The Case of David Albright’s Missing Objectivity

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.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. Derek: It is your article that lacks objectivity. You should read more closely the IAEA report on Iran’s PMD which confirms what any including David Albright have been saying: Iran’s centralized military nuclear program ended in 2003 but “some activities” continued in a decentralized way at least until 209 (no evidence that it continued later.) It’s not IAEA which assassinated scientists and the two it wanted to interview would not have been at risk when meeting with IAEA inspectors in some secret prearranged place. Their photos are widely available -those of Mohsen Fakhiridazeh and Sayyed Abbas Shahmoradi-Zavareh. Note that Hashemi Rafsanjani had some days earlier taken the unprecedented step of contradicting Ali Khamenei, saying they had both approved at the time a military nuclear program (he also rejected Khamenei’s 9 new conditions, saying the JCPOA should be implemented as is and no new conditions imposed). Note that the latest statements by M J Zarif are worrying, indicating Iran wants the sanctions lifted before taking the steps Tehran is required to take: this contradicts what the JCPOA says.
    As to the accusation that David Albright is a “neo-con”, it is laughable. As Voltaire said: “Qui veut noyer son chien l’accuse de la rage.” It’s all too easy to call someone a neo-con (even if he isn’t even a Republican) rather than refute his arguments.

  2. Albright is a lying machine . He says ” Iran has turned corner ” meaning Iran need not fear.
    So liar Albright tell us since the west and IAEA have turned corners how and why and who killed Iranian scientist . Also tell us who provided the laptop to IAEA and who influenced IAEA to stamp that false evidences with authenticity .
    Past activities of Iran if remains an issue ,so should be the machinations and overt pressure from Israel.

  3. The point that is being ignored is what Hashemi Rafsanjani actually said! He said “Iranians began their program prior to 2003 based on the false intelligence info that the US and Iranians had received indicating Sadam Hossein had begun his nuclear program” so Iranian starting the nuke research was purely a defensive move just in case Sadam achieves his goal! But thanks to US for attacking Iraq in 2003 and confirming the false intelligence of Iraqi nuke program which subsequently Iranians dropped their research program in 2003! There haven’t any active program in Iran since 2003 and the IAEA paid stooges are lying through their teeth! Garrett Porter details all the IAEA lies ever since! The Agency has no credibility and it is useless when it can not even manage those countries that have acquired nuke warheads illegally!

  4. Given that the candidates of one of America’s two major political parties insist that they will tear up the agreement on the first day of their presidencies, its hard to see why Iran should be flexible.

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