Omri Ceren writes to comment on Jay Solomon’s Wall Street Journal article “White House says Iran unlikely to address suspicions of secret weapons program” (accessible here via Google. Omri writes:
The WSJ gained access to some of the documents on the Iran deal that the administration filed with Congress to meet its obligations under the Corker legislation. Two of the documents – both of which are secret and one of which is fully classified (!) – are about the verification process. They reveal that the Obama administration has completely collapsed on the long-standing demand that Iran come clean on the possible military dimensions (PMDs) of its atomic program:
On Iran’s alleged past weapons work, the Obama administration said it concluded: “An Iranian admission of its past nuclear weapons program is unlikely and is not necessary for purposes of verifying commitments going forward…. U.S. confidence on this front is based in large part on what we believe we already know about Iran’s past activities… The United States has shared with the IAEA the relevant information, and crafted specific measures that will enable inspectors to establish confidence that previously reported Iranian [weaponization] activities are not ongoing.”
There’s a history to this collapse. Secretary Kerry made this exact argument to reporters the week before Vienna, but it was a disaster and the State Department immediately retreated: spokesman John Kirby spent the next week telling reporters that they had simply misunderstood Kerry. Ad yet Kerry’s statement is almost word for word what made its way into the documents provided to Congress. Except this time there can’t be a public debate about the stance, because the filing was done in secret and the administration went so far as to classify one of the documents. They’ve made sure that this time there won’t be – there can’t be – any transparency debate over their claims.
Given how the last time went, it’s easy to understand why the administration would want to avoid a robust public discussion over the stance.
On June 11 – a Thursday – the Associated Press revealed that the Obama administration intended to provide Iran with sanctions relief without Tehran resolving the IAEA’s PMD concerns. Instead the Iranians would just have to agree to provide access to inspectors, and the threat of snapback would in theory prevent the them from backsliding [a]. Critics characterized the concession as tantamount to leaving PMD concerns permanentely unresolved, because if current sanctions were inadequate to force Iranian disclosure, how could threatening to restore some of those sanctions later be adequate?
For the next two days – Friday and Monday – the State Department tried arguing that the sequencing would work. They also tried to gaslight reporters by claiming that the administration had always sought access not resolution, leading to exchanges like “our position on this remains the same” vs. “it doesn’t remain the same… you’re lowering the bar even further from address to just agree to give access to” [b].
That wasn’t working so on Tuesday Secretary Kerry teleconferenced into the briefing and introduced a brand new argument: instead of claiming that the Iranians would keep providing PMD-related access after sanctions relief, he declared that the U.S didn’t need to resolve PMDs at all: “We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in” [c].
That talking point was even worse. Caving on PMDs guts the verification regime: the IAEA needs to know what the Iranians did and have, so that inspectors can verify they’ve stopped doing those things and given up those assets, and it needs to know how close the Iranians came to a bomb, so that analysts can know how far the Iranians are now [d]. Kerry’s argument – that the West doesn’t need more knowledge because the West already has sufficient knowledge – was indefensible: IAEA chief Amano had said just 3 months before that the agency still lacked adequate insight into Iran’s undeclared activities and former CIA director Michael Hayden published on Wednesday that the same was true of U.S. intelligence community [e][f].
So the rest of the week was retreat. The Obama administration fell back to claiming that reporters had misunderstood Kerry, and that of course the Iranians would still be forced to answer outstanding U.S. and IAEA questions. But since reporters had understood Kerry just fine, the briefings were bloodbaths. On Wednesday seven reporters piled on Kirby, who nonetheless insisted that the plain interpretation of Kerry’s comments was “incorrect” and that “it’s very clear what the expectations are of Iran… we have to resolve our questions about it with specificity. Access is very, very critical” [g]. Ditto for Thursday: “I don’t want to have to rehash this all again today… we were straightforward yesterday about it… nothing has changed about our policy with respect to the possible military dimensions” [h]. Ditto for Friday: “we’ve talked about this before… before there can be a deal, it needs to be determined… that the IAEA will have the access that they need to resolve their concerns” [i].
The converage from Friday to Monday explained why the State Department had retreated. Rep. Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told Bloomberg View: “My only thought here is that the secretary misspoke or did not understand the question… We clearly don’t have the picture that we need of Iran’s capabilities.” [j]. Veteran diplomat James Jeffrey wrote that “by essentially telling the international community that “the past is past,” Washington and the P5+1 would undercut the arms-control regime that the IAEA is tasked with maintaining globally… there is a term for this that folks all over the region understand, and which Iran greatly values: ‘winning.’ [k]. Politico quoted former IAEA verification chief Olli Heinonen explaining “you need to know how far they got” to calculate breakout [l].
And yet the administration went ahead and put the original Kerry argument, which was crushed when they rolled it out publicly, into the Iran deal.