The Iran deal: It’s settled science

Back in the United States, Omri Ceren continues his reports on the pending deal with Iran. Today he comments on one of the Obama administration’s themes supporting the deal. It seems to have something in common with the administration’s take on global warming climate change. I thought readers who have been following this series might be interested in this report as well:

According to the weekend reports – and based on the Sunday shows – the administration is starting the week with two talking points about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was sketched out in Lausanne last week.

The first line is the standard one they’ve used since 2013, which is that opponents of the deal are making war inevitable. There’s not much to explain here. It will succeed to the extent the administration can repeat it while still evading scrutiny. Otherwise people will ask “doesn’t this deal also start a war by triggering Middle East proliferation,” “isn’t no deal is better than a bad deal,” “how did Iran get within 3 months of breakout anyway,” and “what happened to the good deal the White House promised to bring home 18 months ago?”

The second talking point is more interesting. The White House has began pushing a line saying scientists are united in thinking the JCPOA is a good deal. This weekend Politico had a whole article describing the talking point rollout. Colin Kahl, the VP’s National Security Advisor, posted a rare tweet pushing a story that was published in ScienceMag. Moniz rather than Kerry was dispatched to sell the deal on Face the Nation. There were at least half a dozen other mentions on the Sunday shows (including by Ben Rhodes: “…the leading scientists and nuclear experts in this country… can validate”). Today’s briefings will have more of the same, with nuclear experts rather than diplomats and an emphasis on technical details rather than politics.

Scientists will will be asked to validate two things about the JCPOA: that as long as the Iranians don’t cheat, there will be a sufficient year breakout time, and that if the Iranians do cheat, the verification regime will catch them.

This move will strike people as strange.

Technical experts can’t validate the Lausanne statement…: Lausanne was supposed to produce a political understanding with the technical details to be filled in later. Many technical details were by design left unfinished. There hasn’t been an agreement on how fast the Iranians can develop next generation centrifuges or how much of their stockpile they get to keep in diluted form on Iranian soil. This was a problem for Moniz on Sunday: how can he or anyone else provide assurances about breakout time or detection if the variables determining those things haven’t been decided?

… and they’ll look bad trying: There was never supposed to be a technical understanding, but it seems the parties couldn’t even lock down a political understanding. Washington and Tehran are openly bickering about what was agreed upon. Now the administration is presenting journalists with technical experts rather than diplomats: the gesture will reinforce the optics that the Americans couldn’t get any commitments out of the Iranians.

— Substantively it misses the point: Scientists might be able to speak to detection in theory, but they can’t speak to the actual process of verification in practice. In recent weeks top experts – ranging from the former Deputy Director General of the IAEA to the former Director of the CIA – have emphasized that the real-world bureaucracies of the IAEA, the US Intelligence Community, the UN, and so on will drag out the time it takes to prove and react to Iranian cheating to much longer than a year. This is a diplomatic and bureaucratic point. Nuclear scientists can’t answer it. Only experts at the intersection of nuclear expertise and real-world intelligence can.

— It’s just not true: Which brings up the final point: It’s just not true that there’s a consensus of scientists who think that the JCPOA extends Iran’s breakout time to a year or that it has a robust verification scheme. The best experts – the ones with both scientific and real-world exposure, who have academic backgrounds and the on-the-ground experience – are on the other side of this debate. I’ve pasted a small roundup at the bottom on this.

The entire thing should be a non-starter, but the fact that experts disagree on the key issues – the fact that the talking point is simply not true – is likely to be even worse than the optics of hiding diplomats who would defend the deal from the press. Skeptical scientists and experts aren’t even that difficult to find: the roundup at the bottom is just based on a few articles from this weekend.

Again, a strange decision by the administration.

Omri appends citations to technical experts bucking the party line:

Scientists: JCPOA doesn’t provide sufficient breakout time to detect and react

David S. Sullivan, former CIA arms verification specialist and former SFRC arms expert: “U.S. national technical means of verification is always difficult, fraught with the political process of monitoring, collecting, analyzing, and [achieving] consensus on usually ambiguous evidence of cheating that opponents are trying to hide…The negotiations started as an attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear program, but now they have legitimized it.”

Olli Heinonen, Former Deputy Director General of the IAEA and head of its Department of Safeguards: “Several countries in the Middle East are building their nuclear infrastructure…There will not necessarily be a race to a bomb, but countries will be climbing the ladder of nuclear capabilities. Iran will also continue research and development on more advanced centrifuges, which could further reduce its breakout time.”

Olli Heinonen, Former Deputy Director General of the IAEA and head of its Department of Safeguards: I’m a little puzzled by the political agreement. You’re going to leave Iran as a threshold state. There isn’t much room to maneuver.”

Scientists: JCPOA verification regime won’t catch Iran cheating

Paula DeSutter, former Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation: “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will not be effectively verifiable. [The transparency regime for the deal will] undermine the already challenging verifiability of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.”

Thomas Moore, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee arms control expert: “This whole question of whether we can verify that Iran is saying is complete and correct isn’t getting any better under this agreement, and that’s because of them only provisionally applying the Additional Protocol… I don’t see that Iran is going to do anything different on cooperation for verification today than it did prior to today.”

Thomas Moore, senior fellow and deputy director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at CSIS: “[Imprecise language is a sign] Iran is keeping its weapon option open but refuses required openness to confirm it no longer wants one. Iran … will instead cheat at an undeclared site…The deal is silent on Iran’s actual military dimensions, except to the extent that its supporters claim the IAEA will be able to verify the absence of a weapons program in Iran. They won’t.”


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