Thursday, September 24, 2015

When It Comes to Nukes, Who Said It: The Pope or Iran?

With its outspoken Pope leading the way, total nuclear disarmament is now on the Vatican's agenda.

In a new article in Defense News, Ploughshares Fund president Joe Cirincione writes about how the Holy See is taking aim at the world's nuclear arsenals. "Up to now, the church has abhorred the inhumanity of these weapons that indiscriminately target innocent civilians and would kill them in massive numbers," Cirincione notes. "But—until now—it has recognized a need for states to have nuclear weapons to deter other countries from launching a nuclear attack on them."

Under the guidance of Pope Francis, this position of begrudging acceptance has now officially changed. The Vatican stands firmly against nuclear weapons as a means of necessary deterrence and has embarked on a campaign calling for the complete, global eradication of all nuclear weapons.

With the multilateral deal over Iran's nuclear energy program still making headlines, the Pope's support of the agreement was an important endorsement. The Catholic leader has expressed his hope that the deal will lead not only to a nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, but also to wider - and wholesale - elimination of the planet's existing nuclear arsenals in the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

It is often forgotten that a NWFZ for the Middle East was first proposed by Iran in 1974. Even after the fall of the U.S.-backed Shah five years later, the Iranian leadership has continued to publicly support such a goal ever since. In addition to declaring no interest in acquiring an atomic bomb of its own, Iranian leaders have long condemned nuclear weapons in general. Indeed, Pope Francis' own words are often nearly identical to those of Iranian officials, past and present.

Noting this similarity, I put this thing together to test your knowledge of both papal and Iranian rhetoric. Enjoy.



September 25, 2015 - Addressing the United Nations General Assembly today, Pope Francis reiterated his stance on the Iran deal and nuclear weapons.

The deal, he said, "is proof of the potential of political good will and of law, exercised with sincerity, patience and constancy," adding, "I express my hope that this agreement will be lasting and efficacious, and bring forth the desired fruits with the cooperation of all the parties involved."

Beyond this, "There is urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons, in full application of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in letter and spirit, with the goal of a complete prohibition of these weapons," the pope said.


Friday, September 18, 2015

Who Fact-Checks The Fact-Checkers?:
PolitiFact and Ted Cruz Both Get the Iran Deal Wrong

Presidential candidate Ted Cruz and the Tampa Bay Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website PolitiFact were at each others' throats last week over recent comments Cruz has made about the nuclear deal - officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - reached this past July between Iran and six world powers.

The main reason for the spat is simple: Ted Cruz lies a lot.

In response to a particularly blustery claim made by the Texas Senator at a hilariously insane rally opposing the nuclear accord, which restricts Iran's nuclear energy and uranium enrichment programs - reaffirming their purely peaceful nature - in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions, PolitiFact decided to investigate whether Cruz was telling the truth. (Spoiler: he wasn't, and rarely does.)

At the rally, and afterward on Twitter, Cruz declared that the JCPOA "will facilitate and accelerate the nation of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons." Even for a demagogic blowhard like Cruz, this is a ridiculous thing to say. Beyond the fact that we've heard for over three decades that the advent of an Iranian nuke is just around the corner - only a few years, maybe two years, a year and half, 12 months, six weeks away! - and these estimates have never come close to fruition, nor have they ever been based upon a single shred of credible evidence, the enhanced monitoring and inspections implemented under the new deal effectively prevent any hypothetical Iranian move toward weaponizing its program for at least a decade, probably far longer. And that's if Iran does the thing it's never ever done: decide to build a nuclear weapon, and to do so at exactly the time when its program is under the most intensive scrutiny of any nation's program in history. The claim is absurd on its face.

Needless to say, it wasn't too difficult for PolitiFact to judge this statement false.

But PolitiFact's own understanding of the parameters of the Iran deal itself was surprisingly rife with errors, something that absolutely shouldn't happen in a fact-checking article. The details, relayed by the website's editors Louis Jacobson and W. Gardner Selby, were rendered this way:
Specifically, the deal requires Iran to give up 97 percent of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, the kind needed to make nuclear weapons, as well as most of the centrifuges it can use to enrich uranium. In addition, Iran agrees to only enrich uranium to a level unsuitable for weapons for 15 years, and to cease production of plutonium, the other element that can be used to build a bomb. Known nuclear sites would be monitored for 15 years to confirm compliance, and inspectors would have the ability to enter undeclared sites suspected of nuclear use, though with possible delays of up to 24 days.
PolitiFact gets a bunch wrong here.

"Highly enriched uranium"

First, the deal does not require "Iran to give up 97 percent of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, the kind needed to make nuclear weapons." Why not? Because Iran doesn't have any highly enriched uranium to give up.

Jacobson and Selby appear to have confused - or conflated - low enriched uranium with highly enriched uranium.

This is no small matter and, unfortunately, is a common mistake made by commentators, politicians, journalists, and pundits who should all know better. The fact is Iran has never enriched uranium above 19.75 percent U-235, which is defined by the IAEA itself as "low enriched uranium." This is quite uncontroversial - no one, from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to the U.S. intelligence community to the Israeli Mossad to non-proliferation experts, has ever claimed that Iran has produced a stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU). Iran has only ever produced low enriched uranium (LEU) - to levels of under 5 percent and under 20 percent - useful only as reactor fuel or medical isotopes, respectively, not bombs (which require enrichment levels of over 90 percent).

Furthermore, the IAEA has confirmed that, "since 20 January 2014, Iran has not produced UF6 enriched above 5% U-235 and all of its stock of UF6 enriched up to 20% U-235 has been further processed through downblending or conversion." Additionally, as the agency has long confirmed, "All of the enrichment related activities at Iran’s declared facilities are under Agency safeguards, and all of the nuclear material, installed cascades, and feed and withdrawal stations at those facilities are subject to Agency containment and surveillance."

