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The real reason the State Dept is Twitter fighting with the NY Times about Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at an earlier meeting in Switzerland.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at an earlier meeting in Switzerland.
RONALD ZAK/AFP/Getty

Twitter brings out the best in nobody, and this week that includes two of the most prominent people in Washington's national security establishment: New York Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger and State Department senior adviser Marie Harf.

Their Twitter fighting is ostensibly over a technical issue in the Iran negotiations; Sanger had published a story reporting Iran had developed new nuclear fuel, which he suggested was a major embarrassment for the administration and bad for the Iran nuclear deal.

Harf basically argued that Sanger had misunderstood and misinterpreted the latest nuclear development. And, on balance, Harf's criticisms are correct, and Sanger's story elided some technical issues that make it clear this is nowhere near as big of a deal as he claims. But like so many arguments in Washington over Iran, it's about much more than that.

The argument: does Iran's latest nuclear step create a big problem for the US?

On Monday, Sanger reported in the Times, based on a new study, that "Tehran's stockpile of nuclear fuel increased about 20 percent over the last 18 months of negotiations." Sanger framed this as embarrassing for the Obama administration and a step back in the Iran nuclear negotiations. The development "poses a major diplomatic and political challenge for President Obama," Sanger wrote, "partially undercutting the Obama administration's contention that the Iranian program had been 'frozen.'"

Harf, who is currently acting as State Department spokesperson, said later she was "perplexed" by the story's contentions, pointing out that Iran had not violated any agreements and arguing that Sanger had overblown a minor development into a major issue. "The notion that this is some big issue of concern of negotiation is more manufacturing a controversy than actual reality," she said.

Then the Twitter fighting began:

(Harf sent a few more tweets as well; you can see them here.)

What was interesting, watching this unfold, is that it prompted two entirely separate conversations. One, among mostly conservative national security writers and think tankers, expressed dismay at the Obama administration's defensiveness and its apparent refusal to acknowledge the cold, hard facts spelled out in the study. The other, among arms control experts, actually dug into those facts and ultimately ended up siding with Harf.

How the Times got the technical issue right and its significance wrong

The first issue, as a number of people pointed out, is that Sanger had used the phrase "nuclear fuel" to describe the growth in Iran's nuclear program, which is both true and misleading. Iran has produced a specific category of nuclear fuel called low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is used for power plants or other peaceful purposes, not for nuclear warheads.

Sanger implies that this goes against the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), Iran's 2013 temporary nuclear agreement with the US, meant as bridge until final negotiations are concluded this summer. In fact, Iran's development of more LEU is within the agreement, so for Sanger to write that it "undercuts" anything is incorrect.

Once the final nuclear deal with Iran comes into effect, based on the framework of that deal that was agreed upon in April, Iran will still be allowed to produce LEU — but it will only be allowed to keep a small stockpile on hand. The idea here is that LEU in itself is not terribly dangerous, and that both the production and the stockpile will be under close international monitoring to make sure Iran doesn't try to turn the LEU into highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is dangerous. However, the deal will limit how much LEU Iran is allowed to have on hand at any given time; the country will be required to ship it out or else convert it to, for example, fuel rods.

This gets to the heart of Sanger's argument: he is correct that Iran is building up a much larger stockpile of LEU than it will be allowed to have if the final deal comes into effect. To be clear, this activity does not violate any agreements currently in force. However, if the deal comes into effect, and if Iran wants to comply with that deal, then it will have to convert almost all of that LEU into some other form, such as fuel rods, or ship it out of the country. There is nothing preventing Iran from doing all of this in a way that complies with the deal.

A representative tweet from the arms control community, which seemed to collectively roll its eyes at Sanger's story:

"Iran's LEU is up somewhat, yes, but contrary to headline, it doesn't 'complicate' talks. IranDeal will cut [the size of Iran's LEU stockpile] to 300kg," Arms Control Association director Daryl Kimball wrote, calling Sanger's story "a superficial analysis."

It's also important to point out that Iran is developing this new LEU under the view of the international community in its officially declared facilities. If the Iranians really wanted to cheat, they would almost certainly construct a secret facility somewhere — as they've done in the past — and do it there.

That does not mean that it's great news that Iran is enriching more LEU. Certainly, everyone's lives would be easier if Iran unilaterally surrendered its entire nuclear program or at least took no more steps toward nuclear development. But Iran is continuing to conduct the sorts of nuclear activities that it is allowed under the JPOA (a deal that even Sen. Lindsey Graham, an Iran super-hawk, now supports), which should not be particularly surprising. It is a real stretch to argue, as Sanger does, that this enrichment "poses a major political and diplomatic challenge" to the Iran deal.

What they're really arguing about

This is, in many ways, a repeat of the same argument that Washington has been having since 2013, when the JPOA was signed and the US and Iran began down the road to a nuclear deal. Supporters of the deal, joined since April's framework agreement by a chorus of arms control experts, say the deal is about the best feasible option we have for limiting Iran's nuclear enrichment.

Iran hawks argue that this is all based on a false premise that the Iran nuclear program is actually the core problem. Rather, they believe, the real problem is inherent to the Iranian regime itself, and that because the nuclear deal will not force regime change, it elides and thus perpetuates that problem.

This is why you see so much arguing between these two sides over every little technical blip along the way. For Iran hawks, episodes like this one just prove there is no such thing as a "good" nuclear deal because Iran is so inherently evil that it will find a way to exploit any deal to its advantage. Deal supporters and arms control experts, meanwhile, see that the deal will dramatically limit Iran's nuclear development, as well as make it much harder for the country to cheat, and thus go a long way to prevent both a nuclear bomb and the need for a disastrous war with Iran.

This is why you get lots of arguments over questions like "Is Iran violating the JPOA in spirit, if not in letter?" because for Iran hawks everything Iran does violates the spirit of the agreement because Tehran can only ever be dishonest and warlike.

It's why people on both sides spend lots of time debating the degree to which Iran is "rational." If Iran is rational, the incentives of the deal are much more likely to lead it to comply. But that word "rational" ends up becoming very hard to define and clear standards very hard to set. Was the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 rational? If it wasn't, does that mean America is incapable of rationally responding to incentives, and must be destroyed for the sake of world peace?

You can see how these debates almost immediately veer away from the factual into the theoretical and the indefinable. They are also, by the way, only tangentially related to technical issues such as whether Iran's latest LEU enrichment violates the JPOA. These debates are maddeningly unanswerable and unending. Most people in Washington who work on this issue, having long ago exhausted their arguments on this many times over, try to avoid rehearsing the debate. But that is not always the case on Twitter, even if you're David Sanger or Marie Harf.