Sweeping up from Geneva

Geneva Scrum
Iran’s Araghchi speaks with the press inside the Swiss wood-paneled dungeon Oct. 16

It’s been a week since Iran and the P5+1 sat for their latest round of jaw-jaw. The hundreds of journalists who attended the Swiss event are only now recovering from their sensory deprivation inside the wood-paneled and windowless cellar that served as a press center. Woe be the media which tried breaking the compartment in which it was sequestered for two days. Escape was futile. The outside environs offered only some steel fences, manicured lawns and the looming tower of the International Telecommunications Union. 

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A lovely city, Geneva (Wikicommons ITU Tower Image)

“News” leaked out over Twitter feeds and occasional appearances inside the press pen by Iranian negotiators. As has been standard practice since the start of these negotiations, the Iranian press were fed the choicest bits from inside the talks. While divulging few specifics, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Abbas Araghchi, emerged as an important interlocutor by offering some broad guiding principles of his delegation:

1. Sticking by its “time-bound” commitment to talks, Iran wants details hammered out and a start to “confidence building” measures by both sides no later than the second quarter of 2014.

2. Iran indicated its willingness to drop de jure recognition of its so-called enrichment rights until the negotiation’s end stage, presumably content with de facto acknowledgement, since few realistic observers expect a complete cessation of activities.

3. Iran also won’t ratify the IAEA’s Additional Protocol until the final stage of the process, however, they will consider implementing additional monitoring measures. The country will use the Supreme Leader’s fatwa against nuclear weapons as a pretext to build domestic support for compromise in this area.

As is often the case with the legal and technical morass surrounding these talks, several media groups fell into rhetorical traps that muddied understanding of the issues. Given the poor working atmosphere, long periods of boredom, followed by short bursts of intense information flow, these lapses may be forgiven. Atomic Reporters would nevertheless like to clear up one grating point.

Agence France Presse was one of the first to report that “Iran Will Accept Snap Visits of Nuclear Sites.” They were followed by RT, The Times and Haaretz, among others. The story caused consternation among reporters, some of whom were forced to beat back editors demanding to know why they didn’t have the story. The piece was flawed on several levels.

First, the accounts confused Iranian refusal to accept modified code 3.1 with separate agreements to allow short-term inspections in its IAEA subsidiary arrangementWhile it is true that Iran still isn’t giving early design notification to Vienna, they are allowing monitors so-called “snap inspections.”

Did you get that? The IAEA already does short-notice inspections of Iran’s most-sensitive declared enrichment facilities.

We would encourage reporters to read the August 2012 analysis by Carnegie’s Mark Hibbs for background. They may also check out source material from the IAEA’s former chief inspector, Olli Heinonen, who said in May 2012 inspectors could visit Iranian enrichment facilities on two hours notice. It doesn’t get any “snappier” than that. Minimal probing of IAEA circles in Vienna would quickly turn up confirmation that inspectors routinely enter Iranian facilities on short notice every month.

It is simply wrong to say that Iran isn’t offering up those inspections.It is also wrong to portray consent to those inspections as an Iranian compromise since they’re already taking place.

What former inspectors and balanced observers will tell journalists is that it is not the speed but the secrecy of inspections that will benefit most with the Additional Protocol in force. One of the most important elements of the protocol is that it grants IAEA monitors multiple entry visas, which would allow them to bypass border bureaucracies that may tip off individuals in the nuclear complex while logistics are being arranged. Iran still seems to be rather stingy when it comes to handing out those travel documents.

The next six weeks will offer AFP and other media ample opportunity to amend their mistakes. On October 28, Iran and IAEA meet over access. That encounter is followed by another round in Geneva November 7-8. The IAEA’s Board of Governors convenes its last meeting of the year November 25 in Vienna

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