What the JCPOA actually does, in this regard, is limit Iranian enrichment of uranium to no more than 3.67 percent U-235 LEU and, as the Arms Control Association notes, eliminates roughly 97 percent of Iran's current LEU stockpile, capping it at a mere 300kg for 15 years.

"Production of plutonium"

PolitiFact also erroneously claims that, under the deal, Iran must "cease production of plutonium," which makes no sense considering Iran has never produced plutonium. As I noted earlier this month, "Before it can be stockpiled, plutonium must first be extracted and reprocessed from the spent uranium fuel of an operational nuclear reactor. Iran has never done this and doesn't even have a reprocessing plant. Iran has literally never extracted plutonium from a reactor core, let alone stockpiled it..."

In short, Iran can't "cease" doing something it's not - and never has been - doing.


PolitiFact's explanation of inspection parameters under the JCPOA is also disingenuous. By claiming that Iran's "[k]nown nuclear sites would be monitored for 15 years to confirm compliance," PolitiFact is implying that Iran's nuclear infrastructure is not already under safeguards and constant monitoring, which it is - and has been for years, if not decades. Iran's nuclear facilities have long been subject to the most intrusive and consistent inspection regime in the world.

The deal only strengthens this regime, allowing constant and immediate access to all declared nuclear sites and also to non-nuclear sites like centrifuge assembly workshops, centrifuge rotor production workshops and storage facilities, and uranium mines and mills, which, as nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis has pointed out, "are not safeguarded anywhere else in the world." This enhanced and unique access will last, in many cases, as long as 20-25 years.

PolitiFact's language also suggests inspections of nuclear sites will cease after a decade and a half. This is totally wrong. In fact, all of Iran's declared nuclear sites will remain under IAEA safeguards and surveillance in perpetuity, as mandated by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to which Iran has been a party since its advent in 1968.

Even PolitiFact's understanding of "possible delays of up to 24 days" before "undeclared sites" are accessed by inspectors is dubious, as this is the absolute maximum amount of time that access to a potentially suspect facility could be delayed through a process agreed to by all seven international parties (eight, if you include the European Union) to the JCPOA.

In truth, under the deal, the IAEA's request to visit a suspect site "triggers a 24-day clock under which Iran and the IAEA have 14 days to come to an agreement on access. If not, the Joint Commission, created by the JCPOA, has seven days to make a determination on access, and if at least five of the eight members vote to allow the IAEA to investigate, Iran has three days to comply," explains the Arms Control Association. At that point, the very first time this review protocol is tested to this extent, there's a good chance the process of re-implementing sanctions on Iran would begin, rendering the tenets of the JCPOA inoperable and signaling the imminent, if not immediate, collapse of the agreement altogether.

Who Fact-Checks the Fact-Checkers?

PolitiFact has rightly taken Ted Cruz to task for his false claims.

[In a petulant retort to being fact-checked, Cruz published even more lies in The National Review, declaring, among other things, that Iran cheated on a previous nuclear accord (it didn't), that Iran is allowed "in certain circumstances" to "inspect itself, and report back on the 'results'" (it's not, not even close), and that the deal enables "Iran to finish their ongoing ICBM research and develop a missile that can carry a nuclear warhead across the Atlantic to America" (which is, simply, asinine).]

But in its own explanation of the Iran deal, PolitiFact repeats a number of baseless canards that have often been used by anti-diplomacy Iran hawks and deal-supporting liberal interventionists alike to mislead the public about the Iranian nuclear program and its capabilities.

For a "fact-checking journalism website aimed at bringing you the truth in politics," PolitiFact should make sure to check itself before it, well, you know.


A version of this article was crossposted by Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR) on September 25, 2015.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Talkin' the Iran Deal on BRIC TV's "Straight Up"

The good folks over at Brooklyn's own BRIC TV kindly invited me on their reporter roundtable show Straight Up to discuss the Iran deal - the facts, falsehoods, details, media coverage, political posturing - along with prolific journalist Ali Gharib and host Jarrett Murphy of City Limits.

Much ground was covered, I quoted Donald Trump, and we all a drank a number of pints of beer.

And afterwards, this happened right outside.

The conversation is being rolled out via a few teaser clips; the entire hour-long show will be posted eventually. Here's the first (warning: I talk a lot):

And here's the second:



September 17, 2015 - And here's the third:



September 18, 2015 - And here's a little drinking game we played. Spoiler: I crushed it.



September 19, 2015 - And, finally, here's the entire conversation, including a whole bunch of extra stuff that didn't make it into the shorter clips above. Check it out:


Anne-Marie Slaughter Admits She Was Wrong About Iran, Doesn't Care Enough to Issue Correction

Anne-Marie Slaughter

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post addressing the myriad falsehoods and inaccuracies proffered by influential think tank head and former Obama official Anne-Marie Slaughter in an August 20 op-ed she wrote for USA Today about the multilateral nuclear agreement reached between Iran and six world powers this summer in Vienna.

During the course of her column, Slaughter gets some very basic facts about the Iranian nuclear program, the history of negotiations, and the deal itself totally wrong. For instance, she claims the deal "completely dismantles its nuclear supply chain." It doesn't. She calls the Iranian nuclear program - the one fully safeguarded and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency - "illegal." It is not.

One of the most flagrant and repeated errors in Slaughter's piece is that Iran currently has in its possession "stockpiled plutonium and highly enriched uranium." Again, this isn't even remotely true as Iran has never produced nor stockpiled any plutonium or highly enriched uranium. Ever.
Alas, despite my (and others) efforts to force this to Slaughter's attention and get her to respond, she didn't.

Until Sunday.

First came the obvious "I'm busy" stuff, but soon thereafter came the full admission of error about her "stockpiled plutonium and highly enriched uranium" claim. Apparently, explains Slaughter in lieu of actually owning up to being dead wrong, she was "writing 2 quickly" and "didn't mean 2 say stockpiles of plutonium."

How someone accidentally writes and publishes something they claim to know isn't true is beyond me. But, amazingly, what she tweeted after that is even more damning.
According to Ms. Slaughter, who has been a professor and department chair at elite academic institutions, served as a top aide to the Secretary of State, and now runs a major D.C. think tank, "writing for [a] mass audience" means ignoring the truth, or what she refers to for some reason as omitting "nuance."

