undergo some self-doubt.

The wondering is still going on. Only now the contradictions between the case for the unsigned pact and reality are mounting.

The following somewhat bizarre exchange between the official spokesperson of the United States Department of State and a journalist we think is Matt Lee from Associated Press took place at yesterday’s (Monday’s) daily press briefing at the State Department. The text below is extracted without change from the official transcript and appears on the State Department website here.

The head of the IAEA found time in his weekend visit
to call on Rouhani, the Iranian president [Image Source]
The dueling between the two relates to what did and did not happen inside one of the most significant of the Iranian military/nuclear facilities ["06-Aug-15: Parchin: Keep the name in mind"] this past weekend when the head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, came visiting

Soil samples were taken during the visit. And lo and behold, exactly what critics of the JCPOA said was going to happen (because of a secret side deal between Iran and IAEA), happened:
[A] top Iranian official said that IAEA inspectors had not taken part in the sampling procedure at Parchin. Iranian technicians took the samples and handed them to the IAEA, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran spokesman Behruz Kamalvandi was quoted in Iranian state media as saying. ["IAEA inspects Iran's Parchin military site for first time", CNN, September 21, 2015]
(Worth noting that when reports first emerged that Iran was going to be doing the soil sampling of its suspected nuclear facilities on its own and without anyone watching, supporters of the Iran deal said this was mere rumors, and that Israel was probably behind them. Turns out they weren't rumors at all.) Amano's own words after emerging from Parchin are enough to get ordinary worried people like us thinking:
This was the first time that the Agency had visited the location. We entered a building which the Agency had previously only been able to observe using satellite imagery. Inside the building, we saw indications of recent renovation work. There was no equipment in the building. Our experts will now analyse this information and we will have discussions with Iran in the coming weeks, as foreseen in the Road-map. ["IAEA Director General's Remarks to the Press on Visit to Iran", September 21, 2015]
State's John Kirby [Image Source]
It would be a pity to highlight some of the words, and not highlight others. The whole State Department media briefing exchange from yesterday is simply breathtaking. 

