by Derek Davison
On Wednesday the Associated Press published an exclusive that was guaranteed to provide ammunition to those in the United States who are working to defeat the Iran nuclear deal in Congress next month. The story, “UN to let Iran inspect alleged nuke work site,” describes a draft of a so-called “side agreement” reached between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over the nuclear watchdog agency’s planned inspections at Iran’s Parchin military base, the suspected site of Iran’s alleged past work on militarizing its nuclear program.
According to the document the AP reporter saw, the IAEA will allow Iranian inspectors, rather than the IAEA’s own inspectors, to collect environmental samples at the Parchin site. However, getting a clear read on the report’s implications is complicated by the fact that the news agency changed its report substantially after its initial publication, without any correction or explanation.
In an earlier version of the AP report that can (for the moment, at least) still be found at AOL.com, the author, George Jahn, described the draft Parchin agreement as “an unusual arrangement,” and suggested that the IAEA would be effectively sidelined in terms of inspecting the site:
The document suggests that instead of carrying out their own probe, IAEA staff will be reduced to monitoring Iranian personnel as these inspect the Parchin site.
Iran will provide agency experts with photos and videos of locations the IAEA says are linked to the alleged weapons work, “taking into account military concerns.”
That wording suggests that — beyond being barred from physically visiting the site — the agency won’t even get photo or video information from areas Iran says are off-limits because they have military significance.
This version of the story also reported that only seven samples would be taken inside the building at Parchin that is of most interest to the IAEA:
IAEA experts would normally take environmental samples for evidence of any weapons development work, but the agreement stipulates that Iranian technicians will do the sampling.
The sampling is also limited to only seven samples inside the building where the experiments allegedly took place. Additional ones will be allowed only outside of the Parchin site, in an area still to be determined.
“Activities will be carried out using Iran’s authenticated equipment consistent with technical specifications provided by the agency,” the agreement says. While the document says that the IAEA “will ensure the technical authenticity” of Iran’s inspection, it does not say how.
A few hours after AP released the initial details of the agreement, a revised report emerged overwriting some of the more troubling issues pertaining to the inspection of Parchin.
For instance, the news agency removed from its report the claim that it was Iranian scientists themselves who would be inspecting the air and soil samples at Parchin, rather than UN inspectors. It also removed the claim that the number of air and soil samples taken from within suspected nuclear sites would be limited to seven.
It is not clear why the original report was updated to this extent, with some of the original points removed. The Associated Press did not release a statement of clarification or explanation regarding the updates of the report, which it has presented as an exclusive expose based on the agreement reached between Iran and the IAEA.
The AP also removed its earlier characterization of the deal as “an unusual arrangement,” and this may be because it’s actually not that unusual, per the Arms Control Association:
Would the IAEA Depend on Iran for Nuclear Residue Testing? No.
Congressional critics of the JCPOA are misinterpreting information received in briefings about the process for IAEA inspections at sensitive sites. Under managed access procedures that may be employed the IAEA, the inspected party may take environmental swipe samples at a particular site in the presence of the IAEA inspectors using swabs and containment bags provided by the IAEA to prevent cross contamination. According to former IAEA officials, this is an established procedure.
Such swipe samples collected at suspect sites under managed access would likely be divided into six packages: three are taken by the IAEA for analysis at its Seibersdorf Analytical Lab and two to be sent to the IAEA’s Network of Analytical Labs (NWAL), which comprises some 16 labs in different countries, and another package to be kept under joint IAEA and Iran seal at the IAEA office in Iran a backup and control sample if re-analysis might be required at a later stage. The process ensures the integrity of the inspection operation and the samples for all parties.
Not only is such managed access apparently within established IAEA procedures, but the agency specifically says that its agreements with Iran, like the one at Parchin, are “consistent with the IAEA verification practice and they meet the IAEA requirements.”
The Parchin story is critically important as deal opponents are attempting to seize on anything that suggests that Iran is attempting to conceal past nuclear weapons research, or that IAEA inspections will not be sufficient to detect an Iranian weapons program. The Times of Israel , for example, is openly wondering whether the AP report might “sway undecideds on [the] Iran deal.” Parchin has already been a point of controversy over a set of questionable satellite images that purportedly show Iranian efforts to “clean up” the site before it can be inspected.
Meanwhile, strident deal opponents have raised fears about the IAEA’s “side agreements” with Iran in general. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is threatening to block funding for the IAEA in the Senate until the details of those side agreements are revealed to Congress, despite the fact that the details of deals between the IAEA and individual states are routinely kept confidential. The implication that the IAEA would risk its own international standing and funding in order to cut a sweetheart deal with Iran is a bizarre one, particularly given the 2010 Wikileaks revelation that IAEA head Yukiya Amano has been “solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision” with respect to the Iran talks.
More generally, the AP’s decision to substantially revise its reporting without acknowledging the revisions in any way is the latest example in what appears to be a disturbing new media trend. For example, The New York Times, which has had its own problems when it comes to shoddy reporting on the Iran nuclear beat, recently came under fire for significantly altering a story about a US Justice Department investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. The Times didn’t acknowledge its corrections until hours or days after the fact (and only after receiving considerable public criticism for it).
It would be unreasonable to expect major news outlets like the Times and the AP to get every story right the first time. But it is not unreasonable to expect them to acknowledge when they don’t. Revising important pieces on the sly is a dangerous practice and should not be tolerated.