First off, facts aren't nuance. They are facts. Iran not having stockpiles of weapons-grade fissile material is not some bit of inane minutiae when one has decided to argue that Iran is a potential nuclear-armed threat. No, falsely claiming the opposite is an integral part of your overall argument and it is erroneous information upon which less informed or interested readers (yes, the "mass audience") will base their own judgments on the matter. If your facts are wrong, and you're supposed to be the "expert," then how are we to expect the non-experts to know what the truth is?

Which brings us to the second thing: Anne-Marie Slaughter clearly isn't concerned about the truth. She's concerned about making her case in support of the Iran deal, and still sounding tough on the Iranian bogeyman, regardless of what she needs to pretend is true to do it.

This is exactly why most people are so poorly-informed about Iran's nuclear program and why faulty assumptions lead, not only to warmongering and threats, but to bad policy.
But, hey, for Anne-Marie Slaughter, she only had so much room to "frame [the] core debate," which clearly doesn't leave any space for telling the truth about things. I mean, writing "low enriched uranium" takes up far more space than "plutonium and highly enriched uranium," right?

Slaughter only addressed that one mistake, however, ignoring the other obvious errors published in her op-ed.

When asked whether she would contact USA Today and ask them to issue a correction on her article about the "stockpiles" claim, Slaughter demured:
Besides the fact that September 15 is not "over a month" after August 20, Slaughter is apparently uninterested in setting the record straight and believes her commentary, published in USA Today, has an extremely short shelf-life of relevance. Why correct my mistakes when the damage is already done?

Such is the emphasis on truth and the importance of honesty in the mainstream commentariat. After all, if the "mass audience" doesn't know they're being lied to by Very Important People like Anne-Marie Slaughter, why would she let them find out? I mean, hey, she's got a kid to bring to college and a book to promote!

Reflecting on how tragically wrong she and other supporters of the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq were about what they claimed they knew was true, Slaughter wrote in 2013, "We can only hope we have gained a lesson in humility."

Sadly enough, that lesson, for Slaughter herself, appears yet unlearned.


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Claws Out: One Pro-Israel Think Tanker's Feeble Fury

WINEP's Patrick Clawson (left), and his doppelgänger "Johnny Cab" from Total Recall (1990)

Something unexpected and hilarious happened yesterday during Dick Cheney's predictably bellicose and apocalyptic speech against the Iran deal at the American Enterprise Institute.

When a Code Pink protester named Michaela Anang interrupted the speech, raising a banner reading, "Cheney / Wrong on Iraq / Wrong on Iran," and calling the war criminal at the podium, well, a "war criminal," someone in the audience freaked the fuck out.

While Anang was surrounded by event security escorting her out of the room, a bespectacled man wearing a suit and tie appeared and grabbed her banner, attempting to tear it out of her hands in a fit of flailing fury. He was not successful.

Here's how Huffington Post's Nick Wing described what followed:
The man tried and tried some more, but he couldn't quite wrest the sign from the woman's grasp. He jerked with his entire body. He yanked the banner back and forth like a dog playing tug of war. He even leaned back in an apparent attempt to use his body weight to his advantage. All to no avail.
After pulling with all his middle-aged might (for her part, Anang looked like she exerted no energy whatsoever during this entire ordeal), the banner slipped from the man's grasp, and he slumped backwards into an empty chair off the aisle - drained, defeated and denied.

The video of the struggle is priceless:

So who was this guy - this irate, ineffectual, noodle-armed muppet?

It was none other than Patrick Clawson, research director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a fanatically pro-Israel think tank spun off from AIPAC. Clawson has long been a staple of the Beltway's Iran hawk mafia.

In 2006, Clawson told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, "So long as Iran has an Islamic Republic, it will have a nuclear weapons program, at least clandestinely. The key issue therefore is: How long will the present Iranian regime last?"

He has frequently called for supporting regime change in Iran, just as he supports industrial sabotage of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, cyber attacks, and the extrajudicial murder of Iranian nuclear scientists. "That's what the Israelis would do, what we would expect them to do. They would kill Iranian scientists," he said in 2009, adding, "It would be implausible to call off all covert ops."

Clawson also has the distinction of publicly suggesting Israel conduct a false flag operation to drag the United States into a war with Iran as an alternative to diplomacy. "I frankly think that crisis initiation is really tough. And it's very hard for me to see how the United States … uh … [the] president can get us to war with Iran," Clawson said during a 2012 WINEP forum entitled, "How to Build U.S.-Israeli Coordination on Preventing an Iranian Nuclear Breakout."

"So, if in fact the Iranians aren't going to compromise, it would be best if somebody else started the war," Clawson concluded.

For Clawson, it surely would have been best if he had asked somebody else to wrestle a young woman's banner from her fingers.

Journalists Jim Lobe and Ali Gharib have written a phenomenal analysis of the incident, positing that, metaphorically, it pretty much sums up the Israel lobby's embarrassing failure to kill the Iran deal, despite its expenditure of untold energy and capital. Clawson embodies the lobby's crazed hysteria as much as its feeble weakness.

Now enjoy this, over and over and over and over again. It never gets old. Or unfunny.


Sunday, September 6, 2015

How Recent Media Scoops Busted Two Major Myths About Iran

Iran's negotiating team (l-r): Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, Special Assistant to the President Hossein Fereydoun, and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi. (Associated Press)

Two media stories published last month ventured behind the scenes of the successful negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and lifting sanctions, revealing the great efforts made by both the Iranian government and the Obama administration to reach a deal. Embedded within these scoops, however, are (at least) two vital bits of information that haven't garnered much attention, despite the fact that they effectively bust a number of the most popular myths about the Iranian nuclear program and the effect of international sanctions.

Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons

On August 1, an exclusive published by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) revealed details of an off-the-record conversation about the Iran deal between Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, who served as the country's lead nuclear negotiator for the past two years, and IRIB directors that occurred in late July. The scoop was quickly retracted and removed from the IRIB website, but not before other outlets had already picked up the news.

IranWire published excerpts from the story on August 3, showing Araghchi defending the Iran deal and offering a rare glimpse at the closed-door comments of a top Iranian official about Iran's nuclear program and government policymaking.

But, considering the erroneous assumption common in political statements and press reports that Iran is pursuing a nuclear bomb, one comment in particular sticks out. Addressing the optics of successful diplomacy with the United States, referred to as "the enemy," and its partners, Araghchi said:
"The main demand of the other side was to block Iran from getting nuclear weapons … We had no problem with that, and granted it to the enemy …meaning that we provided trust, trust that we will not be moving towards the bomb. We granted this to the other side in two ways, by accepting certain limitations and certain supervisions. The other side got what it wanted and can say that they prevented an Iranian atomic bomb."
By being able to declare that the deal has "prevented an Iranian atomic bomb," Araghchi explains here that the Americans achieved their primary goal. But for Iran, he notes, this wasn't a concession at all - in fact, it was already longstanding Iranian policy.

"We gave up an atomic bomb, a bomb which we did not want and considered forbidden," Araghchi said.

Remember, this was not a statement delivered publicly and expected to be reported. This is the private commentary of a senior Iranian official affirming the government position that nuclear weapons are not only strategically and geopolitical obsolete, but also ethically abhorrent and religiously prohibited.

Sanctions did not 'bring Iran to the negotiating table'

While we often hear that "sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table," it is widely acknowledged that United Nations sanctions were ineffective in forcing the Iranian leadership to abandon its legal nuclear development and enrichment program. Following the announcement of the 2013 interim agreement between Iran and six world powers, John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker:
Even the nonpartisan Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation expressed some doubts about the economic blockade, saying its effects, which have included a fall in oil production, a collapse in the value of the Iranian currency, and a big jump in inflation, were mainly hitting ordinary Iranians rather than the country’s leaders.
“Paradoxically, economic woes have allowed the government to take greater control over the economy, and to use patronage, favors, and other methods to shield regime allies from the pain of sanctions,” the report said. “On the other hand, those hit hardest by the sanctions seem to be precisely those who otherwise would support a more moderate government in Iran, and who look favorably on the U.S.”
It wasn't until the European Union joined the U.S. oil embargo on Iran and froze assets related to Iran's central bank in 2012 that sanctions supporters say they saw real results. A Council on Foreign Relations sanctions primer notes, "A year prior to its 2012 oil embargo, the EU was the largest importer of Iranian oil, averaging 600,000 barrels per day, according to the CRS."

Cassidy credited the EU sanctions with turning the tide on Iran's willingness to talk and accept concessions on its program, writing that "once the European Union, Iran's largest trading partner, agreed to join the United States in ratcheting up the pressure, they proved effective in pretty short order." He doubled-down on this conclusion this past week.

But the truth is that Iran was already at the negotiating table, and had been on and off for a decade already. Its proposals have consistently offered a severe reduction in enrichment capacity, enhanced monitoring and inspections, and the opening up of its program to international partnership and investment. All Iran asked for before it accepted these stringent terms was the acknowledgement of its inalienable right to a peaceful nuclear program, and full domestic control of the nuclear fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment.

"Enrichment is our fundamental right, but we can negotiate to what degree, dimension, and other things," said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on November 8, 2013 in Geneva, during the initial talks that led to the interim agreement later that month.

Beyond this, a blockbuster report by Al-Monitor's Laura Rozen, published on August 11, reveals that Iran was already open to and engaged in direct talks with the United States before some of the most "effective" sanctions were in place. The scoop details the four-year, behind-the-scenes journey of Iranian and American officials to reach the historic July 2015 accord.

Rozen reports:
While nuclear negotiations only made rapid progress after Rouhani came into office in August 2013 and tapped Mohammad Javad Zarif as his foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator, it is perhaps less well known that Iran's hard-line Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei authorized secret talks with the United States on the nuclear issue two years earlier, in 2011, at the urging of Oman's Sultan Qaboos as well as [former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar] Salehi.
At the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still in office, thus debunking the myth that diplomacy was only explored once Rouhani was elected two years later in June 2013. Moreover, Rozen's fascinating scoop points out that, even after the imposition of the harshest sanctions by both the United States and European Union, the Iranians weren't simply begging for relief by relinquishing their rights; rather, the process was slow and deliberate, even stubbornly so. The idea that sanctions "forced" Iran to finally relent to engage diplomatically, let alone capitulate or concede anything, is a fallacy.

Rozen writes that "even after Khamenei consented to direct US-Iran negotiations on the nuclear issue in 2011, it took almost a year before a preparatory meeting occurred, mostly due to divisions within the Iranian side," according to Salehi. Following one July 2012 meeting, Rozen adds, "preparatory discussions subsequently paused for several months for the 2012 US presidential elections."

Early into Obama's second term, "a more significant, three-day US-Iran meeting was held in Oman," reports Rozen. "At the March 2013 Oman meeting, then-Deputy Secretary of State William Burns conveyed a message from Obama that he would be prepared to accept a limited domestic enrichment program in Iran as part of an otherwise acceptable final Iran nuclear deal, Al-Monitor reported in July 2014."

Still, the Iranian diplomats were "in a 'fact-finding' listening mode and apparently not prepared to enter into serious negotiations at that point, former US officials said... Another meeting was apparently scheduled for May, but the Iranians backed out, in anticipation of their June presidential elections."

The Oman channel was about seeing if the United States and Iran could reach an understanding on the enrichment issue to advance a nuclear accord, Philip Gordon, the former top Obama White House Middle East official, said.
"I think the basic question in Oman was to explore whether, if the US and others accepted some limited and highly constrained and monitored degree of Iranian enrichment, Iran would address our other concerns to ensure paths to a weapon [are] blocked," Gordon told Al-Monitor Aug. 10. "And in the end, that's how it turned out."
For ten years, United States routinely prevented progress in diplomacy to end the nuclear stalemate, refusing to acknowledge Iran's national rights and holding firm to the position that Iran not be allowed to enrich uranium domestically. Obama's realization that this was a failed policy, not the "crippling sanctions," is what led to successful negotiations.

