Goodnight Vienna (9)

Omri Ceren reports by email from Vienna:

Happy Saturday from Vienna, where we continue to slouch towards a deal.

The Iranians went into meetings this morning talking about progress and predicting breakthroughs. Kerry came out of his meetings later and tweeted “Met with @FedericaMog and @JZarif this AM. Still have difficult issues to resolve” [1]. That language was read by some journalists as evidence that the talks remain stalled. Other journalists are passing around rumors that R&D issues have been solved, that the Americans have collapsed on inspections, and that the Iranians have agreed to drop their new demand for ending the United Nations arms embargo. Could be anything.

For his part Energy Secretary Moniz tweeted this last night [2]:

This talking point – “the deal is good because science says so!” – became a significant part of the White House’s media campaign during and immediately after Lausanne (Politico’s article headlined “White House looks to scientists to sell Iran deal” has a good overview, and the administration even managed to get articles into the Science news site [3][4]). It didn’t make much sense at the time: Lausanne was by definition a political agreement with the technical details to be filled in later, so the most relevant questions weren’t scientific. It makes a little bit more sense now, when technical details actually exist.

There are nonetheless at least a couple of reasons to question the reliability and relevance of the administration’s scientific estimates:

The most critical questions still aren’t the scientific ones – The administration’s scientists can, at best, establish that the restrictions on Iran’s uranium work would, if they held, keep Iran a year from breakout for ten years. The questions that lawmakers will be most concerned about have nothing to do with science: will the Iranians cheat, will the Obama administration continue to play Iran’s lawyer when they do cheat, will the global rush to invest in Iran prevent a realistic snapback, is it worth giving Iran $150 billion and shredding the sanctions regime just to put a few more months on the breakout clock, what about the sunset clause, what about ballistic missiles, what about Allied breakout, what about kneecapping the IAEA, what about hollowing out the NPT, etc.

The scientists with the most relevant expertise disagree with the White House – Administration scientists say that Iran can’t recover its 20% enriched scrap fast enough to make that part of the stockpile relevant for a breakout scenario. Albright, who worked with the IAEA Action Team in Iraq and has their evaluations on how Iraq was preparing to pull off a similar trick, says the opposite [10]. Administration scientists say that a 1 year breakout time would be sufficient to detect and respond to an Iranian breakout. Olli Heinonen, a 27 year IAEA veteran who sat atop the agency’s verification shop, says the opposite [11]. Administration scientists say that a verification regime to detect illicit work can be established on the basis only partial clarification of the IAEA’s concerns. William Tobey, who managed nuclear nonproliferation at the NSC specifically in the context of detecting and securing nuclear material, says the opposite [12]. And so on.

Administration scientists keep getting things wrong – The most recent example was the oxidation violation, when the State Department had to play Iran’s lawyer after the NYT predicted that the Iranians would violate the JPOA commitment to convert all of their excess enriched uranium gas into dioxide powder. That prediction was backed by analysis from David Albright’s Institute for Science and International Security. In briefing after briefing at State, Senior Advisor for Communication Marie Harf declared that the concerns were “just absurd” by hand-waving about administration scientists: “I have talked to all of the nuclear experts on this… there is not a concern,” “our technical experts, as I said, are aware of what… Iran is doing,” “our top experts… have said publicly they just don’t see this as a problem,” “our experts have… understand what technically is happening here and why,” “our experts anticipate Iran will have no problem converting the excess uranium hexafluoride,” “we and our experts anticipate Iran won’t have challenges,” “our experts anticipate they’ll be able to do so,” “I’m going to go with my nuclear experts who are out there,” and – finally – “David Albright knows quite a bit… but our experts who have been talking to the Iranians and dealing with them every single day for all of these years… their assessment is… based on technical facts, technical realities, technical capabilities, and those conversations they’re having with the Iranians” [5][6][7][8]. The administration experts were wrong and the skeptics were right. The Iranians didn’t even get close, and the administration had to retroactively redefine would count as a violation [9]. Someone should ask the White House whether any measures have been put in place, in the aftermath of their scientists’ incorrect assessments, to ensure that similar errors are not made in the future.

Administration scientists keep moving the goalposts for political reasons – This has been a bit difficult to track because the administration asserts – sometimes credibly, sometimes less so – that its scientists are justified in shifting criteria for what counts as a good deal, because when the Americans give up something over here the Iranians give up something over there, and so everything balances out. There will be an easy litmus test in the coming days, however, on whether the administration’s experts are speaking as scientists who are testing the deal, or as White House surrogates who are spinning away U.S. concessions. After Lausanne Energy Secretary Moniz told Bloombreg “we expect to have anywhere, anytime access” as part of any good deal [13]. If in the coming days he suddenly discovers that the US doesn’t need anywhere/anytime access, that will be a dramatic reversal, and will likely undermine his credibility.

The White House and its allies don’t actually seem to care about what the science says – The Obama administration’s political strategy is to put as many Democrats on the record in support of a deal as soon as possible, and then to prevent walk-backs as the agreement is subsequently scrutinized. CREDO Action, a key White House-linked organization, sent out an embargoed press release over a week ago declaring “Democrats in Congress are the only remaining obstacle to finalizing today’s historic deal… Every Democrat should go on the record right now in support of the deal.” The release was supposed to be embargoed until a deal was announced, but the Free Beacon independently obtained the text and posted it [14]. A few days later White House officials and validators held a strategy call for over 100 progressive activists to prepare for a “real war” on the deal, declaring that “the other side will go crazy… we have to be really clear that it’s a good deal” [15]). The final scientific details of the deal haven’t even been announced yet – how do they know the science will back them?

Actual deference to scientific analysis would suggest that lawmakers take a wait-and-see approach, listen to what scientists say during and around hearings, and then to make a decision once the facts are actually in.