POLITICS

If An Anti-Iran Deal Talking Point Gets Upended And No One Listens, Can Opponents Still Use It?

Reuters has reported that Iran won't be able to self-inspect a key military site.

WASHINGTON -- A report released last week undermined a key criticism against the Iran nuclear deal. But it appears to have come too late in the debate to dramatically upend one the skeptics' top talking points. 

On Friday, Reuters reported that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency will physically accompany Iranian officials as the Iranians collect samples at Parchin, a military site suspected of hosting nuclear activity in the past. 

The Reuters story directly challenged claims made in August by The Associated Press, which said that a confidential agreement between Iran and the IAEA suggested inspectors from nuclear watchdog agency would be barred from physically entering Parchin. The AP, in a comment to The Huffington Post, stood by its story.

"Regrettably, Reuters has misread and misrepresented the AP story they cite," said Paul Colford, vice president and director of AP Media Relations, on Friday.

But if a misinterpretation took place, it also happened with a large swath of congressional Republicans.

Opponents of the broader nuclear accord negotiated between Iran, the U.S. and the five world powers quickly jumped on the AP story as evidence that the agreement was a sham and should be scrapped entirely. 

"Allowing the Iranians to inspect their own nuclear sites, particularly a notorious military site, is like allowing the inmates to run the jail," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said at the time. 

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) sarcastically suggested his colleagues come to the House floor and change the Olympic Committee rules. "Those athletes should be able to test themselves,” he said.

And just before the House voted on the Iran deal last week, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) reminded his colleagues of the AP allegations.
 
"Reports have indicated that there's also a side deal -- a side deal between Iran and the IAEA that allows Iranians to inspect their own nuclear sites," he said. "This would be like a person in college or any school being allowed to grade their own test."
 
But the reaction to last week’s Reuters story, which cites two anonymous Western diplomats familiar with the contents of the confidential Parchin arrangement between Iran and the IAEA, was comparably muted, underscoring the challenge of influencing preconceived notions about the weakness of the nuclear accord.  
 

At this point, it is impossible to verify whether the AP or the Reuters story is correct. Both rely on anonymous sourcing and neither have been confirmed by the IAEA. In response to pushback last month from nuclear nonproliferation experts who expressed skepticism that the IAEA would forfeit its right to physically inspect Parchin, the AP published what is said was a draft version of the confidential side arrangement. But former IAEA official Tariq Rauf quickly noted that the document does not resemble typical IAEA safeguards agreements.

But the recent Reuters report should at least give politicians pause before suggesting, as Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) did last week, that "President Obama's Iran deal is like giving Tom Brady and the Patriots the right to determine whether a football is deflated."

The White House and the IAEA have refused to comment directly on whether agency officials will be allowed into Parchin during its investigation.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) threatens to cut IAEA funding over access to confidential side agreements during a speech at
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) threatens to cut IAEA funding over access to confidential side agreements during a speech at a National Press Club Luncheon in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015.

Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham, said Monday that the senator is continuing his fight to cut off IAEA funding until Congress can read the contents of the confidential arrangement it entered with Iran in July. He said the discrepancy between the two news outlets "points out the need to review the side agreements."    

The side agreements refer to two confidential arrangements between Iran and the IAEA that lay out a framework for the agency to investigate Parchin and resolve outstanding questions related to Iran’s alleged past efforts to covertly develop nuclear weapons.

The IAEA has insisted that the details of its safeguards agreement with Iran, like similar agreements with other member states, must be kept confidential for the agency to protect its status as a neutral body. The IAEA has not even allowed the White House to have a copy of the arrangement, although lead negotiator in the Iran talks Wendy Sherman testified before Congress that she has read the text.

Under pressure from a group of House Republicans, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) has floated the idea of suing the Obama administration for access to the confidential side agreements. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), who drafted the resolution charging President Barack Obama with violating the law for failing to provide Congress with the text of the Parchin arrangement, was not deterred by the Reuters story.

"We need not rely on unnamed 'diplomats' and sources to find out about how verification will take place, we simply need to see the text of the secret side deals," Pompeo said in a statement. "All of this confusion could be avoided if the president would simply follow the law and provide Congress with the text of the secret side deals."

While Senate leadership has shied away from the lawsuit path, Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) filed a resolution on Friday alleging that Obama has violated the law by not giving Congress the text of the arrangement.

Michael Calderon contributed reporting.