This was always the issue, and until it was resolved - in Iran's favor - diplomacy was never going to progress.

"In the nuclear issue, Iran only wants the world to recognize its right to enrichment, which is Iran's natural right," Iranian leader Ali Khamenei said during a March 2013 speech in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad. "If the Americans truly want to resolve the nuclear issue with Iran, the solution is easy," he declared, "They should acknowledge Iran's right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes."

In September 2013, soon after his inauguration, President Rouhani insisted, "We will never forgo our…intrinsic right to a peaceful nuclear program, including uranium enrichment," adding that "no amount of pressure, arm-twisting, threats and sanctions will cause Iran to abandon this right."

Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, told Christiane Amanpour in October 2013, "If the Americans and other countries say that Iran should not develop a nuclear bomb or should not move towards that, then we can clearly show and prove that. We have no such intention. So it can be resolved in a very short period of time," adding, "The important thing is that Iran insists on having access to the peaceful nuclear technology and Iran is not going to change its mind. They claim that Iran may have the intention to move towards developing a nuclear weapon but we can assure them that we are not moving towards that direction," Larijani said.

Indeed, after the interim agreement was reached in November 2013 and as talks continued apace, former IAEA director-general and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei noted, "It took the West a decade to realize that bare-knuckle competition for regional influence was not a viable strategy for dealing with Iran. The recent interim agreement, facilitated by [Iranian president Hassan] Rouhani's low-key diplomacy, could have been reached 10 years ago."

So, think we can we finally put these myths to rest once and for all?

Yeah, me neither.


Friday, September 4, 2015

Talkin' the Iran Deal on CounterSpin Radio

As the fight for Congressional approval of the Iran deal heats ups and misinformed rhetoric about the agreement and Iran's nuclear program abound, I had the pleasure of speaking with Janine Jackson on CounterSpin, the weekly radio show of the vital media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).

You can listen to it here, or below. My interview begins around the 9:40 mark and runs about nine minutes.

The program also features an excellent discussion about the media and Native Americans with journalist Mark Trahant, professor at the University of North Dakota.



September 11, 2015 - FAIR has posted a (lightly-edited) transcript of my CounterSpin chat with Janine Jackson. Here it is:

'This Deal Affirms the Peaceful Nature of the Iranian Nuclear Program'

Janine Jackson interviewed Nima Shirazi on recent coverage of the Iran deal for the September 4 CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: A recent story in Politico reported that the pending pact with Iran over its nuclear program was figuring into Senate electoral campaigns as “Republicans are attacking Democrats backing the deal as soft on national defense.” Two days earlier, aPolitico story explained, as the headline says, “The Ultimate Argument in Favor of the Iran Deal: The Agreement Would Make It Easier to Bomb Iran,” noting that this is a selling point offered by White House officials.

The two pieces aren’t at essential odds: Both assume Iran to be bellicose and threatening, and consider the main criterion for any deal to be how bellicose and threatening it allows the US to be. That’s been the climate of much of the conversation on Iran, conversation also marked by serious misinformation on a factual level. Now it looks as though Republicans don’t have the votes to kill the pact itself, but there’s little chance that the misinformation will disappear on that account.

Joining us to discuss Iran and the media is Nima Shirazi; he writes the political blog Wide Asleep in America and co-edits Iran, Iraq and Turkey pages for the online magazineMuftah. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Nima Shirazi.

Nima Shirazi: Thanks so much for having me.

JJ: Even if both proponents and opponents of the pack based their arguments on the idea that Iran is developing, or wants to develop nuclear weapons, despite the absence of evidence for that and Iran’s repeated denials, can we see the deal’s passage as suggesting, anyway, that there is some response the US can have toward a country it perceives and portrays as an enemy other than dropping bombs on it? I know that’s a low bar, but here we are.

NS: Yes indeed, that is a very low bar. I do think that the deal itself is a very positive thing. As you mentioned, of course, the rhetoric has not yet changed: the concept that Iran is hellbent on building a nuclear weapon, which has been disproven time and again, the concept that Iran is a perennial cheater and that all it’s doing is now biding its time for another two and a half decades before it finally races towards a nuclear bomb–which it says is completely strategically, morally, ethically and politically unviable.

I think that we are still seeing so much of the propaganda, which has permeated this discussion for so long, still taking hold. Some of it is divided kind of bipartisanly right now, with deal opponents insisting that Iran will get this massive windfall of money as a signing bonus, even though it’s actually Iran’s money that has effectively been held in escrow, or that Iran will be able to inspect itself, which is absurd, or that there will be a 24-day waiting period mandatory before any inspectors visit any nuclear sites. All of these are completely bogus.

JJ: Yes, when something like a New York Times editorial says in favor of the pact–they said, if negotiations fail, “Iran is likely to embark on an even more aggressive search for a nuclear weapon.” It’s like a mobius strip of misinformation there: You can’t have a more aggressive searching when there is no evidence of any searching, and then how is the absence of a deal going to force Iran to do the thing that it is not doing and has said it doesn’t want to do?

Well, talking about the current situation where we’re reading that the deal is veto proof, media are now talking about how it can be improved. Already I see John Kerry out there saying, “Don’t worry, we’re going to do this, but we will also give Israel more missiles.” Again, it’s seeming like maybe it’s not exactly peace that’s being argued for here.

NS: No, its kind of interesting, proponents of the deal have used that Obama and Kerry quote basically that don’t worry, the deal makes the world and Israel safer, and yet were still going to give Israel these other weapons, just in case. It kind of undermines their concept about how safe the deal makes Israel, but behind all of that is that Iran is actually no threat to Israel. Israel, which has an arsenal of hundreds of nuclear weapons, and constantly threatens to bomb Iran, is actually much more of an existential threat to Iran that Iran could ever pose to Israel.

