Alarmed by Iran Pact’s Secret Understandings
By Eli Lake
and Josh Rogin
July 25, 2015
As the White House campaign to persuade
Congress about the wisdom of its Iran nuclear deal moves into its second week,
important components of the complex agreement are emerging that will be shrouded
from the public and in some cases from the U.S. government itself.
The existence of these secret clauses and
interpretations could undermine the public's trust in the Barack Obama
administration's presentations about the nuclear pact. Already Republicans and
other critics of the deal have seized on the side agreements between Iran and
the International Atomic Energy Agency as a weakness in the deal closed last
week in Vienna.
The controversy began on Wednesday when
Secretary of State John Kerry told House lawmakers behind closed doors that he
neither possessed nor had read a copy of two secret side deals between the IAEA
and Iran, according to Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican member of the
House Intelligence Committee who was inside the session. Congress hasn't seen
those side agreements either.
“Kerry told me directly that he has not read
the secret side deals,” Pompeo told us in an interview. “He told us the
State Department does not have possession of these documents.”
In other cases, secret understandings were
provided to legislators. Congress on Monday was given a set of non-public
interpretations of the Iran deal, according to House and Senate staffers who
have seen the documents. These were part of 18 documents the White House
provided to Congress as required under legislation passed this spring that gives
Congress 60 days to review the Iran deal.
Of the 18 documents, six are classified or
confidential, the staffers told us. These include secret letters of
understanding between the U.S. and France, Germany and the U.K. that spell out
some of the more ambiguous parts of the agreement, and classified explanations
of the Iran deal's provisions that commit other countries to provide Iran with
research and development assistance on its nuclear program. There is also a
draft of the U.S. statement to be made public on the day the Iran agreement
formally goes into effect.
Those are the secret understandings Congress
and the administration have put on paper. But in the case of the side agreements
with the IAEA, Congress and the executive branch may not have all the facts. In
Wednesday's closed session, Kerry sparred with Pompeo, who last weekend
traveled with Republican Senator Tom Cotton to Vienna to meet with IAEA
officials. Those agency representatives told
the lawmakers the that two secret side deals covered how the
IAEA would be able to inspect the Parchin military complex and how the IAEA and
Iran would resolve concerns about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s
The briefing for lawmakers was classified, but
the Kerry-Pompeo exchange was not. Pompeo pressed Kerry on the details of the
side agreements between the IAEA and Iran. Kerry acknowledged he didn’t know
all of the specifics.
A statement distributed by the State Department
on Wednesday disputed the characterization that the agreements between Iran and
the IAEA were "secret." Instead, it described them as "technical
arrangements" and said U.S. experts were "comfortable with the
contents," which the State Department would brief to Congress if asked.
"It is standard practice for the IAEA and
member states to treat bilateral documents as 'safeguards confidential,'"
the State Department statement said. "This is a principal the United States
has championed throughout the IAEA’s existence to protect both proprietary and
proliferation sensitive information. We must be able to ensure that
information given to the IAEA does not leak out and become a how to guide for
producing nuclear materials that can be used in nuclear weapons, and that
countries know their patented or proprietary information won’t be stolen
because they are released in IAEA documents."
But while these agreements may be standard
operating procedure in the case of other IAEA nuclear inspections, with Iran
it's potentially more serious. On Thursday, during an open session before
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator James Risch said his
understanding was that one of the IAEA-Iran side agreements would allow Iran to
take its own environmental samples at Parchin. Speaking around the specifics,
Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the committee, compared this
arrangement to the NFL allowing athletes suspected of taking steroids to mail in
their own urine samples.
Kerry and others have told Congress that the
agreement about Parchin and the understandings about IAEA inspections in general
are largely technical and do not weaken a strong agreement. Needless to say,
Pompeo disagrees. “Kerry gave no indications they are seeking these documents
and there is no indication he is the least bit worried he doesn’t have access
to this. The Ayatollah knows what’s in the deal but we don’t,” he told us,
referring to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
For the Obama administration, not having copies
of the side agreements between Iran and the IAEA is convenient. The law requires
it to give Congress all the documents it possesses and only those
documents. If the side agreements are outside the reach of Kerry, they are
outside the reach of Congress and the American people.
On the other hand, that fact undermines Obama's
argument that the overall deal can be verified and is transparent. Already
Iranian leaders have publicly spoken about the Iran deal in terms vastly
different from their American counterparts. The existence of secret
understandings of that deal will only exacerbate this tension over time.