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The AP's controversial and badly flawed Iran inspections story, explained

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano.
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press published an exclusive report on the Iran nuclear program so shocking that many political pundits declared the nuclear deal dead in the water. But the article turned out to be a lot less damning that it looked — and the AP, which scrubbed many of the most damning details, is now itself part of this increasingly bizarre story.

To get a handle on all this, I spoke to Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at Middlebury College's Monterey Institute of International Studies. What follows is a primer on what happened, what the AP story said and how it changed, the nuclear issues involved — a place called Parchin and something known as PMD — and what they mean for the nuclear deal.

The bottom line here is that this is all over a mild and widely anticipated compromise on a single set of inspections to a single, long-dormant site. The AP, deliberately or not, has distorted that into something that sounds much worse, but actually isn't. The whole incident is a fascinating, if disturbing, example of how misleading reporting on technical issues can play into the politics of foreign policy.

The AP ran an alarming headline with a more modest story

This all started when the Associated Press published a story with an alarming headline: "AP Exclusive: UN to let Iran inspect alleged nuke work site."

The headline made it sound like Iran would get to self-inspect, which would indeed be appalling. Readers were given the impression that President Obama had made a catastrophically foolish concession to the Iranians; that our much-touted inspections regime was a big joke. And indeed, a number of prominent political journalists tweeted out the story with exactly this alarmed interpretation.

"If true" turns out to be a major issue here, as upon closer examination the inflammatory headline, as it has been widely interpreted, appears to largely not be true.

In fact, the text of the article said something much more modest. It said that in a one-time set of inspections at one military facility known as Parchin, Iranians, rather than nuclear inspectors, would take "environmental samples" (such as soil samples). It said that nuclear inspectors would not be permitted to visit, and that Iran would not provide photos or videos of the site. But still, it was concerning.

"The story was the Iranians would take the samples under some kind of IAEA monitoring," Jeffrey Lewis, the arms control expert, told me. "The details of that monitoring were not provided, so it's hard to say how weird that is. Some IAEA officials say that it's not unusual to let a country physically take the samples if there's an IAEA inspector present."

The sourcing in the story, though, seemed to water it down a bit more. The report was not based not on an actual agreement, but rather on a copy of a draft agreement. The anonymous source who showed AP the document said there was a final version that is similar, but conspicuously refused to show AP the final version or go into specifics.

"The oldest Washington game is being played in Vienna," Lewis said. "And that is leaking what appears to be a prejudicial and one-sided account of a confidential document to a friendly reporter, and using that to advance a particular policy agenda."

Oddly, the AP then quietly deleted the most damning details from the story

Then things got weird: A couple of hours after first publishing, the AP added in a bunch of quotes from Republicans furiously condemning the revelations, but at the same time, the AP removed most of the actual revelations. The information in the article was substantially altered, with some of the most damning details scrubbed entirely. No explanation for this was given.

The new version of the story said nothing about environmental sampling. It said that Iran will provide photos and videos of the site, as well as mechanisms by which the IAEA can verify that these are authentic. But information about how the IAEA would verify this, which was in the original story, had also been removed.

"The original version of the story, before they edited out all of the interesting details, seemed to modestly advance a story that [AP reporter George Jahn] had published a few weeks ago," Lewis said. "But now we're so far down into the weeds of safeguards, it's really hard to know. The version that was originally published seemed to indicate that the level of access was lower than I would have thought, lower than I would have expected the IAEA to accept. But then those paragraphs disappeared."

The new version of the AP story was vague and confusingly worded. The actual information on inspections was buried under 700 words of Republicans condemning the deal (based, presumably, on information from the first draft of the story that has since been scrubbed).

On Thursday morning, shortly before this article went up, the AP reinstated most of the cut sections. (Lewis's quotes here reflect the scrubbed version of the story, though he had seen the original and so was aware of the information in it.)

The AP then published another story that reiterated much of the information but also added a strange new detail that seemed to water down its original claims even further: "IAEA staff will monitor Iranian personnel as they inspect the Parchin nuclear site." It's not clear what they mean by "monitor."

Paul Colford, AP's vice president for media relations, told me via email that the details had been cut to make room for reaction quotes. "As with many AP stories, indeed with wire stories generally, some details are later trimmed to make room for fresh info so that multiple so-called 'writethrus' of a story will move on the AP wire as the hours pass," he wrote.