JJ: It also seems that we have to accept as a premise–to even get into the debate, you have to accept that somehow the US, along with Israel, that the US is somehow not the main driver of violence in the region, but is a force of stability.

NS: Precisely. We constantly hear, in nearly every single article that is written about this deal and its potential consequences, that Iran is a bad actor in the region and that it has nefarious activities, that it is doing all of these bad, bad things, and never mentions that we, the United States itself has wrought more destruction over that area of the world than anyone else, ever, and that Iran, which actually is a country in that region, has been prevented from playing a role that may be stabilizing, simply because it is seen as being in an adversarial position to US and Israeli interests.

JJ: Cheryl Rofer at Nuclear Diner noted recently that there are going to be disagreements on implementation of this deal, assuming it goes through; that’s why there is a section on dispute resolution, and that won’t mean the plan itself is broken. The implication being any hiccups or problems with inspections going forward will be put forth as evidence that the deal was a mistake. What are you thinking we should be looking for going forward in terms of media representation of this situation?

NS: I think that we’re simply going to see the continuation of what we’ve seen for the past few decades, unfortunately. We are going to see allegations that Iran is cheating, and that Iran is doing everything they can to push the legal limits of this deal in order to prepare themselves, down the line, to break out in some nuclear fashion and destroy the world. The good news is that, at the base of this, the deal is here to stay, regardless of what Marco Rubio said about the deal could only last or will only last through the term of this president, seeing that the next president is not beholden to it.

That will not be the case. This deal is here to stay. It has many other partners that are already beginning to implement the terms of the agreement, and hopefully the Iranian nuclear dossier will become normalized within the IAEA so that even more of these allegations will kind of fail to stir up all of these threats, all of these kind of hysterical claims.

But at the base of this, what the deal does is it affirms the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program and it also effectively removes any threat of military action: With this deal in place, no one is going to bomb Iran.

JJ: David Swanson at World Beyond War wrote that one of the lessons is that we saw that there is never an urgent need for war, that wars are often begun with great urgency, not because there is no other option, but because delay might allow another option to emerge. This would seem, if anything, a case that we can use to say, it’s not that stark a choice, at least there is another road to try.

NS: It’s true, diplomacy is always an option; concerted diplomatic efforts can reap real rewards. I think we’ve seen that here. I think that everyone also needs to realize that the main concessions here, almost all of the concessions here, have been made by Iran. The US has given up nothing in this deal. It has all of its own rights intact. All that has happened is it will then stop imposing punitive sanctions on Iran for something that Iran was never doing in the first place.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Slaughtering the Truth and the False Choice of War on Iran

Anne-Marie Slaughter

Even outspoken supporters of the nuclear deal signed between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany) rely on myriad entrenched myths and falsehoods about Iran's nuclear program to make their case. For instance, the constant claim that the agreement "prevents Iran from building a nuclear weapon" is a facile talking point that assumes an Iranian drive for a bomb that has never actually existed.

What the deal - known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action - does is, in exchange for removing sanctions, verifiably limit Iran's nuclear infrastructure by restricting enrichment levels, expanding monitoring access beyond the legal requirements of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and Iran's safeguards agreements to affirm the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program, a program that has never been found to have ever been militarized.

Nevertheless, leading advocates of the accord have consistently argued that without this deal, Iran would inevitably race toward producing the bomb it's never wanted and has prohibited for decades, and as a result, the United States (or Israel) would be forced to bomb Iranian nuclear and military facilities to save the world from the clutches of evil atomic mullahs.

We've heard the same thing for decades, that the "clock is ticking" and "time is running out" to attack Iran or force it to capitulate on its legal nuclear program, lest Iran acquire the atomic arsenal that we've been told since the mid-1980s is only "a few screwdriver turns" away and right around the corner.

These are bad facts, built upon a two-pronged foundation of alarmism that promotes the supposed inevitability of two things that will never happen: Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon and a U.S./Israeli military attack on Iran. And with bad facts come worse analysis.

In essence, even the deal's own supporters buy into ahistorical, Netanyahu-inspired narratives of malevolent Iranian intent and prepare their appeals from there. Unfortunately, this is unsurprising and a direct result of the consistent failure of both the media and policymakers to present accurate information.

A 2013 study by the University of Maryland found that media coverage about Iran's nuclear program is plagued with error, often decontextualized, and hews strongly to official American and Israeli government narratives. Among the study's conclusions was that, on the rare occasion that the media addressed "Iranian nuclear intentions and capabilities, it did so in a manner that lacked precision, was inconsistent over time, and failed to provide adequate sourcing and context for claims. This led to an inaccurate picture of the choices facing policy makers."

One of the most striking examples of this egregious practice is a recent opinion piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter in USA Today, a publication with a history of terrible reporting and commentary on Iran.

Slaughter surely has impressive credentials. She's taught at elite universities, including Harvard and Princeton, served for two years as Hillary Clinton's director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department and currently heads the New America Foundation, an influential center-left think tank in Washington D.C.

With this résumé, it is both shocking and illuminating how little she seems to understand about Iran's nuclear program. Slaughter refers to "Iran's illegal nuclear program," despite the fact that Iran has the inalienable right to a domestic nuclear program as affirmed by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). She is also apparently convinced Iran is engaged in a "quest for a nuclear weapon" (alternatively rendered as "Iran's illegal pursuit of a nuclear weapon"), which it decidedly is not and for which there is no credible evidence.

And that's not all. Slaughter's analysis gets a lot more wrong.

Slaughter's Imaginary Stockpiles

Here's Slaughter's opening gambit:
The opponents of the Iran deal are absolutely right about the existence of an alternative. We could bomb Iran. A sustained attack could destroy its nuclear facilities and presumably a large part of its stockpiled plutonium and highly enriched uranium.
For starters, the argument of either a "deal or war" is a wholly false choice, despite Slaughter's conclusion that, "Like it or not, those are the only two choices we have."

