Harf v. the Times

AP diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee took the lead quizzing State Department spokesman Marie Harf about her issues with the New York Times story on Iran’s growing LEU stockpile (video below, about 16 minutes, also posted here). The exchange took place at today’s press briefing.

As we have come to anticipate, the Saturday Night Live element predominates, this time with the benefit of costume jewelry. Below the video I have pasted in Omri Ceren’s emailed comments.

Omri Ceren comments:

The State Department has three arguments it can make: (1) they can assert that the IAEA numbers are off-base, (2) they can grant the IAEA numbers but dispute the Sanger/ISIS analysis, saying that Iran has enough time to get rid of its stockpile, or (3) they can admit Iran is going to be in violation of the JPOA on June 30 but say it doesn’t matter if Iran. Those are the only 3 options, and at today’s State Department briefing Senior Advisor for Strategic Communications Marie Harf gestured toward all of them. Most were made several times as reporters grew increasingly frustrated (at one point the AP’s Matt Lee went with “I’m sorry, I just can’t – I don’t understand why this isn’t more of a concern”). The quotes are from her, everything else is a paraphrase:

(1) The IAEA numbers are off-base – “That IAEA number… is a snapshot of one day in time. It fluctuates before or after. So.. it might not be the same today. It probably isn’t.” – It’s unclear what the warrant for that statement would be. The Iranians haven’t fed new uranium into their conversion facility since November and are producing new enriched uranium daily. If anything the stockpile is larger than before. If the Iranians suddenly started mass converting oxide or stopped spinning centrifuges, the US would know, and it would be very well-leaked.

(2) The Sanger/ISIS analysis is wrong – “I have talked to all of the nuclear experts on this. There is not a concern that they will get down to the right amount by June 30th” – This was the argument Harf led with yesterday. Again it’s not clear why State believes the analysis is wrong. The ISIS analysis, for instance, carefully went kilogram by kilogram. Harf was explicitly asked if she disputed the analysis in that report and she responded “I would dispute that” because Iran has lived up to its obligations in the past. She later conceded that sometimes the future is different from the past, and it’s unclear where the admission leaves the broader argument.

(3) It doesn’t matter if Iran ends up in violation of the JPOA on the stockpile issue – “We can talk about what they’re going to do for the next 28 days… [b]ut if we can get a comprehensive joint plan of action, they’re going to take that stockpile and reduce it hugely down to 300 kilograms” – This is probably the best argument to make from a policy perspective, and it’s a bit surprising it took the State Department a day and a half to stumble into it (and if you watch the tape, it dors looks like Harf sort of stumbled into it; it doesn’t seem to have been a prepared talking point). The premise is that the interim JPOA requires Iran to get down to 7,650kg, while the final deal mandates that the stockpile shrink all the way down to 300kg. So what does it matter where Iran is on June 30, the argument goes, when they’ll be down to 300kg just a few months after (because they’re so afraid of snapback or whatever)? Except it matters a great deal: if the Iranians are unwilling or unable to get down to the JPOA’s 7,650kg while they’re under sanctions, why would they meet the JCPOA’s 300kg baseline? It’s much more likely they’ll drag their feet and eventually refuse, and let the Obama administration make excuses for them like “it’s not great they’re keeping their stockpile, but we’re monitoring it so everything’s fine.”

That we’re about to go into Day 3 of this controversy suggests the administration’s pushback is not getting traction. Those three arguments aren’t proving persuasive.

Harf’s actual move is what argument scholars call an “epistemological filibuster”: you run out the clock by saying that you don’t have enough information yet or that something could still change in the future, until the time to act has expired and the issue is overtaken by events. In this case we’re going to get to June 30, the Iranians will likely be in blackletter violation of the JPOA, and the administration will say it doesn’t matter because the JPOA has been superseded by the JCPOA.

Harf signaled as much repeatedly today, saying over and over that “if on June 30th, they haven’t done that, then that’s a problem” and “if they don’t, on June 30th… we can have a different conversation.” Except that conversation will never happen, because the administration will declare that it doesn’t matter what Iran has done in the past as long as they come into compliance in the future. The cost will be that – by shrugging off the Iranian refusal to dispose of its stockpile per the current agreement – the US will have missed crucial red flags about Iranian intransigence that will undermine a future agreement.

NOTE: Thanks to Omri for clipping the video for us from today’s State Department briefing.