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The AP's Controversial and Badly Flawed Iran Inspections Story, Explained

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The AP's Controversial and Badly Flawed Iran Inspections Story, Explained
The AP's Controversial and Badly Flawed Iran Inspections Story, Explained

By Max Fisher

August 21, 2015 "Information Clearing House" - "Vox" - On Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press published an exclusive report on the Iran nuclear program so shocking that many political pundits declared the nuclear deal dead in the water. But the article turned out to be a lot less damning that it looked and the AP, which scrubbed many of the most damning details, is now itself part of this increasingly bizarre story.
To get a handle on all this, I spoke to Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at Middlebury College's Monterey Institute of International Studies. What follows is a primer on what happened, what the AP story said and how it changed, the nuclear issues involved a place called Parchin and something known as PMD and what they mean for the nuclear deal.

The bottom line here is that this is all over a mild and widely anticipated compromise on a single set of inspections to a single, long-dormant site. The AP, deliberately or not, has distorted that into something that sounds much worse, but actually isn't. The whole incident is a fascinating, if disturbing, example of how misleading reporting on technical issues can play into the politics of foreign policy.

The AP ran an alarming headline with a more modest story

This all started when the Associated Press published a story with an alarming headline: "AP Exclusive: UN to let Iran inspect alleged nuke work site."

The headline made it sound like Iran would get to self-inspect, which would indeed be appalling. Readers were given the impression that President Obama had made a catastrophically foolish concession to the Iranians; that our much-touted inspections regime was a big joke. And indeed, a number of prominent political journalists tweeted out the story with exactly this alarmed interpretation.

AP Exclusive: UN to let Iran inspect alleged nuke work site USE_FULL_LINK_PLEASEWFS4dkEsZN If true--and BO doesn't step in--the deal will fail.

Jonathan Alter (@jonathanalter) August 19, 2015
"If true" turns out to be a major issue here, as upon closer examination the inflammatory headline, as it has been widely interpreted, appears to largely not be true.

In fact, the text of the article said something much more modest. It said that in a one-time set of inspections at one military facility known as Parchin, Iranians, rather than nuclear inspectors, would take "environmental samples" (such as soil samples). It said that nuclear inspectors would not be permitted to visit, and that Iran would not provide photos or videos of the site. But still, it was concerning.

"The story was the Iranians would take the samples under some kind of IAEA monitoring," Jeffrey Lewis, the arms control expert, told me. "The details of that monitoring were not provided, so it's hard to say how weird that is. Some IAEA officials say that it's not unusual to let a country physically take the samples if there's an IAEA inspector present."

The sourcing in the story, though, seemed to water it down a bit more. The report was not based not on an actual agreement, but rather on a copy of a draft agreement. The anonymous source who showed AP the document said there was a final version that is similar, but conspicuously refused to show AP the final version or go into specifics.

"The oldest Washington game is being played in Vienna," Lewis said. "And that is leaking what appears to be a prejudicial and one-sided account of a confidential document to a friendly reporter, and using that to advance a particular policy agenda."

Oddly, the AP then quietly deleted the most damning details from the story

Then things got weird: A couple of hours after first publishing, the AP added in a bunch of quotes from Republicans furiously condemning the revelations, but at the same time, the AP removed most of the actual revelations. The information in the article was substantially altered, with some of the most damning details scrubbed entirely. No explanation for this was given.

The new version of the story said nothing about environmental sampling. It said that Iran will provide photos and videos of the site, as well as mechanisms by which the IAEA can verify that these are authentic. But information about how the IAEA would verify this, which was in the original story, had also been removed.

"The original version of the story, before they edited out all of the interesting details, seemed to modestly advance a story that [AP reporter George Jahn] had published a few weeks ago," Lewis said. "But now we're so far down into the weeds of safeguards, it's really hard to know. The version that was originally published seemed to indicate that the level of access was lower than I would have thought, lower than I would have expected the IAEA to accept. But then those paragraphs disappeared."

"This came down to a pissing contest about whether or not we could go walk into Parchin, which is irrelevant ... all of this will come down to nothing"

The new version of the AP story was vague and confusingly worded. The actual information on inspections was buried under 700 words of Republicans condemning the deal (based, presumably, on information from the first draft of the story that has since been scrubbed).

On Thursday morning, shortly before this article went up, the AP reinstated most of the cut sections. (Lewis's quotes here reflect the scrubbed version of the story, though he had seen the original and so was aware of the information in it.)

The AP then published another story that reiterated much of the information but also added a strange new detail that seemed to water down its original claims even further: "IAEA staff will monitor Iranian personnel as they inspect the Parchin nuclear site." It's not clear what they mean by "monitor."

Paul Colford, AP's vice president for media relations, told me via email that the details had been cut to make room for reaction quotes. "As with many AP stories, indeed with wire stories generally, some details are later trimmed to make room for fresh info so that multiple so-called 'writethrus' of a story will move on the AP wire as the hours pass," he wrote.

When I asked Colford if the AP regretted cutting the news out of its own story, he responded, "It was unfortunate that some assumed (incorrectly) that AP was backing off." I pressed him on whether the cuts had been a mistake. He wrote: "As a former longtime New York newspaperman who's been AP's chief spokesman for eight years now, I would say there's always something to learn from such episodes."

So what we're ultimately left with is a story that at its most extreme possible interpretation suggests this: According to a draft IAEA agreement, Iran will pass verifiable photos and videos of the Parchin building on to inspectors, perhaps as well as physical samples, rather than letting inspectors physically visit.

Even that is dubious: Jonathan Alter, the "if true" political reporter, tweeted that the IAEA would indeed be "on the ground" at Parchin, according to the White House. The IAEA has since come out and said the final agreement on Parchin meets all its standards. The IAEA inspector general issued a statement saying he was "disturbed" by the AP story, which "misrepresent the way in which we will undertake this important verification work."

Still, the question remains: Is this story bad news for the Iran deal? That gets to yet another layer of confusion here. The current version of the story describes a situation that arms control experts have long anticipated, and that is not really as big of a deal as it initially sounded. It all comes down to a single, one-time set of inspections at a single, long-dormant facility.

Read more here:
[link to www.informationclearinghouse.info]