QUESTION: Thank you. The two main areas of what I wanted to ask you about have already been asked at the White House and answered – well, kind of answered – but I’m going to give it a whirl anyway. Let’s start with Iran.
MR KIRBY: With what?
QUESTION: -- and the inspections of Parchin. And your colleague at the White House was asked whether the Administration is satisfied with the process that we saw unfold over the past couple of days. I just wanted to make sure that you’re on board with his answer; he said yes.
MR KIRBY: Yes, we are.
QUESTION: You are. And you don’t have any issue with fact that the inspectors were not allowed in, or that they were not there?
MR KIRBY: I would point you, Matt, to what the director general himself noted, which was that the verification activities at Parchin were conducted in the manner consistent with their standard safeguards practices. So the director general himself made it clear that he was comfortable with the verification process and that it was in keeping with the arrangement that they had made with Iran.
QUESTION: That’s great, but you – so you don’t have a problem with them not being physically present?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to get into the details of the process itself. That resides inside this confidential arrangement between Iran and the IAEA, so I’m not going to confirm or deny whether inspectors were present here or there. What I am going to say is we’re comfortable that the process was conducted in accordance with the normal procedures and the agreement that the IAEA had already made with Iran.
QUESTION: And so it remains your position that the confidential agreement and whatever it contains is sufficient to investigate? Okay.
MR KIRBY: Absolutely. And again, I’d point you to the fact that Director General Amano made it clear before and I think certainly made the implication today that there’s no self-inspection by Iran in this process.
QUESTION: There – okay. The other thing, at the – that your colleague at the White House seemed to suggest was that the courtesy call that Director General Amano made to Parchin was somehow evidence that – or was evidence that the Iranian military facilities are open and available for IAEA access. Is that really – is that the position of the State Department?
MR KIRBY: Well, in a short answer: yes. I mean, it’s not insignificant that the IAEA and the director general himself – I mean, I don’t know that we would characterize it as a courtesy call –but the fact that he and his team had access to Parchin is not insignificant.
QUESTION: His team, meaning the one person that went with him.
MR KIRBY: Look, I don’t – I’m not going to --
QUESTION: A brief – a brief visit to an empty room at Parchin, you think counts – qualifies as an inspection? That – was that the –
MR KIRBY: It’s not insignificant that they had access to Parchin. The director general himself – and I’m not going to get into the details of his visit or what that – that’s for the IAEA to speak to. But it’s not insignificant that they got – that they were granted access to this.
QUESTION: Is it your understanding that the director general of the IAEA conducts inspections? Or would that normally be done by --
MR KIRBY: I’m not an expert on their --
QUESTION: -- lower-level people?
MR KIRBY: I’m not an expert on their protocols. I don’t think it’s our expectation that he has to personally inspect everything.
QUESTION: Do you think he got down on his hands and knees and --
MR KIRBY: I’d point you to the director general to speak to his personal involvement. I don’t know that that’s our expectation, that he has to, as you said, get down on his hands and knees. But certainly he had access to Parchin, and that’s not insignificant – the first time that that’s been done. If we had this --
QUESTION: Well, do you recall how big a site Parchin is?
MR KIRBY: I don’t. I’m not an expert on the site itself.
QUESTION: It’s rather large.
QUESTION: It’s pretty huge.
QUESTION: So do you think that two people from the IAEA going into an empty room briefly --
QUESTION: -- counts – I’m trying to find out whether you guys think or are trying to say that Amano’s courtesy call, his very brief visit – he even said that it was very brief – counts as some kind of an inspection. That’s all.
MR KIRBY: I would point you to what the IAEA has said about their --
QUESTION: Not even the IAEA said this was an inspection, but your colleague at the White House suggested that the fact that Director General Amano was able to briefly visit one room or one part of the site was evidence that the Iranians have opened up their military sites to IAEA access. And I just want to know if the State Department thinks that it’s – thinks the same.
MR KIRBY: We believe it’s significant that Iran granted access to this facility at Parchin for the first time in the history of this issue, both in his visit and the technical verification activities. What’s more important is we look forward to Iran’s fulling implementing its commitments under the roadmap. That’s what matters here.
QUESTION: Would you be confident in this being the standard of inspection going forward?
MR KIRBY: It’s not that that is – this is an issue between Iran and the IAEA, and as we said at the very outset, Brad, that having been briefed on the details of that confidential arrangement, the Secretary remains comfortable that it will allow for the IAEA to get the proper access it needs and the ability, through various techniques, of effectively monitoring.
QUESTION: But you don’t think there needs to be – you’re not saying that whatever the confidential arrangements are of future inspections going forward, that they will have necessarily more access than this?
MR KIRBY: That is between the IAEA and Iran to work out. What matters to us, we’re not going to micromanage the inspection activities of the IAEA. It’s an independent, international agency that can speak for itself about what it will or will not do. And as you know, many of those arrangements are confidential and they won’t speak to them. What matters to us, having been briefed on the protocols, is that we remain comfortable, should this – should Iran continue to meet its commitments in keeping with that arrangement, we believe they will get the access and will get the information they need.
But look, this is the first visit, so – at least to Parchin anyway. So we have a ways to go here. As I said, there’s a roadmap that has to be implemented, and we expect Iran to meet its commitments.QUESTION: Wait, are you saying that – are you saying this is the first visit? You’re expecting there will be more?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know. I’m saying it is a fact that it’s first visit. I’m not making prognostications about the future.
QUESTION: My last one and I’ll defer to anyone else that wants to ask. Are you – do you know if members of Congress in their confidential briefings with Administration officials, which would have included people from this building, including the Secretary, were told that IAEA inspectors would have direct access and be able to take their own samples at Parchin?
MR KIRBY: I do not know what specifics of the confidential arrangement were briefed to members of Congress.
MR KIRBY: What we’ve said all along is that – and the director general himself had said – that reports that Iran would be self-inspecting were not accurate, and that he himself was comfortable in the protocols laid out in the arrangement.
QUESTION: That’s not my question. Were they --
MR KIRBY: Well, your question is do I know what Congress were briefed.
QUESTION: Do you know – several members of Congress came out and said that they had been told by the Administration that there would be inspections by IAEA personnel. Do you know if they were told that by the Administration or is that outside --
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to comment on specific communications about a confidential arrangement with members of Congress. What I will go back to say, though, is having been briefed on this arrangement, the Secretary remains comfortable that if Iran meets its side of it, that the IAEA will get the access and the information it needs to properly verify compliance.
QUESTION: Can I change subject?
Worth recalling what comedian Jackie Mason said about this recently: that in New York City, the restaurants get more intensive inspections from health inspector than the US agreement with Iran calls for. Only the food officials get genuine anytime, anywhere access rights. Because, you know, a spoiled tuna sandwich can really ruin things. 

Incredible, in the literal sense of the word. 

And it's getting clearer that the ruling clique in Tehran do indeed pay attention to the American news media [see "24-Jul-15: If the Iranians read the Wall Street Journal, we're all in deep trouble"]

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