When I asked Colford if the AP regretted cutting the news out of its own story, he responded, "It was unfortunate that some assumed (incorrectly) that AP was backing off." I pressed him on whether the cuts had been a mistake. He wrote: "As a former longtime New York newspaperman who's been AP's chief spokesman for eight years now, I would say there's always something to learn from such episodes."

So what we're ultimately left with is a story that at its most extreme possible interpretation suggests this: According to a draft IAEA agreement, Iran will pass verifiable photos and videos of the Parchin building on to inspectors, perhaps as well as physical samples, rather than letting inspectors physically visit.

Even that is dubious: Jonathan Alter, the "if true" political reporter, tweeted that the IAEA would indeed be "on the ground" at Parchin, according to the White House. The IAEA has since come out and said the final agreement on Parchin meets all its standards. The IAEA inspector general issued a statement saying he was "disturbed" by the AP story, which "misrepresent[s] the way in which we will undertake this important verification work."

Still, the question remains: Is this story bad news for the Iran deal? That gets to yet another layer of confusion here. The current version of the story describes a situation that arms control experts have long anticipated, and that is not really as big of a deal as it initially sounded. It all comes down to a single, one-time set of inspections at a single, long-dormant facility.

Parchin and "PMD," which are at the center of this, briefly explained

A 2012 satellite photo of the Parchin explosives test building (DigitalGlobe via Getty)

A 2012 satellite photo of the Parchin explosives test building. (DigitalGlobe via Getty)

The site in question is a building at an Iranian military facility called Parchin.

In the early 2000s, Iran conducted specialized explosive tests at a building in Parchin, with the help of a former Soviet nuclear scientist. It is widely believed that these tests were related to developing a nuclear bomb. This work appears to have ceased more than a decade ago (the building is under satellite monitoring), and it seems highly likely that Iran has since scrubbed it.

Under the nuclear deal, the UN-run International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is supposed to investigate what experts call "possible military dimensions" (PMD) of Iran's past nuclear work. The idea is just that the world should know what happened. That means looking into Parchin; it is meant to give the IAEA an opportunity to try to verify whether or not its suspicions are correct.

There is also a broader goal of examining PMD, Lewis said, so as to "have a decent understanding of who was involved [in any weaponization work in Iran] and what was the scope; of the administrative arrangements and the scope of any program's activities."

At Parchin, this was to be a one-time set of inspections. This issue is totally distinct from the 10 to 20 years of continuous inspections at active nuclear sites, which will be conducted by the IAEA and not by Iranians.

The world pretty much already knows what happened in Parchin. The best-case outcome of inspecting the facility is that we are happily surprised to learn that our suspicions about weaponization work were incorrect. The worst-case, and perhaps more likely, scenario is that inspections end up confirming what we already suspected, but we get a bit more detail on how it went down. To be clear, learning this would not violate or kill the nuclear deal.

A key point here: The Parchin inspection is not part of the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated by the US and other world powers with Iran. Rather, this is something the IAEA negotiates directly with the country it's inspecting, in this case Iran.

It is still related to the larger nuclear deal. The IAEA has to give the official thumbs-up on the PMD issue — the deadline is this fall — in order for the nuclear deal to go forward. But neither the US nor Obama are involved in this part — that's just not how these negotiations works.

So why do Parchin and PMD matter? How important are they?

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)

"There are a number of people, some of whom I do respect, who say that we need to get into this site," Lewis said. "I understand that for some people this has become an issue of principle, since at first the Iranians said no. But I'm just always leery when principle gets involved, because that pretty quickly gets turned into ego."

Still, Lewis emphasized that the stakes were low. Few people expect a Parchin inspection to find much of value.

"Work stopped in 2002," Lewis explained, "so Iran has had 13 years to clean that site. And there have been reports of vehicles and washing and renovations to the building, which I think are very uncertain. But I don't expect the IAEA to find much, although maybe they'd get lucky."

"No one should be willing to blow up this deal over access to this site," he said. "Because we know what they did there, and there's nothing we're going to find out that's going to change our view. But it's become, for lack of a better term, a bit of a pissing contest, so here we are."

Lest you think Lewis is just saying this to defend the nuclear deal, another arms control expert told me the same exact thing more than a month ago, before any of this came out.

