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Iran deal opponents now have their "death panels" lie, and it's a whopper

Sen. Chuck Schumer
Sen. Chuck Schumer
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The debate over the Iran nuclear deal may now have its own version of "death panels," a provision that is both a point of overwhelming criticism and largely fictitious.

"Particularly troublesome, you have to wait 24 days before you can inspect," Sen. Chuck Schumer told reporters last week, explaining why he is opposing the deal.

Conservative media have hammered at this idea: that nuclear inspectors must wait 24 days before visiting any place in Iran that is not a declared nuclear site. Sometimes they imply or outright state, as in the case of this staggeringly misleading but representative Fox News story, that the 24-day wait applies even to known nuclear sites.

This certainly sounds scary. It sounds, as the critics often say, like those bumbling appeasers in the Obama administration have handed Iran the ability to cheat on the deal and then prevent inspectors from catching them.

Fortunately, this is all largely false. It's a lot like "death panels," in which Obamacare critics took a benign fact about the health-care bill — it would include end-of-life counseling — and then spun it up into a massive lie about how President Obama was going to cancel Granny's life-sustaining medications and send her to an early grave. This is an issue on which nuclear deal critics have taken a small truth and then exaggerated, distorted, and outright lied about it to make it into something very different.

How the "24-day wait" lie came about

IAEA nuclear inspectors at Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz in 2014 (KAZEM GHANE/AFP/Getty)

IAEA nuclear inspectors at Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz in 2014. (KAZEM GHANE/AFP/Getty)

When it comes to inspections, the deal divides Iran into two kinds of sites: declared nuclear sites and every other place.

The declared nuclear sites include any place where nuclear work is happening: uranium mines, uranium plants, centrifuge factories, and of course enrichment sites, which means the places where centrifuges spin up nuclear material. At those sites, inspectors do not have to wait. They will have nuclear sites under continual monitoring.

But what about the rest of the country? What if inspectors worry that Iran might be conducting secret nuclear work someplace else? It's happened before, after all. But this was always going to be a hard problem, and so-called "anytime, anywhere" inspections are not realistically possible: Generally, only countries that have lost a war can be forced to agree to something so obtrusive. And a country like Iran, which fears an attack from the US, worries that Western inspectors could abuse access to military sites to give their governments intelligence on Iran's non-nuclear military programs.

So the deal struck a compromise that actually gives inspectors pretty good access: If they want to go someplace that is not a declared nuclear site, they can demand access. Here's what happens if they do:

  1. Iran has to grant access within 24 hours, unless it objects to the validity of the demand.
  2. If Iran objects, it and inspectors enter negotiations. If they agree to disagree, the issue gets kicked to a special international commission that includes the US and the other countries that signed the nuclear deal. If it's been 14 days and they're still talking, it goes to the international commission (made up of US, UK, France, Germany, EU, China, Russia, and Iran).
  3. The international commission votes on whether to force Iran to comply. The US and its European allies have a majority on the commission, so if they agree they can overrule the other members. They can hold that vote right away, or they can wait up to seven days.
  4. If the commission votes to force Iran to comply, Iran has to let in the inspectors within three days. If it doesn't, the international sanctions will "snap" back into force.

What critics have done is look at this timeline and focus on the fact that in the most extreme possible scenario, the time between when inspectors demand access and when they get access could be as much as 24 days. Weirdly, this assumes that not just Iran but even the US and its allies will push delays as long as possible, but that is only one of the smaller problems with this idea.

This is a lot more than just misleading — it is a wild distortion of how inspections in general, and this inspection regime in particular, will work, based on a series of misleading or outright dishonest claims about how the deal works.

The truth about the "24-day wait"

Here are a few problems with the idea that inspectors will have to wait 24 days to access undeclared sites in Iran:

  • Iran deal critics are lying when they present this process as the default way in which every visit to an undeclared site will go. In fact, under an agreement that Iran has accepted called the Additional Protocol, inspectors are required access within 24 hours. This other, multi-day process is meant as a fail-safe in case that doesn't work.
  • Critics claim that because the process could, in theory, take up to 24 days, it means Iran can force inspectors to wait 24 days. This is false. Iran does not control every step of the process — the US and its allies could force a vote on the international commission right away, for example — so it is nonsense to argue that Iran could unilaterally delay inspection up to 24 full days.
  • Even if Iran does push for as much delaying as possible, that would be like waving a big, neon-lit invitation over that particular site to Western spy agencies, which have a very good track record of spotting illicit Iranian nuclear activity. If Iran carted out material or bulldozed a test chamber or something, we would spot it, and the jig would be up.
  • Nuclear radiation lasts a very long time. If Iran wants to enrich uranium, it will produce radioactive isotopes that cannot be scrubbed out. Yes, there are non-radioactive activities that Iran could conduct, but you need the radioactive stuff to build a bomb, and that is detectable long after 24 days.
  • Iran deal critics pretend that during this process, the US and its allies would be powerless, essentially held hostage by Iranian intransigence. In fact, they have a variety of tools built into the deal by which they can pressure Iran to let in inspectors, and if necessary can blow up the deal by bringing back sanctions.

