Two major media outlets — Reuters and The Washington Post — pushed another Iran “secret side deal” story last week, ignoring obvious facts that revealed it as clever political deception aimed at sabotaging the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Stories in both of those outlets suggested that a leading think tank had revealed a secret deal that allowed Iran to exceed various qualitative and quantitative limits placed on it under the nuclear agreement reached last year — the main current theme of political opponents of the agreement. The stories were based on claims in a report co-authored by David Albright, the head of the Institute for Science and International Security, who has long been treated by corporate media as the leading “independent” expert on Iran’s nuclear program.
In fact, as Truthout revealed in 2014, Albright had abandoned any independence he had maintained on Iran as early as 2008 and had aligned his position on nuclear negotiations with Iran with those of the Bush administration and Israel.
Albright wrote in the report, “We have learned that some nuclear stocks and facilities were not in accordance with JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] limits on Implementation Day, but in anticipation the Joint Commission had earlier and secretly exempted them from the JCPOA limits.”
Then Reuters news agency, which has become a leading media source of attacks on the Obama administration’s policy in Iran and Syria, turned Albright’s charge into a sensational story of bad faith on the Iran agreement by the Obama administration and the entire membership of the Joint Commission.
But it turns out that Albright has no real evidence of any such decisions creating new exemptions from JCPOA limits, and that he bases the charge on the claims of an unidentified official of an unidentified country who only heard about it “third hand.”
The Washington Post reporter Carol Morello reported that Albright admitted he “first heard of the exemptions from a government official from a country involved in the negotiations, but he would not identify the country.” Albright claimed the official “was responsible for assessing Iran’s compliance but heard about the exemptions third-hand, not from his government.”
Apart from the inherent lack of credibility of any “third-hand” information, Albright did not explain how an official charged with assessing Iranian compliance for a government involved in the negotiations would be forced to rely on such “third-hand” information about the Joint Commission’s decisions. The Joint Commission consists of all seven countries directly involved in the negotiation of the JCPOA.
The Post reported the story under the headline “Think tank says Iran given ‘secret’ exemptions to nuclear deal,” and despite including a categorical State Department denial, appeared to lend the charge credence by suggesting that it is “difficult to verify the criticism or the administration’s denials.”
Reuters, on the other hand, stood unambiguously behind the Albright claims. Correspondent Jonathan Landay, who had been given exclusive advance access to the Albright paper, reported that it showed that “Iran was given exemption… from certain restrictions in the Iran nuclear deal,” including “a pass on the amount of low enriched uranium it’s allowed to have in its facilities.”
Landay added that there was an “apparent political aspect to the granting of these secret waivers.” He suggested that the importance to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s government of getting sanctions lifted was the apparent reason for the Obama administration agreeing to grant such waivers.
In fact, however, Albright’s report offers no actual evidence of any “exemptions” or “wavers” by the Joint Commission from the JCPOA’s requirements. A careful reading of the report reveals that he is actually objecting to provisions of the JCPOA itself — not to decisions by the Joint Commission.
Albright claims in his report that the Joint Commission, which consists of the United States, Iran and the other five states that had been negotiating partners with the United States (UK, France, Germany, Russia and China), had agreed to “exemptions and in one case, a loophole” on a series of issues. According to Albright, the issues for which exemptions were granted included JCPOA limits on “hot cells,” heavy water and low enriched uranium. But his invocation of those terms was clearly deceptive in each case.
The language in the JCPOA in regard to hot cells does not establish any hard limit on the number of hot cells over 6 cubic meters that Iran is allowed to maintain. It requires that, “For 15 years, Iran will develop, acquire, build or operate hot cells… with dimensions beyond 6 cubic meters in volume and specifications set out in Annex I of the Additional Protocol, only after approval by the Joint Commission” (emphasis added).
In other words, Iran is allowed under the JCPOA itself to have larger hot cells if it makes the case to the Joint Commission that there is a legitimate need for them, for producing medical isotopes. In an interview with the Guardian, Albright acknowledged that the Commission decision was in line with the JCPOA itself. “We aren’t saying anything has been violated here,” he told the newspaper.
Albright also claimed that the Joint Commission “effectively” allowed Iran to exceed the cap of 130 tons of heavy water in the JCPOA. He writes that the Joint Commission “decided on, or prior to, Implementation Day” that Iran would be allowed to export heavy water in excess of the JCPOA’s 130 metric tons cap for sale on the open market even though Iran did not have a buyer for this heavy water. The reason for that charge is that Iran shipped its excess heavy water, for which it did not yet have a buyer, to Oman.
Albright argued that Iran still controls the excess heavy water in Oman. But although it may still have technical ownership, it obviously has no physical control over those supplies residing in a foreign country, pending the identification of a foreign buyer.
Albright’s attack on the Joint Commission implied that it was lifting an Iranian requirement in the agreement. But in fact the JCPOA only says, “All excess heavy water will be made available for export to the international market.” There is nothing in the text forbidding Iran from sending its excess heavy water abroad pending the identification of buyers.
Albright’s complaint on the issue is really with the original provision in the JCPOA — not with any decision of the Joint Commission. Referring to the language of the agreement, Albright wrote, “As discussed in an earlier Institute report, this heavy water loophole in the JCPOA was poorly considered.”
Yet another Albright claim was that the Commission granted an “exemption” to the 300 kg limit on the low enriched uranium (LEU) Iran could maintain. But that claim involves only a very small and unknown amount of LEU that remained in liquid, solid and sludge waste in the equipment at the Iranian plant where the LEU was being converted into oxide powder.
Albright argued that Iran could recover this small LEU residue in the waste from the equipment and that it should, therefore, be counted against the 300 kg maximum in the JCPOA. But the response by State Department spokesman John Kirby made it clear that the 300 kg LEU limit was understood by those who negotiated the agreement to apply to LEU that is “usable for the making of fissile material or usable to be able to obtain a nuclear weapon.” All of the states that negotiated the agreement clearly believed that the LEU cited by Albright was not “usable.”
Nuclear engineer Behrad Nakhai, who worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for many years, agreed with Kirby. “The waste is not usable,” Nakhai said in an interview with Truthout. “If you wanted to use that LEU mixed into the waste, you would have to reprocess it.” But Iran has no facility for reprocessing, Nakhai noted. The US intelligence community has assessed, moreover, that it would be impossible for Iran to build such a facility without being detected.
Albright’s attack on the Obama administration and the Joint Commission was only the latest installment in the current campaign by pro-Israeli media and political opponents of the JCPOA to claim existence of “secret side deals” between the Obama administration and Iran. Just six weeks ago, the Associated Press correspondent in Vienna, George Jahn, published a story that falsely portrayed Iran’s report to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] on its plan for implementation of the agreement as such a “secret side deal.” The agreement reached between Iran and the IAEA on the issue of alleged past Iranian nuclear work, which included arrangements for taking environmental samples at Iran’s Parchin military facility, was also treated by JCPOA opponents as a “secret side deal.”