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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks using crutches to deliver a statement on the Iran talks in Vienna, Austria, July 5, 2015. Carlos Barria/AFP/Getty Images
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Has the Obama Administration Become Iran’s Lawyer?

A dispatch from Vienna, where the White House continues to cover for the Iranians who refuse to come clean

Lee Smith
July 06, 2015
Carlos Barria/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks using crutches to deliver a statement on the Iran talks in Vienna, Austria, July 5, 2015. Carlos Barria/AFP/Getty Images

The smart money here in Vienna is on the likelihood of a nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran being finalized at any moment. Maybe it will happen today with the White House showing the good manners to wait until after Americans have returned from their July 4 vacations to announce that they’ve cleared the way for Iran to get a bomb. Or maybe the Iranians will get the bomb in a little more than a decade, as the president of the United States has explained, but it will probably happen much sooner. And when the clerical regime does finally break out, the chances are they’re the Iranians will be the ones who are going to let the American public know because our elected officials seem to be keeping information from us and our allies when it comes to all things Iran.

Indeed, it looks like the Obama administration has become Iran’s lawyer. In both making Tehran’s case to U.S. allies (from the White House’s P5+1 negotiating partners, to Middle East friends like Israel and Saudi Arabia), and shaping public perception of Iranian actions, the White House has made itself an indispensable friend to the clerical regime. Iran doesn’t have to worry about justifying its behavior—like its failure to meet obligations under the interim nuclear agreement and its outright lies—because it knows the administration will do all the heavy lifting.

Consider how the White House has managed to explain away Iran’s illicit nuclear activities. In the first place, the Joint Plan of Action is a somewhat weak document. It fails to prohibit the sorts of things you might expect to be banned if Iran’s program was really “frozen,” like the White House says. For instance, even though there are UN security council resolutions regarding Iran’s procurement of parts and equipment for illicit nuclear work, the JPOA has sidestepped the issue. The resulting framework is that when the Iranians get caught violating those resolutions, the State Department can declare that Iran is not in technical violation of the JPOA.

There’s also the issue of Iran coming clean about its past nuclear activities in order to disclose the possible military dimensions of the program. Despite the fact that the Obama administration has repeatedly assured skeptics that Iran would address the question of PMDs, the IAEA has reported that Iran fails to address outstanding questions or allow inspections of certain sites. But since PMDs are not in the JPOA, the State Department can brush away such concerns.

And of course there are plenty of times the Iranians have violated what is actually prohibited according to the JPOA—only to have the White House rationalize their actions. For instance, the Iranians violated the JPOA by pumping uranium into an advanced centrifuge. The State Department first tried to claim it wasn’t a violation, but eventually had to shift to declaring that the Iranians had done it by accident. Reports Reuters:

[F]or a month now, the U.S. State Department has been defending Iran from suggestions that it was on the verge of violating to reduce its low-enriched uranium stockpile under a 2013 interim nuclear with major powers… It was not the first time Washington has defended Iran. After the IAEA reported that Iran had begun feeding uranium into a single advanced centrifuge last year, which would be a violation of the 2013 deal, U.S. negotiators said it was apparently a mistake on Iran’s part.

The Iranians also violated the JPOA by busting through the 1 million barrels per day monthly limit that the agreement puts on their energy exports. (Here’s a story from May about Iran’s “topping a level allowed under economic sanctions”). The State Department used to rationalize this violation by predicting that in the subsequent month Iran’s exports would drop, thereby balancing out the average of their monthly exports. But as it became clear that the monthly exports were not ever going to balance out, the administration argued that Iran had wasn’t really cheating because the JPOA has a loophole for condensates.

Under the JPOA, Iran was supposed to convert all newly produced LEU hexafluoride into uranium dioxide, but a recent IAEA report shows that Iran has converted only 9 percent of it. As a report from the Institute for Science and International Security explains, “When it became clear that Iran could not meet its commitment to convert the LEU into uranium dioxide, the United States revised its criteria for Iran meeting its obligations,” and an administration official reasoned that this was okay because the uranium had been transformed into another form of the oxide.

The administration has also politicized intelligence so that Iran’s misbehavior never comes to light. For example, the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act requires the State Department to tell Congress every six months if those countries are trying to illegally acquire WMDs or missile technology. Those reports have to include a notice that the State responded to the violations with sanctions, or provide an explanation as to why they didn’t impose sanctions. The last report was handed over to Congress in December 2014 and covered violations from 2011, with nothing from the intervening three years. A report from the Government Accountability Office found that the administration’s foot-dragging was motivated by “variety of political concerns, such as international negotiations and relations with countries involved in transfers.”

On June 1, a UN panel reported that Western powers, including the White House, have been withholding intelligence on Iranian sanctions violations. The panel’s suggested that Western government have made “a political decision… to refrain from reporting to avoid a possible negative impact on ongoing negotiations.” Although some of the unreported violations have been happening out in the open, the Obama administration suppressed intelligence on North Korea shipping ballistic missile technology to Iran: Obama was briefed on the transfers, but the intelligence was kept secret from the United Nations.

The administration also kept a Pentagon report showing that Iran is continuing to develop ballistic missile technology away from lawmakers for six months in order to avoid “upsetting Tehran and the nuclear talks.” The White House, according to some former U.S. officials, has put so much political pressure on the CIA that the agency’s analysts are now in an “impossible position regarding analysis of Iran’s nuclear program.”

In short, it’s hard not to see the administration as Iran’s lawyer. Maybe it’s for the best of all possible reasons. Maybe the Obama administration really will get a good agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. But if it does, it will probably be yearsmaybe even decadesbefore the world knows for sure. Right now, the Iranians refuse to come clean about their nuclear activities, while the White House, instead of compelling Tehran to uphold its part of the deal, is helping them cover it up.