The IAEA moves the Iran deal forward

I’m going to leave you with one last thing before I hopefully go (mostly) quiet for the next couple of days, and it’s my latest for LobeLog, on the subject of David Albright. If you’re not deeply enmeshed in the Iran debate then you may not know who Albright is, but he runs an organization called the Institute for Science and International Security, or…well, unfortunately, ISIS (in fairness, they had the acronym first). Albright produces a lot of research about Iran’s nuclear program, analysis about the negotiations/deal, etc., and the thing is, he’s opposed to it. He consistently takes the dimmest possible view of everything Iran does and the most skeptical view of any part of the deal (even as most of the arms control community seems to have warmed up to the deal for the most part), he’s co-authored reports and op-eds calling for military strikes and heavier sanctions against Iran in lieu of the talks, and he routinely attacks, often in very petty, personal terms, individuals and groups that support the deal.

And, you know, OK. There are a lot of voices opposed to the deal. I disagree with them, and I think many of them are coming from a very scary part of the neoconservative right that desperately wants a war with Iran either as the next phase of or a do-over for the disaster that was their Iraq War. I don’t necessarily get that from Albright. In observing his work, and talking to people who are more familiar with him than I am, I get the sense that he’s not really political, he just really doesn’t like this deal because he’s kind of an idealist on the subject of ridding the world of WMD. I can understand that perspective. What bugs me about Albright is that he insists, repeatedly and to anyone in earshot, that he’s not opposed to this deal, he’s “neutral” and/or “objective” about it. Well, bullshit. Nary a positive word about the Iran talks have ever escaped this guy’s lips, as compared with plenty of negative words, up to and including the insults he levels at people whose opinions happen to differ from his.

Albright is treated with deference even by deal supporters, because he’s not seen as a knee-jerk opponent but rather as somebody doing honest analysis, and this bugs me. His analysis is frequently questioned because he keeps twisting into knots to make the case against the deal, yet very few people are prepared to suggest that he’s acting in bad faith when he claims to be doing objective work. After watching his “objectivity” in action at a conference last week, an episode that I recount in my piece, I decided that I would make myself one of those people:

In reality, when it comes to Iran, Albright’s idea of “objectivity” apparently hews quite close to the neoconservative line. His work has been approvingly cited by deal opponents, who turned to him as an “expert of last resort” when so many other arms control experts came to support the nuclear deal. For someone so objective, rarely do deal supporters invoke Albright except to criticize him. He has also directly contributed (alongside prominent neoconservative deal opponents) to reports and op-eds calling for harsher sanctions and the threat of military strikes on Iran, even though such political arguments are “beyond his expertise” and certainly don’t appear to be very objective. For someone who’s already been burned once by accepting neoconservative claims about Saddam Hussein’s supposed chemical and biological weapons stockpiles—to be fair, he was more skeptical of their claims about Hussein’s nuclear program—Albright has had no problem toeing the line on Iran, even when his fellow arms control experts have questioned his methods in doing so.

Please go read the whole thing.

Now, the context for this piece is that there was some news about the Iran deal last week: specifically, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors voted to close its file on the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s past nuclear work. That vote was a necessary step toward the full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as outlined in the JCPOA’s timeline. The board’s decision followed the release, earlier this month, of the agency’s final PMD report, which found that, for the most part, the big contours of Iran’s past military work are already known to the rest of the world, and that it stopped most of its weapons research in 2003 and its (virtual) weapons modeling research in 2009. The report failed to fully resolve the PMD issue, essentially defaulting on questions about what work was done at the Parchin facility, where the IAEA suspects Iran conducted most of its advanced physical weapons research.

Naturally, this was the part of the report that deal opponents, Albright included, seized upon to argue that the IAEA board should keep the PMD file open and essentially put the JCPOA on ice. There’s always been a desire on that side of the issue to force Iran to make some complete public confession of their supposed lies and misdeeds, a desire that seems reasonable (it would obviously be better for monitors if there was absolute clarity about what Iran has done before, assuming we don’t already have that), but really comes out of a motivation either to humiliate Iran or (more realistically) to get Tehran to break the deal.

The thing is, 100% disclosure would be a luxury, but it isn’t necessary for the deal to work (“work” here means “keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, even if it tries to do so”). No other country that we know either once had a nuclear weapons program (like Brazil and Japan) or once had nuclear weapons themselves (South Africa) has ever made the kind of full confession to the IAEA that hawks have been demanding of Iran, and yet monitoring programs in all three nations have proceeded without much of a hitch. The real key is robust monitoring moving forward, and the deal lays out a system on that front that’s won the support of many arms control experts, including ones who used to work for anti-deal organizations.

The JCPOA’s Implementation Day (the date the sanctions against Iran will become to come off) is probably going to happen sometime in January, although the journey from now to then isn’t going to be without controversy. Iran has been testing new ballistic missiles, which probably violates other UN resolutions but probably doesn’t violate the terms of the nuclear agreement, and this could test the ability and willingness of the international community to take a stand against Iran outside the confines of the JCPOA. Meanwhile, our new visa waiver restrictions, which target Iranian nationals and people who have traveled to Iran even though they’re ostensibly intended to keep ISIS operatives (ISIS being, you know, pretty opposed to Iran and Iranians in principle) out of the country, are being viewed as a possible deal violation on America’s end. Should be an interesting next couple of weeks.

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