How badly did the AP get played on its Parchin story?

A couple of days ago, AP reporter George Jahn informed his readers that he’d obtained a copy of a draft agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran over nuclear inspections at Iran’s Parchin military site. Parchin is important because, if you believe the questionable evidence that says Iran did at one time have a nuclear weapons program, then its weaponization work most likely took place at Parchin. The IAEA would like to know exactly what work went on at Parchin so that it can develop a clear picture of Iran’s past weapons research (if any), which is important enough to the P5+1 that Iran’s compliance with the IAEA’s research in this area is one of their obligations under the terms of the nuclear deal.

The IAEA has been at Parchin a couple of times before and found no evidence of anything (and now, 12 years after even US intelligence says Iran shut its nuclear weapons program down, it’s not clear if there’s any evidence left to find at the site anyway), but it’s a big, important site and the IAEA has requested additional access in the past only to be stalled by Tehran. Even if there’s nothing practical to be gained by another IAEA inspection there, Iran’s willingness to allow a stringent inspection at Parchin is being treated as a symbol of its willingness to comply with the terms of the deal as a whole.

Why would the Iranians, who say they’ve never had a nuclear weapons program, try to block the IAEA from inspecting Parchin, you ask? Well, assuming you don’t think they’re lying about having never had a nuclear weapons program, there are a couple of possible reasons. One, they may not trust the IAEA to do its job properly; there are still questions about the agency’s environmental sampling at Syria’s would-be al-Kibar reactor, for example. Second, and more likely, the Iranians may be worried that IAEA inspections of Parchin could be cover for a more general spying operation; nobody denies, after all, that Iran conducts conventional weapons research at Parchin.

Anyway, back to the point. The JCPOA requires that the IAEA get another crack at inspecting Parchin, but the details were left up to Tehran and the agency to negotiate. Jahn’s report said that a draft of the Parchin agreement (which didn’t significantly differ from the final version, according to Jahn) said that the IAEA would not be permitted to enter Parchin and that Iranian technicians would instead be allowed to collect samples on the IAEA’s behalf. Obviously this is the kind of thing that people worried about the nuclear deal are going to freak out about. Iran gets to inspect its own sites? That even sounds bad to me and I support the deal. But then something weird happened: substantive parts of the AP’s story started disappearing without explanation. I wrote about it for LobeLog:

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.

Sections about how IAEA inspectors would be blocked from visiting Parchin vanished into the ether, along with characterizations of the deal as an “unusual arrangement.” Then IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano issued a statement saying that he was “disturbed by statements suggesting that the IAEA has given responsibility for nuclear inspections to Iran” and that “the arrangements are technically sound and consistent with our long-established practices. They do not compromise our safeguards standards in any way.” So as far as the IAEA is apparently concerned, there’s no story here.

If you think about it for five seconds, this makes sense. Why would Amano and the IAEA put their international credibility on the line to make a weak deal with Iran over such a sensitive issue? But Jahn’s report confirmed many people’s worst suspicions about the nuclear deal, so it really caught a lot of attention.

Vox’s Max Fisher wrote the comprehensive debunking of the AP story (and posted it about 10 minutes after I’d submitted my piece to LobeLog, so I didn’t cite it), and it deserves a read if you haven’t already given it one. He systematically takes apart the AP piece’s suppositions (the deal doesn’t compromise the IAEA’s ability to perform its mission, arms control experts were expecting the Parchin visit to be managed access only, Parchin doesn’t really matter all that much in a technical sense, etc.) and concludes that Jahn allowed himself to be used by a leaker who’s opposed to the deal and wants to drum up opposition to it in Congress:

[Arms control expert Jeffrey] 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 looks pretty bad for the AP, when its Vienna bureau chief is being spun like a top (or spinning himself; Marcy Wheeler emptywheel’s Jim White [always check the byline, folks] has documented a bunch of examples of Jahn playing to the anti-deal camp in the past). But now it’s actually getting worse. In its own defense, the AP released its purported “transcription” of the draft Parchin agreement, and today the Huffington Post’s Jessica Schulberg has a piece citing Tariq Rauf, a former top official at the IAEA, who says there are a number of signs that the draft is “fake”:

“In my personal view, this is not an authentic document,” Rauf said. “Likely a crude attempt to hinder the JCPOA and the Road-map,” he added, referring to the Iran nuclear deal, and the parallel agreement between Iran and the IAEA over an investigation into the possible military dimensions of Parchin, an Iranian military site thought to have been used for illicit nuclear weapons work prior to 2003.

Rauf compares the alleged draft agreement to the “Niger Letter,” the phony document that surfaced in 2003 alleging that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger (Google “Plame Affair” for more fun with this history). You can see Rauf’s comments on the document’s weird language here. In the AP’s defense, this “draft” does seem like an “unusual arrangement,” in the sense that it really doesn’t look like a document that either the IAEA or Iran would produce. Now, Rauf was looking at a transcription of a draft, so there’s room for error here (though if the AP understands the definition of the word “transcribe,” there shouldn’t be much). Crucially, though, even if Rauf is totally wrong and this is a legit document, nowhere in the AP transcription does it say that IAEA inspectors will be “barred” from Parchin, which was the crux of Jahn’s whole AP report! Again, maybe the transcription is incomplete, but that detail was so important to Jahn’s piece that you’d think he would have made sure it got from the “authentic” draft into his transcription.

The AP insists that the core of Jahn’s story remains unchallenged, but that’s transparently bullshit. They’ve had to excise major parts of it, tried to do so without anybody figuring it out, and now we’re learning that even what remains may be largely fabricated. This has not been the AP’s finest hour.

UPDATE: One of the problems Rauf had with the AP’s transcription of the alleged draft was that it refers to Iran as “the Islamic State of Iran.” The Islamic Republic of Iran does not refer to itself as “the Islamic State of Iran” and would almost certainly object to an English document that referred to it as such. But, as it turns out, there is at least one person who refers to Iran as “the Islamic State of Iran,” as Al-Monitor‘s Laura Rozen points out:

Now, who showed George Jahn the copy of that draft agreement?

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