Nuclear Watchdog Slams AP's Iran Inspections Story as 'Misleading'

Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), attends a news conference at the United Nations headquarters in Vienna on September 10, 2012. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer

The head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog organization on Thursday slammed a news story that said Tehran will use its own inspectors to investigate a suspected Iranian nuclear weapons site.

The story, written by the Associated Press, cited a draft version of a secret side agreement that's a part of the larger Iranian nuclear deal, saying the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had ceded the investigation of Iran's Parchin military facility to the Islamic republic.

But Yukia Amano, director general of the IAEA, dismissed the report as "misleading," saying he was satisfied with the access his people will receive under the deal. "Such statements," he said of the AP report, "misrepresent the way in which we will undertake this important verification work."

Iran has long been suspected of experimenting with high-explosive detonators at the military facility. Amano said that under the terms of the agreement with Iran, he could not disclose its details, but he stressed it provides IAEA inspectors with sufficient access to Parchin to meet the organization's demands.

"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 made with other IAEA Member States," Amano said in a statement. "However, 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."

On Wednesday, White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price expressed his confidence in the IAEA's ability to investigate the possible military dimensions of Iran's past nuclear research, adding he was "comfortable" with with confidential agreement between the watchdog organization and Tehran.

Not long after the AP story ran on Wednesday, the news wire published an updated version, saying that Iranian technicians would work in the presence of IAEA inspectors and operate under strict IAEA guidelines to determine if the Parchin facility was used for nuclear weapons research. Arms control experts say the IAEA has operated under such arrangements in the past. Under its agreement with Iran, the IAEA plans to issue a report on Parchin by the end of the year. U.N. officials say that if the information provided to the IAEA, including photos and soil samples, proves insufficient, none of the economic sanctions against Iran will be lifted.

Supporters of the the Iran nuclear deal, including arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis at Middlebury College, have attacked the AP report, saying the news agency was used in what appeared to be an effort by critics of the deal to foment greater opposition to it in Congress in advance of next month's vote. "So it sounds really bad, and it's supposed to sound really bad," Lewis told Vox's Max Fisher. "The way that story is written, you have no capacity to assess either the veracity or the wisdom of whatever the IAEA has agreed to."

The AP is standing by its report, which quotes an unnamed official familiar with the IAEA-Iran accord as saying the draft version does not "differ substantially" from the final agreement. Explaining the changes to the story, Wendy Benjaminson, the AP's assistant Washington bureau chief, tweeted Thursday: "AP has updated story to restore details of IAEA-Iran deal that were cut last night solely for space."

Almost immediately, the AP report provided fresh ammunition to opponents of the Iran nuclear deal. In a statement, Republican Ed Royce of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the Parchin agreement a "dangerous farce," adding: "International inspections should be done by international inspectors. Period."

John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate was also critical of the inspection process: "Trusting Iran to inspect its own nuclear site and report to the U.N. in an open and transparent way is remarkably naive and incredibly reckless. This revelation only reinforces the deep-seated concerns the American people have about the agreement."

Some congressional critics of the Iran nuclear deal have complained that they've been denied access to the text of the Iran-IAEA side agreement. Without the ability to review the language, these critics say they don't have enough information to determine if the deal will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate committee that doles out foreign aid and a Republican presidential candidate, has threatened to cut off U.S. funding to the IAEA unless Congress is given copies of the side agreement.

Many arms-control experts dismiss such concerns, noting most Republicans already have announced they will vote against the accord. These experts add that Iran stopped using Parchin for weapons research back in 2002 and has had 13 years to scrub the site. They doubt inspectors will find any remaining evidence of nuclear weapons weapons research, allowing the nuclear deal to go forward.