The bigger lie behind the "24 days" lie

This entire line of criticism fundamentally mischaracterizes how nuclear inspections work. Ultimately, inspections are a set of tools meant to determine whether Iran is holding to its commitments under the nuclear deal. If inspectors try to get access to sites but at every turn are delayed by Iranian stall tactics, guess what: It will be extremely clear from all this stalling that Iran is not adhering to the deal. Inspections will have worked.

It's not as if the deal binds our hands to accept Iranian behavior unless we catch them specifically in the act of illicit nuclear development. Repeatedly delaying inspectors up to the highest possible limit would effectively prove that Iran was cheating, without the world even having to catch them red-handed.

If the US suspects from Iran's delays that the country might be cheating on the deal, it can punish and pressure Iran into stopping the delays, even if those delays are technically within the allowed time frame. Indeed, those tools are built into the process.

David Albright, a nuclear expert who is considered otherwise skeptical of the deal, pointed out to the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler that the deal gives the US leverage to, for example, "slow nuclear cooperation and approvals of exports to Iran via the procurement channel." (He added, "Iran should get a message that prompt access is required under the Additional Protocol, despite the language in the [final nuclear deal].")

And if the US gets fed up, it can always use its veto power to unilaterally "snap back" United Nations Security Council sanctions. That's both a threat it can hold over Iran's head if Iran is delaying too much, and a threat it can actually use if it becomes necessary.

If anything, by codifying such a specific procedure for what happens if Iran refuses inspectors entry, the deal makes it easier to figure out if Iran is attempting to exploit the process to delay inspectors so as to cover up illicit development.

"This arrangement is much, much stronger than the normal safeguards agreement, which requires prompt access in theory but does not place time limits on dickering," Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at Middlebury University, wrote in his typically colorful Foreign Policy column.

Lewis sees this process for getting access as a strength that has been turned into a weakness, and one he goes on to compare to the "death panels" lie of the Obamacare debates:

Some of us might think it’s good that the agreement puts defined limits on how much Iran can stall and explicitly prohibits a long list of weaponization activities. Opponents, like Schumer — apparently for want of anything better — have seized on these details to spin them into objections. A weaker, less detailed agreement might have been easier to defend against this sort of attack, perhaps.

... The claim that inspections occur with a 24-day delay is the equivalent of Obamacare "death panels." Remember those? A minor detail has been twisted into a bizarre caricature and repeated over and over until it becomes "true."

Lying about policy has consequences

Sarah Palin speaks at an event in 2014

Sarah Palin speaks at an event. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

We all look back on "death panels" now and laugh; 2009 feels so long ago, and Sarah Palin's lie that Obamacare would have bureaucrats decide whether your grandmother's life is worth saving is safely in the past.

But at the time, it felt very significant, and indeed it was. One poll found that 30 percent of Americans, including 47 percent of Republicans, thought it was true. Obamacare became, in the political press, inextricably linked to the "death panels" myth.

It was politically damaging for the health-care act both because it scared people who thought it was true, and because it helped shift the national conversation away from the big picture of what Obamacare did for American health care and refocused it on whatever detail the critics were worked up about that week, whether that detail had significance or not, whether their criticism had merit or not.

Death panels were the boldest of these lies, but they were also the embodiment of a news cycle-driven obsession with whatever the latest controversy happened to be.

We are entering a similar cycle with the Iran nuclear deal. But debunkings never stick as effectively as the lie itself; just ask the 28 percent of voters who still believed as of 2013 that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. These lies aren't just a way for Sen. Schumer to give himself political cover for voting against the deal; they frighten people, and distort how they see the world. "Death panels" taught Americans to fear health care; "24 days" teaches them to fear even very good diplomatic agreements. Even if the deal passes, these lies have consequences, and we should stop repeating them.