Fact Check: Arizona Daily Star publishes a ‘misrepresentation’ about the Iran deal

Our sad small town newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star, published an above-the-fold headline today “Deal let’s Iran self inspect nuke site” by AP reporter George Jahn, with a thumbnail photo of a howling mad Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). This article does not appear to be linked on its “worst web site of any newspaper in America,” so here is a link to the AP Exclusive: UN to let Iran inspect alleged nuke work site.

bullshitjA quick Internet search shows that all the usual suspects in the conservative media entertainment complex have latched onto this AP “exclusive” as part of its propaganda against the P5+1 world powers nuclear agreement with Iran, and presumable in favor of the alternative of war with Iran.

Just one big problem: The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says the AP (All Propaganda) report is not only wrong but it is a “misrepresentation.” IAEA says report Iran to inspect own military site is ‘misrepresentation’:

The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief on Thursday rejected as “a misrepresentation” suggestions Iran would inspect its own Parchin military site on the agency’s behalf, an issue that could help make or break Tehran’s nuclear deal with big powers.

Without International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmation that Iran is keeping promises enshrined in the landmark July 14 nuclear accord, Tehran will not be granted much-needed relief from international economic sanctions.

According to data given to the IAEA by some member countries, Iran may have conducted hydrodynamic tests at Parchin in the past to assess how specific materials react under high pressure, such as in a nuclear explosion.

An unconfirmed Associated Press report had cited a draft document suggesting the IAEA would not send its own inspectors into Parchin but would instead get data from Iran on the site.

“I am disturbed by statements suggesting that the IAEA has given responsibility for nuclear inspections to Iran. Such statements misrepresent the way in which we will undertake this important verification work,” IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said in an unusually strongly worded statement on Thursday. Statement by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano.

Under a roadmap accord Iran reached with the IAEA alongside the July 14 political agreement, the Islamic Republic is required to give the IAEA enough information about its past nuclear programme to allow the Vienna-based watchdog to write a report on the issue by year-end.

* * *

The IAEA, which says it takes no information at face value, has repeatedly asked for fresh, direct access to Parchin.

“I can state that the arrangements are technically sound and consistent with our long-established practices. They do not compromise our safeguards standards in any way,” Amano said.

The U.S. State Department said on Thursday the IAEA would “in no way” hand over responsibility for nuclear inspections to Iran. “That is not how the IAEA does business,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

“The U.S. government’s nuclear experts are confident in the Agency’s technical plans for investigating the possible military dimensions of Iran’s former programme,” he said.

A Vienna-based diplomat said he was confident the IAEA would carry out its work on Iran effectively. “Although, we understand the discussions on how to best implement the roadmap are still ongoing,” he told Reuters.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s atomic energy agency, told Tasnim news agency: “Reports in media about the agreement between Iran and IAEA are just speculation.”

* * *

“The separate arrangements under the roadmap agreed between the IAEA and Iran in July are confidential and I have a legal obligation not to make them public – the same obligation I have for hundreds of such arrangements,” Amano said.

Max Fisher at Vox. com has more on this AP (All Propaganda) misleading report. The AP’s controversial and badly flawed Iran inspections story, explained:

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.

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.

“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.”

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 APremoved 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.”

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).

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[s] the way in which we will undertake this important verification work.”

* * *

A key point here: The Parchin inspection is not part of the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated by the US and other world powers with Iran. Rather, this is something the IAEA negotiates directly with the country it’s inspecting, in this case Iran.

It is still related to the larger nuclear deal. The IAEA has to give the official thumbs-up on the PMD issue — the deadline is this fall — in order for the nuclear deal to go forward. But neither the US nor Obama are involved in this part — that’s just not how these negotiations works.

“There are a number of people, some of whom I do respect, who say that we need to get into this site,” Lewis said. “I understand that for some people this has become an issue of principle, since at first the Iranians said no. But I’m just always leery when principle gets involved, because that pretty quickly gets turned into ego.”

Still, Lewis emphasized that the stakes were low. Few people expect a Parchin inspection to find much of value.

“Work stopped in 2002,” Lewis explained, “so Iran has had 13 years to clean that site. And there have been reports of vehicles and washing and renovations to the building, which I think are very uncertain. But I don’t expect the IAEA to find much, although maybe they’d get lucky.”

“No one should be willing to blow up this deal over access to this site,” he said. “Because we know what they did there, and there’s nothing we’re going to find out that’s going to change our view. But it’s become, for lack of a better term, a bit of a pissing contest, so here we are.”

Lest you think Lewis is just saying this to defend the nuclear deal, another arms control expert told me the same exact thing more than a month ago, before any of this came out.