In fact, with no deal, Iran would still be a member of the NPT, have a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, and continue to call for a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East, as it has done for decades. An attack on Iran, a sovereign nation that virtually all intelligence agencies on the planet have determined is not pursuing nuclear weapons, would be a undeniable war crime.

But in her second sentence, Slaughter makes a gigantic, and completely inexplicable, error. Iran has exactly zero "stockpiled plutonium and highly enriched uranium." This is not a controversial issue; anyone who knows absolutely anything about Iran's nuclear program knows this.

Before it can be stockpiled, plutonium must first be extracted and reprocessed from the spent uranium fuel of an operational nuclear reactor. Iran has never done this and doesn't even have a reprocessing plant. Iran has literally never extracted plutonium from a reactor core, let alone stockpiled it, as Slaughter claims.

Iran has also never produced, let alone stockpiled, any "highly enriched uranium" (HEU), which is defined by the IAEA as "uranium containing 20% or more of the isotope 235U." Only when uranium is enriched to about 90% does it become suitable for weaponization. Prior to the implementation of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), Iran had been enriching uranium to between 3.5% and 5% 235U for use as fuel in nuclear power plants and to about 19.75% 235U for use in medical research reactors. Since the plan went into effect, Iran ceased all enrichment above 5%, diluted or disposed of its entire stockpile of 19.75% LEU, and converted the vast majority of its remaining stockpile of LEU to a form incapable of being weaponized.

Even the Israeli intelligence community, perhaps the entity most hostile to Iran and likely responsible for the murders of five Iranian scientists, doesn't claim Iran has any stockpiled plutonium or HEU. In a top-secret 2012 memo, the Israeli Mossad assessed that, although Iran maintained a declared stockpile of LEU, "it does not appear to be ready to enrich it to higher levels." Furthermore, the cable noted that, without a plutonium reprocessing plant in Iran, the plutonium produced as a byproduct of running the heavy water research reactor in Arak (still under construction), "will not be able to be used for weapons."

No amount of criminal airstrikes can bomb away material that does not exist. With this little grasp of the issues at stake, the fact that Slaughter was a policy adviser to a Secretary of State for two years is a harrowing thought.

Slaughter's Bad Facts on the Iran Deal

Slaughter's comprehension of the deal itself - the deal she herself supports - is similarly tenuous. Regarding sanctions relief and specifically the unfreezing of Iranian assets abroad, she writes, "If, in fact, Iran complies with the terms of this deal, stops pursuing a weapon and completely dismantles its nuclear supply chain, then it is entitled to recover the funds."

Ok, no. This is wrong. As noted already, since Iran isn't "pursuing a weapon," it doesn't actually have anything to stop doing in that regard.

Beyond this, Iran will absolutely not be "dismantling its nuclear supply chain," which extends from the mining and milling of natural uranium ore to yellowcake conversion to centrifuge manufacturing and storage facilities to enrichment and fuel production. None of these elements of Iran's program is being dismantled under the deal; rather, unprecedented monitoring and surveillance access is being granted by Iran to the IAEA at every step of the way, a level of inspections and oversight unmatched anywhere in the world.

Slaughter's Obfuscation of U.S. Role in Failed Iran Diplomacy

Later on in her op-ed, Slaughter engages in quite a bit of fictional storytelling about her past experience in the State Department:
George W. Bush's administration spent eight years just trying to get Iran to come to the table to negotiate, without success. In 2010, during my first year working as director of Policy Planning under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we thought we had a deal with the Iranians to ship most of their highly enriched uranium to Russia, but it promptly collapsed when the Iranian negotiators took it back to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. And all the while, the Iranians moved from hundreds of centrifuges to about 20,000, of ever more sophisticated design. Their supply of highly enriched uranium, just one step away from the fuel needed for a bomb, went up and up.
Again, Slaughter pretends that Iran has produced and maintained a supply of "highly enriched uranium." It hasn't, and never has. Also, the link she provides to support the absurd claim that the Bush administration was desperate for diplomacy with Iran is a piece of utter propaganda written by Stephen Hadley, a stalwart neocon who served as Bush's national security adviser.

Slaughter omits the fact that, in 2002 and 2003, diplomacy between Iran and the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) resulted in the suspension of Iran's nascent enrichment program and voluntary adoption of the stringent Additional Protocol, which allowed the IAEA extensive access to Iran's program for over two years. In that time, the IAEA consistently affirmed that Iran had never diverted any nuclear material to military purposes.

It was only after Iran's European negotiating partners, at the behest of the Americans, reneged on their promise to offer substantive commitments and respect Iran's inalienable right to a domestic nuclear infrastructure that talks dissolved and Iran resumed enrichment. The proposal eventually brought to Iran by Western negotiators on August 5, 2005 has been described as "vague on incentives and heavy on demands," and even dismissed by one EU diplomat as "a lot of gift wrapping around an empty box."

Nevertheless, since late 2005, Iran has proven willing time and again to engage in negotiations over its nuclear program and the international sanctions regime. Its numerous proposals over the years have consistently reiterated its willingness to officially ban nuclear weapons development through legislation, cap its level and scope of enrichment, immediately convert its enriched uranium to fuel rods "to preclude even the technical possibility of further enrichment" towards weapons-grade material, "to provide unprecedented added guarantees" to the IAEA that its program would remain peaceful, and open its enrichment program to international partnership.

Iran's offers were routinely rejected by the United States government, which long maintained the irrational position that Iran capitulate to the American demand of zero enrichment on Iranian soil. "We cannot have a single centrifuge spinning in Iran," declared George W. Bush's undersecretary of state for arms control Robert Joseph in early 2006. As recently as this past March, Slaughter's former boss Hillary Clinton was still indicating her preference for "little-to-no enrichment" in Iran.

