October 24, 2021

Obama administration is spinning excuses for Iran yet again

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (L) during a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers at Riyadh Air Base March 5, 2015. Kerry arrived in Riyadh on Thursday to try to reassure King Salman that any nuclear deal with Iran will be in Saudi interests, despite the kingdom's fears that it may boost Tehran's backing for Shi'ite Muslim groups in the region. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool (SAUDI ARABIA - Tags: POLITICS)

The Obama administration has gone to war with the New York Times and the State Department press corps over a New York Times report pointing out that Iran was actually increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium, in direct contradiction of the president, who said the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) “halted” Iran’s program.

The story is based at least in part on a May 29 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which found, among other things, that Iranian production of low enriched uranium went up on a monthly average. (On a related topic, it also confirmed that Iran has not disclosed possible military dimensions of its program, something the administration has said is essential.)

The Times report is also backed up by independent reports, including one co-authored by David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini of the Institute for Science and International Security, which noted:

From January 20, 2014 and into May 2015 Iran produced about 4,000 kilograms of 3.5 percent low enriched uranium (LEU) hexafluoride. Under the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), Iran has committed to convert all newly produced 3.5 percent LEU hexafluoride into oxide form. As of May 2015, it has fed a total of 2,720 kilograms of this type of LEU into the conversion process at the Enriched UO2 Powder Plant (EUPP) and produced only about 150 kilograms of LEU dioxide. It has not fed any LEU hexafluoride into the plant since November 2014. Thus, Iran has fallen behind in its pledge to convert its newly produced LEU hexafluoride into oxide form. There are legitimate questions about whether Iran can produce all the requisite LEU oxide.

The State Department briefing on Wednesday turned into a farcical debate between its spokeswoman and reporters at a loss to understand the administration’s argument that there was no problem. Without justification, Marie Harf tried to call the IAEA and Albright/Kelleher-Vergantini reports into question. At times it sounded as if the administration did not think Iran’s failure to meet the JPOA limit (7,650kg) would be a big deal because the final deal would take that stockpile down even further (to 300kg). But as more than one analyst pointed out, if the Iranians are unwilling or unable to get down to the JPOA’s 7,650kg while they’re under sanctions, why would they meet the final deal’s limits after getting sanctions relief? No wonder the administration is so exasperated with the Times for sniffing out Iran’s intransigence.

A sample of the news conference gives one a hint of the “nothing to see here, move along” routine the administration is trying out:

QUESTION: Thank you. Well, are you saying that it doesn’t matter what the stock size of the stockpile is at all currently, and it just matters what it is on June 30th?

MS HARF: Under the terms of the JPOA, that stockpile, correct, can go up and can go down, as long as at June 30th, they can get it down to 7,650. In the two previous instances, they’ve gone up and down – these are normal fluctuations – and they’ve always gotten back where they needed to be.

QUESTION: But if they keep increasing it – and I’m taking you at your word that it doesn’t matter right now, but if on – if it keeps going up, isn’t it going to make it that much more difficult for them to reduce it by June 30th? I mean —

MS HARF: Well, that’s something they have to do.

QUESTION: — even if right now technically they’re not in violation, isn’t there a concern that they won’t get there by June 30th?

MS HARF: Honestly, I have talked to all of the nuclear experts on this. There is not a concern that they will get down to the right amount by June 30th. In the two previous times, the initial JPOA and then the extension, they’ve done the same thing, and they’ve always gotten back where they needed to be. If they don’t, that’ll be a problem; you’re right. We expect that they will, and we don’t – we just don’t have concerns about them being able to do that.

QUESTION: Wouldn’t —

MS HARF: I’ve talked to all the —

QUESTION: Well, wouldn’t it make more sense to be skeptical upfront about it instead of just assuming that they’re going to do it? I mean, you —

MS HARF: No one’s assuming anything. They have an obligation to do so, they’ve said they will, in the previous two instances they’ve done, and we believe they will do so. And if they don’t, that’ll be a problem. . . .

QUESTION: The Iranians have in the past insisted that they would not ship their stockpile out of the country, or any large portion of it. And David Albright seems to suggest that he doesn’t think that the Iranians will necessarily be technically capable of doing it in-country. Do U.S. experts believe that Iran would be technically capable of doing that without selling it on the open market or shipping it out of the country?

MS HARF: That’s a good question . . . Whatever we end up agreeing to, whether it’s out of the country or in the country, it will have to be something that we are confident gets down to that 96 percent from a – or, excuse me, to the 300 kilograms down that – I think it’s 96 percent if my calculations are close – in a way that we are confident in technically. So there’s a variety of technical ways to do that. I know that’s an open question, but we are – we will not accept something that we are not confident in.

It does not fill one with confidence that the administration has a solution to the problem, has a game plan if Iran does not meet its obligations under the JPOA or has gotten a clue that Iran is going to wheel and deal to avoid compliance with international demands. This is to be expected. Once we allowed Iran to keep enriching and to keep its nuclear infrastructure, we ensured we would be engaging in a cat-and-mouse game with a regime that has lied about its program for decades. This is not going to end well.