by Derek Davison
During a panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council on December 17, on the topic of Iran’s obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), panel member David Albright, the founder of the Institute for Science and International Security (which bills itself as “the good ISIS” on Twitter to avoid being mistaken for the Islamic State), and Barbara Slavin, Atlantic Council senior fellow and the panel’s moderator, had the following exchange (transcript and any errors are mine):
ALBRIGHT: We know very little about the people who were involved in these [Iranian nuclear weaponization] efforts up to ‘03 and afterward. The IAEA had almost zero access to them … I think the IAEA does need to kind of keep an eye—that was also done in South Africa, the IAEA goes back to old nuclear weapons facilities in South Africa, even recently it’s done that. There was a big effort to get to know the South African nuclear weaponeers—I’ve met many of them, and interviewed many of them. Again, Iran didn’t come close to what South Africa did.
SLAVIN: Well, let’s point out that Iran lost five nuclear scientists who were assassinated over the years, presumably by Israelis or Israeli agents, so it had, perhaps, another reason to keep these people away.
ALBRIGHT: Yeah, well, but not from the IAEA.
[mild laughter from the audience]
SLAVIN: Ahh, well, that’s a matter of perspective.
ALBRIGHT: Well, is that the reason then? Is that an excuse to do it?
SLAVIN: Well, the Iranians say that they’re worried that intelligence people in the IAEA will identify their scientists and they will then become targets, so I only say what they say.
ALBRIGHT: But if Iran has turned the corner, why would anyone target them? I mean, seriously—
[more laughter, some muttering]
SLAVIN: [laughing] Oh come on, David, you’re not that naïve.
ALBRIGHT: No, I think if it was Israel that killed these people, it made a huge mistake, and that it has consequences, but it hasn’t been happening recently.
Well, as long as it hasn’t been happening recently, then I guess it’s all okay.
Albright and Slavin were talking about the International Atomic Energy Agency’s recent decision to close the file on past Iranian military activities surrounding its nuclear plan. The IAEA board of governors voted on December 15 to close its Iran PMD (“possible military dimensions”) file, bringing the JCPOA one step closer to full implementation. This vote followed the release of the IAEA’s final PMD report on December 2, in which the organization found that Iran had an active nuclear weapons program until 2003 (a finding largely in agreement with the position of the U.S. intelligence community) and continued some periodic weapons research through 2009.
However, according to LobeLog contributor and former IAEA inspector Robert Kelley, the report failed to provide any new evidence for some of the agency’s most provocative claims about Iran’s alleged weapons research. Albright and his organization praised the IAEA report as “evenhanded” but argued that “Iran’s cooperation was certainly not sufficient to close the overall PMD file.” It should be noted that a number of other arms control experts have argued that Iran’s full disclosure of its PMD activities is neither necessary to the JCPOA’s success nor particularly desirable from a political perspective.
As I listened to the exchange between Albright and Slavin, I couldn’t stop thinking about Upton Sinclair’s famous adage that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” David Albright’s stature within the arms control community depends to some degree upon his naïveté about Iran. The anti-deal, largely neoconservative groups that rely on his work to offer them a veneer of objectivity need him not to understand why, even now with a nuclear deal in place, Israeli intelligence operatives might still target Iranian nuclear scientists, who were still being assassinated as recently as January 2012.
Albright relishes his reputation for “objectivity,” which he demonstrates primarily by insisting that he’s objective to anyone within earshot. In his brief opening remarks at the December 17 panel, Albright spent more than 30 seconds insisting that he and his organization are “neutral on this deal,” “not against it” and “not for it,” and that “it’s not in our interest, [which is] to do objective analysis, to take a position.” That he felt the need to open his remarks by repeatedly assuring the audience of his objectivity smacks of protesting too much.
In reality, when it comes to Iran, Albright’s idea of “objectivity” apparently hews quite close to the neoconservative line. His work has been approvingly cited by deal opponents, who turned to him as an “expert of last resort” when so many other arms control experts came to support the nuclear deal. For someone so objective, rarely do deal supporters invoke Albright except to criticize him. He has also directly contributed (alongside prominent neoconservative deal opponents) to reports and op-eds calling for harsher sanctions and the threat of military strikes on Iran, even though such political arguments are “beyond his expertise” and certainly don’t appear to be very objective. For someone who’s already been burned once by accepting neoconservative claims about Saddam Hussein’s supposed chemical and biological weapons stockpiles—to be fair, he was more skeptical of their claims about Hussein’s nuclear program—Albright has had no problem toeing the line on Iran, even when his fellow arms control experts have questioned his methods in doing so.
When his supposed objectivity is called into question, Albright tends to lash out against his critics in angry, personal tones, frequently and without evidence accusing them of acting on behalf of the Iranian government. ISIS, through its Twitter account, is fond of accusing deal supporters of doing “PR” either for Tehran or the Obama administration. Oddly, for an organization that is so objective on the Iran deal, ISIS never seems to lob any similar charges at deal opponents.
Perhaps Albright is correct, and he really is the rare “objective” voice on Iran in a field of arms control experts who have largely come to support the JCPOA. But his history, his allies, and his tone all suggest that he’s “objective” on Iran in the way that Fox News is “objective” when it comes to U.S. politics. On the topic of the Iran deal, David Albright reports, you decide.