More pr for Iran

Yesterday David Sanger and William Broad reported in the New York Times that Iran’s nuclear stockpile has grown under the Joint Plan of Action that allegedly froze it (as President Obama has asserted many times). How did Iran’s stockpile of LEU grow? It seems to be suggestive of a cheating heart.

The Times story sent the Obama administration into overdrive, picking up the task of public relations on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Omni Ceren sent out two messages yesterday taking account of the story and the administration’s public relations. He has provided this email update this morning, giving us a glimpse of the administration’s public relations SWAT team on the case:

Yesterday’s NYT story by David Sanger and William Broad – about how the Iranians are unlikely to bring themselves into compliance with JPOA limits on low-enriched uranium – apparently isn’t going away. A couple hours ago Senior Advisor for Strategic Communications Marie Harf took to Twitter to unload on Sanger:

.@SangerNYT You can tweet all the ISIS reports you want – doesn’t change the fact that main contentions in your story were wrong (
.@SangerNYT You write that “Western officials and experts cannot quite figure out why” Iran’s stockpile is at this level – not true (
.@SangerNYT You write that “The overall increase in Iran’s stockpile poses a major diplomatic and political challenge” – not true (
.@SangerNYT You write that this partially undercuts our contention that the Iranian program has been “frozen” – not true (
.@SangerNYT And you insinuate Iran is doing something it’s not supposed to do under the JPOA or in violation of its obligations – not true (
.@SangerNYT Bottom lines: We know exactly what’s going on, Iran has agreed to reduce to 300kg in final deal, program frozen/complying w/JPOA (

The story is badly damaging to the Obama administration. The U.S. has given up on all the physical measures that were supposed to preclude the Iranians from going nuclear – shuttering facilities, dismantling centrifuges, etc. – and are instead relying on inspections, which will allow us to watch the Iranians break out if they decide to. The administration has also given up on the financial coercion that was supposed to disincentivize such cheating – the President is now speaking of a $150 billion signing bonus for Iran – and are instead relying on snapback provisions, which would take years to reverse Iran’s economic gains. The entire strategy is built not on preventing Iranian cheating on the front end, but on retaliating afterward if they do.

So why wouldn’t the Iranians cheat? They’ve violated every other nuclear-related agreement before the JPOA. The only argument the administration has left is, yes that’s true, but when it comes to the JPOA the Iranians have compiled. Hence the multi-day pushback from State to the NYT article. Yesterday Harf declared that the story was “bizarre” and that the State Dept was “perplexed the [NYT] would print such inaccuracies.” Today was the 7:25am Twitter storm

There are a couple of potential problems with State’s claim that Iran has complied with the JPOA:

(1) It’s not true that Iran has complied with the JPOA – The Iranians have violated the JPOA by pumping uranium into an advanced centrifuge. The State Department first tried to claim that wasn’t a violation, but eventually had to shift to declaring that the Iranians had done it by accident [1]. The Iranians have also violated the JPOA by busting through the 1 million bpd monthly limit that the agreement puts on their energy exports (here’s Reuters reporting they did it again last month, “topping a level allowed under economic sanctions” [2]). The State Department used to brush off this violation every month by predicting that in the subsequent month Iran’s exports would finally drop, and so everything would balance out, until that became impossible, at which point they explained that Iran had never been cheating in the first place because it turns out the JPOA has a loophole for condensates. And now the Iranians are going to violate the JPOA by stockpiling more low enriched uranium than the JPOA allows (here’s the new ISIS report I sent around yesterday with the various calculations: [3]).

(2) The only reason Iran is even close to being in compliance with the JPOA is because it was deliberately written to be weak – It fails to prohibit all kinds of things you’d expect would be banned if Iran’s program was genuinely “frozen,” including Iran’s continued illegal acquisition of parts and equipment for illicit nuclear work. That was left out of the JPOA and so every time the Iranians get caught violating UNSC resolutions the State Department can declare that Iran is not in technical violation of the JPOA (here’s an April 30 exchange between Harf and the AP’s Matt Lee on exactly that [4]). The JPOA also fails to demand all kinds of things you’d expect would be demanded, including Iran finally coming clean to the IAEA. That was also left out of the JPOA and so every time the IAEA reports zero progress the State Department can again declare that it’s not a JPOA violation (here’s a briefing from last week with an example [5]).

That said, Harf is probably correct in pushing back against the NYT assessment that “the overall increase in Iran’s stockpile poses a major diplomatic and political challenge.” Instead, the administration is already signaling that it’s willing to ignore the inevitable violation.