Friday, August 21, 2015

Associated Press suckered by leaked document on Iran nuclear site: Experts say Parchin is no big deal

This post is based on three reports from different sources: Vox.com 1, Huffington Post 2, and MSNBC/Rachel Maddow 3. Snippets are interleaved and will be footnoted as above.

The story begins here.

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. 1

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."1

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. 1

It did not take long for the hawks to pounce.

Critics of the Iranian nuclear deal declared vindication, citing the report as evidence that the broader nuclear agreement negotiated between Iran, the U.S. and five world powers was flawed. "How does this not set a precedent for future inspections at suspicious military sites in Iran?" asked House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), suggesting that the Iranians would be entrusted to oversee their own nuclear inspections going forward. 2

Soon after, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) pointed to the same AP report as damning proof of how right Republicans are about the international agreement. "This revelation only reinforces the deep-seated concerns the American people have about the agreement," Cornyn said in a statement. 3

The Obama administration and the IAEA responded.

On Thursday, State Department spokesman John Kirby hedged towards an outright denial of the AP report, saying the IAEA would "in no way" give the Iranians the authority to conduct their own inspections of Parchin. "That is not how the IAEA does business," he said. 2

The IAEA has declined to confirm or deny the specifics of the AP's findings, but reiterated that the confidential arrangements are in line with the organization’s verification practices and requirements. "I am disturbed by statements suggesting that the IAEA has given responsibility for nuclear inspections to Iran," wrote IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano on Thursday in a statement. "Such statements misrepresent the way in which we will undertake this important verification work." 2

The thing is: the Parchin site has been known to investigators for years and has been monitored via satellite.

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 [Parchin]. 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. 1

Vox's reporter interviewed Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at Middlebury College's Monterey Institute of International Studies.

I think there are some people who really want an Iranian admission of guilt not because it helps to verify the [nuclear] deal [with Iran], but because they will then use that on the front page of the New York Times to end support for the deal ," Lewis said. 1

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. 1

"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." 1

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. 1

P. S.

The AZ Daily Star also published the AP story. Here is this morning's reaction from AZBlueMeanie at Blog for Arizona.

So here’s the deal: The Arizona Daily Star published a report with an alarming above-the-fold headline that all the experts say is wrong and is "misleading," and was based on information leaked to an AP reporter for political motives. The P5+1 world powers nuclear agreement with Iran is of utmost national security interest.

Journalistic ethics requires a retraction, publishing a correction — preferably Max Fisher’s article at Vox.com above — and an editorial opinion explaining why the Star was wrong to publish this misleading AP report and is now retracting and correcting the report by publishing more accurate reporting.

Write your letters to the editor.

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