"This came down to a pissing contest about whether or not we could go walk into Parchin, which is irrelevant," Aaron Stein, an arms control and Middle East scholar, told me last month about the negotiations over PMD and Parchin. "In the deal they're going to give managed access to Parchin, and you know what? We're going to lose on this because they're not going to find anything at Parchin. All of this will come down to nothing."

Stein also predicted, it now seems accurately, how the IAEA would handle this: "I think what will happen is the IAEA will submit a detailed questionnaire and Iran will respond, and then the agency will review those responses and then draw a conclusion from them."

The revelations left in the AP story are neither surprising to experts nor that big of a deal

Still, it's natural to wonder how big of a deal it would be if, as the story suggests, the IAEA will let Iranian take verifiable imagery, possibly as well as samples, to pass on to inspectors. To a layperson, that sounds weird, right? But it turns out not to be.

Because the stakes are so low for the Parchin inspection, arms control experts have long suspected that the IAEA and Iran would work out a compromise that looks like what's reported in the AP story.

Arms control experts, as Stein told me last month, have long suspected that Iran would object to direct IAEA inspections of Parchin. No country likes foreign inspectors sniffing around a sensitive military complex, after all. The IAEA, he suggested, would get information through other means — interviews, documents, that sort of thing — and then find some tactful way to punt on the issue without getting direct access.

This is not new. The IAEA did this in 2007 in Iran, when it investigated a separate PMD issue, on Iran's acquisition of centrifuge technology. The IAEA ultimately issued a statement saying that "Iran's statements are consistent with the information available to the agency."

"I think they will say something like this about Parchin," Lewis said. "That's how they resolve these issues: 'It's consistent with what we know, the program isn't continuing, and we know what you were doing.'"

Based on this story, that potentially seems to mean allowing Iranians to collect the imagery, and maybe also the physical samples. For a layperson, this might sound scary and bad. That is not how it looks to the experts.

"There are precedents for just providing photos and videos," Lewis said. "When the South Africans [in deconstructing their nuclear program under international inspections] disabled their nuclear test shaft, they video-recorded it and sent the IAEA their video."

"I don't care who takes a swipe sample or who takes a photograph, so long as I know where and when it was taken, with very high confidence," Lewis explained. "And I know that it hasn't been tampered with."

To a layperson, it would seem like having inspectors physically present is crucial for this. But Lewis pointed out that any inspection can hypothetically be compromised, including one in which inspectors are physically present. The most important issue is whether the IAEA can get the samples it needs, and can verify that those samples are legitimate. (Arms control expert Cheryl Rofer has a good explainer on sampling and how it works here.)

Having the Iranians take the samples can hypothetically be okay — as long as the IAEA can still meet those conditions.

"It seems that the IAEA has some kind of plan for this — and I would expect them to have some kind of plan, I don't believe that they would take the Iranians at their word — but that's not included in the story," Lewis said, audibly frustrated.

"So it sounds really bad. And it's supposed to sound really bad," he went on. "The way that story is written, you have no capacity to assess either the veracity or the wisdom of whatever the IAEA has agreed to."

The leak certainly looks like a cynical ploy to damage the nuclear deal

Lewis suspects that the point of the leak was to make the IAEA agreement on Parchin sound as bad as possible, and to generate political attention in Washington, with the hopes that political types who do not actually understand normal verification and inspection procedures — much less the Parchin issue — will start making demands.

"Normally people don't care about this kind of thing," Lewis said. "Normally, if the IAEA is satisfied, everyone is satisfied. But now [with this story] the IAEA being satisfied is now no longer good enough; people are going to insist that they personally be satisfied."

This also lines with the overwhelming attention that nuclear deal opponents have placed on Parchin and the PMD issue generally.

"I think there are some people who really want an Iranian admission of guilt not because it helps to verify the deal, but because they will then use that on the front page of the New York Times to end support for the deal," Lewis said.

This time, though, it was in the Associated Press. This is certainly not the first time that someone has placed a strategic leak in order to achieve a political objective. But it is disturbing that the AP allowed itself to be used in this way, that it exaggerated the story in a way that have likely misled large numbers of people, and that, having now scrubbed many of the details, it has appended no note or correction explaining the changes. It is not a proud moment for journalism.

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