Goodnight Vienna (2)

As we continue the dance of death in Vienna to the new deadline of July 7, Omri Ceren (on Twitter @ceronomri) writes in two emails combined below regarding news of the latest evidence of Iran’s cheating under the current JPOA of November 2013. Omni writes:

Remember how we got here. The interim deal was supposed to “freeze” Iran’s nuclear program, but the Iranians demanded to keep enriching uranium gas, so the Americans came up with a technical quick-fix: yes, the Iranians would get to keep enriching gas, but they would commit to turning all newly enriched gas into an oxide powder temporarily unsuitable for further enrichment. They would have to meet that obligation at the end of every sic-month interim deal period.

When the JPOA was extended last summer Secretary of State Kerry was clear about the commitment: “Iran has committed to take further nuclear-related steps… includ[ing] a continued cap on the amount of 5 percent enriched uranium hexafluoride and a commitment to convert any material over that amount into oxide.”

By last month it had become mathematically impossible for the Iranians to meet their oxidation requirement by the June 30 deadline. The Obama administration responded by aggressively gaslighting reporters and lawmakers: it told them to ignore the math and that administration scientists were confident that the Iranians would meet the deadline. Yesterday the IAEA confirmed that – of course – the Iranians missed the deadline. So the administration responded by declaring that… the violation didn’t count, and that it was OK with the noncompliance.

You can expect Congressional lawmakers, think tankers, and journalists to make the obvious point: the Obama administration is so desperate to preserve negotiations with Iran that they’re already spinning away Iranian cheating. They’re doing so even before a final deal has been inked, when they can still walk away. Once they go all-in on a final deal, the incentive will only rise.

Yesterday the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) published a one-pager on exactly this. The full version is pasted below, and describes what the Iranians probably did instead of meeting their obligation (they probably left the uranium in an intermediary, more-easily-reversible form between gas and the oxide they were supposed to produce). But the final two paragraphs are about what it means for a final deal that the U.S. is already ignoring Iranian violations:

When it became clear that Iran could not meet its commitment to convert the LEU into uranium dioxide, the United States revised its criteria for Iran meeting its obligations… The choosing of a weaker condition that must be met is not a good precedent for interpreting more important provisions in a final deal. This case poses several other potential problems about the enforcement of a final deal with Iran. The United States accepted an unproven technical method for converting the LEU. Is it doing so now in a final deal? Are the technical methods in the final deal reliable?… The U.S. government handling of the case of the newly produced LEU under the JPA leads to legitimate doubts about how well that major endeavor will go.

The kicker at the bottom of this Reuters article is sort of striking: “The IAEA did not have an immediate response to a query about its report.” There’s simply not much to say The IAEA confirmed that the Iranians are in violation of a black-letter requirement in the interim JPOA deal to transform their enriched gas into oxide. The administration is declaring that the cheating doesn’t matter.

This controversy is playing out as if it were intentionally scripted to delegitimize the administration’s credibility on enforcing a deal with Iran:

— analysts warned the Obama administration that Iran was cheating;
— the administration responded by publicly attacking the analysts and defending the Iranians, and for good measure declared on the basis of secret analysis that the Iranians would not cheat;
— the Iranians went ahead and cheated; and
— the administration declared that the cheating was OK.

There’s a more subtle level to this story, which is that the Obama administration is trying to play games with legal distinctions between IAEA assessments and P5+1 compliance. But the debate is unlikely to reach that level because the surface scandal – that the Iranians violated the JPOA and the White House worked to spin the cheating away – is so blatant.