“This came down to a pissing contest about whether or not we could go walk into Parchin, which is irrelevant,” Aaron Stein, an arms control and Middle East scholar, told me last month about the negotiations over PMD and Parchin. “In the deal they’re going to give managed access to Parchin, and you know what? We’re going to lose on this because they’re not going to find anything at Parchin. All of this will come down to nothing.”

* * *

To a layperson, it would seem like having inspectors physically present is crucial for this. But Lewis pointed out that any inspection can hypothetically be compromised, including one in which inspectors are physically present. The most important issue is whether the IAEA can get the samples it needs, and can verify that those samples are legitimate. (Arms control expert Cheryl Rofer has a good explainer on sampling and how it works here.)

Having the Iranians take the samples can hypothetically be okay — as long as the IAEA can still meet those conditions.

“It seems that the IAEA has some kind of plan for this — and I would expect them to have some kind of plan, I don’t believe that they would take the Iranians at their word — but that’s not included in the story,” Lewis said, audibly frustrated.

* * *

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 is certainly not the first time that someone has placed a strategic leak in order to achieve a political objective. But it is disturbing that the AP allowed itself to be used in this way, that it exaggerated the story in a way that have likely misled large numbers of people, and that, having now scrubbed many of the details, it has appended no note or correction explaining the changes. It is not a proud moment for journalism.

So here’s the deal: The Arizona Daily Star published a report with an alarming above-the-fold headline that all the experts say is wrong and is “misleading,” and was based on information leaked to an AP reporter for political motives. The P5+1 world powers nuclear agreement with Iran is of utmost national security interest.

Journalistic ethics requires a retraction, publishing a correction — preferably Max Fisher’s article at Vox.com above — and an editorial opinion explaining why the Star was wrong to publish this misleading AP report and is now retracting and correcting the report by publishing more accurate reporting.

Write your letters to the editor.

UPDATE: Rather than publish a retraction and/or correction, the Arizona Daily Star on Friday published a follow-up “News Q&A” by the very same AP reporter responsible for the “deeply flawed” and “misleading” exclusive above, captioned “UN-Iran side agreement on Parchin isn’t central to overall deal, US says.” Once again, this article does not appear to be linked on its “worst web site of any newspaper in America,” so here is a link to the article from another news source. What the secret agreement between Iran and the UN says. The AP reporter, George Jahn, simply repeats the errors of his earlier misleading reporting. This is not a “correction” even after Jahn’s reporting was much criticized by experts yesterday.

Clearly the editors of the Arizona Daily Star have no interest in correcting inaccurate and misleading reporting from the AP. The Star is simply an irresponsible news organization.

UPDATE: Max Fisher has a follow-up post at Vox.com with Tariq Rauf, the former head of verification and security policy coordination at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The alleged IAEA-Iran agreement, annotated by a former IAEA inspections official:

Rauf, who originally published his annotations through the organization Atomic Reporters (they are reproduced here with its permission), concluded that he suspected the draft may be fake. I am not convinced this is necessarily the case: Rauf bases this in part on several odd errors in the draft, such as misidentifying Iran’s formal country name, but I suspect this may be because the AP reporter was required to copy down the draft agreement text by hand.

Still, Rauf’s annotations of the technical aspects of the agreement are helpful in understanding what this document says and does not say. In the aggregate, if we assume the document is broadly accurate, it still seems oddly bereft of details on how the IAEA will monitor any sampling processes, which, as Lewis explained, is a crucial detail in evaluating the strength of the agreement.

What follows is the full text of the draft IAEA agreement, according to the AP, along with annotations provided by nuclear nonproliferation expert and former IAEA official Tariq Rauf[.]

Jessica Shulburg and Sam Stein at The Huffington Post also call into question the AP ‘exclusive” in Potentially Deal-Shattering Report About Iran Inspections Has Some Issues.

Again, none of this questioning of the accuracy nor the misleading information contained in the AP “exclusive” report has appeared in the Arizona Daily Star. The editors owe their readers a an explanation.

3 thoughts on “Fact Check: Arizona Daily Star publishes a ‘misrepresentation’ about the Iran deal”

  1. I read the Star every day. I’ve noticed that they no longer have an inhouse editorial page editor. They either run editorials from other papers or they publish columns. Some of their columns are local generated, and are generally not too bad. But their national columns are very heavily weighted toward conservative writers, George Will, Michael Gerson, Jonah Goldberg and others in that vein. Almost all of these writers are usually writing something partisan and anti-Obama. Very rarely they carry a more moderate voice, that is not partisan but more in the realm of common sense.
    My conclusion is that the owners of the Star are quite conservative and are pushing a National Review type agenda.

  2. Oh, the ‘Red’ Star will publish a correction…deep in the B section while publishing the usual suspects’ editorials pushing the lies. They’ll probably even run one of the right wing ‘cartoons’ clearly proving that Obama is personally handing a nuke to the Iranians. Must have ‘balance’ y’know…

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