What made successful diplomacy with Iran possible was not, as so many still erroneously claim, the devastating sanctions imposed on the Iranian people or even the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani, it was the Obama administration's eventual abandonment of the "zero enrichment" demand, opening the door for acknowledging (albeit implicitly) Iran's right to enrich and for negotiations to move forward productively.

Perhaps the most curious comment Slaughter makes, however, is about the 2009 P5+1 nuclear swap proposal, in which she claims the United States and its partners offered "to ship most of [Iran's] highly enriched uranium to Russia."

Forgive the repetition, but remember, Iran never had any "highly enriched uranium," so Slaughter is beginning with a completely false premise. Placing the blame on the Iranian leadership for the failure to implement the deal is also disingenuous. Here's what really happened:

In June 2009, while it was enriching uranium up to 5% LEU only, Iran announced publicly that it required a new stock of nearly 20% LEU to keep the U.S.-built Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) operational and producing vital medical radioisotopes used to treat nearly a million Iranian cancer patients. In advance of the depletion of its reactor fuel, Iran tried to purchase more enriched uranium on the open market under full IAEA supervision.

Despite the safeguarded TRR presenting no proliferation threat, the United States and its European partners prevented any discussion of such a commercial sale. Instead, in October 2009, they offered a "swap" proposal whereby Iran would ship out most of its stockpiled low-enriched uranium to Russia to be enriched to the requisite 19.75%. This would then be shipped to France where fuel rods that could power the TRR would be produced. Iran would then, theoretically, receive those rods a year after shipping out its stockpile.

Iran agreed in principle to this arrangement, with the intention of hammering out mutually acceptable details at a later date. In late 2009, the deal was still in the works. Iran's then foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki reiterated that Iran was "willing to exchange most of its uranium for processed nuclear fuel from abroad" in a phased transfer of material with full guarantees that the West "will not backtrack an exchange deal."

In reviewing the P5+1 offer, the Iranian press reported, "technical studies showed that it would only take two to three months for any country to further enrich the nuclear stockpile and turn it into metal nuclear rods for the Tehran Research Reactor, while suppliers had announced that they would not return fuel to Iran any less than seven months."

As the parties discussed final terms, Mottaki suggested Iran initially hand over a quarter of its enriched uranium stockpile in a simultaneous exchange on Iranian soil for an equivalent amount of processed fuel for use in the medical research reactor. The remainder of the uranium would then be traded over "several years," under an agreed upon and internationally supervised framework.

This proposed timetable was immediately rejected by Western powers. An unidentified senior U.S. official was quoted by Voice of America as claiming that the Iranian counter-proposal was inconsistent with the "fair and balanced" draft agreement. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Slaughter's boss at the time, urged Iran to "accept the agreement as proposed because we are not altering it," which is the definition of an ultimatum, not a negotiation. Talks predictably fell apart.

When Iran later renegotiated the swap arrangement with Brazil and Turkey in May 2010, the Obama administration angrily rejected the terms and aggressively pushed more sanctions through the UN Security Council.

Slaughter's History of Support for Military Intervention

Despite her distressing lack of accurate information about Iran's nuclear program, Anne-Marie Slaughter's uneasy embrace of the Iran deal is, at minimum, still a welcome departure from her usual militarist posture.

Five years after supporting the invasion of Iraq, Slaughter was annoyed by the "gotcha politics" of being held accountable for her bad judgment, grousing in The Huffington Post that "debate is still far too much about who was right and who was wrong on the initial invasion."

In 2011, after leaving the State Department, Slaughter lent her full-throated support to the NATO bombing campaign in Libya, extolling herself as a champion of humanitarianism and democracy and then hailing the operation as an unmitigated success. It's been anything but.

A year later, she was calling for U.S. allies to arm rebel forces against the Assad government in Syria, writing in The New York Times, "Foreign military intervention in Syria offers the best hope for curtailing a long, bloody and destabilizing civil war."

In 2013, Slaughter openly lamented her support for the invasion of Iraq a decade earlier. "Looking back, it is hard to remember just how convinced many of us were that weapons of mass destruction would be found," she wrote in The New Republic. "Had I not believed that, I would never have countenanced any kind of intervention on purely humanitarian terms."

Slaughter said she had learned her lesson. "Never again will I trust a single government's interpretation of data when lives are at stake, perhaps especially my own government," Slaughter resolved. "And I will not support the international use of force in a war of choice rather than necessity without the approval of some multilateral body, one that includes countries that are directly affected by both the circumstances in the target country and by the planned intervention."

Nevertheless, after penning this mea culpa, Slaughter continued busily advocating unilateral American airstrikes on Syria and pushing for Obama to at least threaten military action against Russia in Ukraine. "A US strike against the Syrian government now would change the entire dynamic," she wrote for Project Syndicate. "It would either force the regime back to the negotiating table with a genuine intention of reaching a settlement, or at least make it clear that Assad will not have a free hand in re-establishing his rule." Her calls for the U.S. bombing of Syria, and also Iraq, have since intensified.

Just last week, Slaughter again pressed her case for imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, citing "both moral and strategic reasons." The direct American military intervention, Slaughter suggests, could be conducted "using sea-based missile systems" and "would force Mr. Assad to reconsider his long-term prospects and, most likely, force him to the negotiating table."

Claiming that military strikes would inevitably follow the (increasingly impossible) Congressional rejection of the Iran deal is its own form of bellicosity. Deal opponents falsely argue that a "better deal," not bombing and regime change, is their real goal, but that too is ridiculous.

It is indeed unfortunate that intelligent and influential commentators like Slaughter feel the need to resort to their own fear-mongering and false narratives to support a diplomatic initiative whose benefits need no such bludgeon. Real threat reduction over the Iranian nuclear issue would be far better served by an honest appraisal of the facts, examination of hard evidence and a refusal to engage in selective history.

Without these facts at her fingertips, Slaughter winds up promoting the very thing she supposedly seeks to prevent. She supports the deal, but for all the wrong reasons. If her former boss becomes the next commander-in-chief, Slaughter will almost certainly return to a high-powered position in government. Let's hope she gets her facts straight before then.