US Spin on Access to Iranian Sites has Distorted the Issue

Access to Iranian sites continues to be a thorny issue and the Americans may be playing a dirty game in the media (photo:PressTV)

By Gareth Porter

A public diplomacy campaign by the Obama administration to convince world opinion that Iran was reneging on the Lausanne framework agreement in April has seriously misrepresented the actual diplomacy of the Iran nuclear talks, as my interviews with Iranian officials here make clear.

President Barack Obama’s threat on Tuesday to walk out of the nuclear talks if Iranian negotiators didn’t return to the Lausanne framework – especially on the issue of IAEA access to Iranian sites — was the climax of that campaign.

But what has really been happening in nuclear talks is not that Iran has backed away from that agreement but that the United States and Iran have been carrying out tough negotiations – especially in the days before the Vienna round of talks began — on the details of how basic framework agreement will be implemented.

The US campaign began immediately upon the agreement in Lausanne 2 April. The Obama administration said in its 2 April fact sheet that Iran “would be required” to grant IAEA inspectors access to “suspicious sites”. Then Deputy Security Adviser Ben Rhodes declared that if the United States wanted access to an Iranian military base that the US considered “suspicious”, it could “go to the IAEA and get that inspection” because of the Additional Protocol and other “inspection measures that are in the deal”.

That statement touched a raw nerve in Iranian politics. A few days later Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei insisted that Iran would not allow visits to its military bases as a signal that Iran would withdraw concessions it made in Lausanne. That reaction was portrayed in media as evidence that Iranian negotiators were being forced to retreat from the Lausanne agreement.

In fact it was nothing of the sort. The idea that IAEA inspectors could go into Iranian military facilities at will, as Rhodes had suggested, was a crude oversimplification that was bound to upset Iranians. The reason was more political than strategic. “It is a matter of national dignity,” one Iranian official in Vienna explained to me.

The Iranian negotiators were still pushing back publicly against Rhodes’s rhetoric as the Vienna round began. Iranian Deputy Foreign Miniser Abbas Aragchi appeared to threaten a reopening of the provisions of the Lausanne framework relating to the access issue in an interview with AFP Sunday. “[N]ow some of the solutions found in Lausanne no longer work,” Araghchi said, “because after Lausanne certain countries within the P5+1 made declarations.”

But despite Araghchi’s tough talk, Iran has not reversed course on the compromise reached in Lausanne on the access issue, and what was involved was a dispute resolution process on the issue of IAEA requests for inspections. In interviews with me, two Iranian officials acknowledged that the final agreement will include a procedure that could override an Iranian rejection of an IAEA request to visit a site.

The procedure would allow the Joint Commission, which was first mentioned in the Joint Plan of Action of November 2013, to review a decision by Iran to reject an IAEA request for an inspection visit. The Joint Commission is made up of Iran, the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and the European Union.

If this Joint Commission were to decide against an Iranian rejection, the IAEA could claim the right to access even to a military site, despite Iran’s opposition.

Such a procedure represents a major concession by Iran, which had assumed that the Additional Protocol to Iran’s “Safeguards” agreement with the IAEA would have governed IAEA access to sites in Iran. Contrary to most media descriptions, that agreement limits IAEA inspection visits to undeclared sites to carrying out “location-specific environmental sampling.” It also allows Iran to deny the request for access to the site, provided it makes “every effort to satisfy Agency requests without delay at adjacent locations or through other means.”

The dispute resolution process obviously goes well beyond the Additional Protocol. But the Obama administration’s statements suggesting that the IAEA will have authority to visit any site they consider “suspect” is a politically convenient oversimplification. Under the technical annex to the Lausanne agreement that is now under negotiation, Iran would have the right to receive the evidence on which the IAEA is basing its request, according to Iranian officials. And since Iran has no intention of doing anything to give the IAEA valid reason to claim suspicious activities, Iranian officials believe they will be able to make a strong argument that the evidence in question is not credible.

Iran has proposed that that the period between the original IAEA request and any inspection resulting from a Joint Committee decision should be 24 days. But that number incensed critics of the Iran nuclear deal. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is unhappy with the whole idea of turning the decisions on inspections over to a multilateral group that includes adversaries of the United States, has criticized the idea of allocating 24 days to the process of dispute resolution.

Under pressure from Corker and Senate Republican opponents of the nuclear deal, the US negotiating team has been demanding a shorter period, Iranian officials say.

The determining factor in how the verification system being negotiated would actually work, however, will be the political-diplomatic interests of the states and the EU who would be voting on the requests. Those interests are the wild card in the negotiations, because it is well known among the negotiators here that there are deep divisions within the P5+1 group of states on the access issue.

There are divisions within the P5+1, especially over aspects of what the Security Council should be doing, on how sanctions would be lifted and on access [verification regime]. “We can say with authority that they have to spend more time negotiating among themselves than negotiating with us,” one Iranian official said.

Even as Obama was publicly accusing Iran of seeking to revise the basic Lausanne framework itself, US negotiators were apparently trying to revise that very same framework agreement itself. A US official “declined to say if the United States might agree to adjust some elements of the Lausanne framework in return for new Iranian concessions,” according to a New York Times report.

The Americans may have been doing precisely what they were accusing the Iranians of doing.

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© 2015 Middle East Eye

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist on U.S. national security policy who has been independent since a brief period of university teaching in the 1980s. Dr. Porter is the author of five books, the latest book, “Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare,” was published in February 2014. He has written regularly for Inter Press Service on U.S. policy toward Iraq and Iran since 2005.

MENA Mashup: The Saudi Cables

Wikileaks has released the first tranche of The Saudi Cables which contain “more than half a million cables and other documents from the Saudi Foreign Ministry that contain secret communications from various Saudi Embassies around the world.”

Quite literally it’s nothing but ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’…!

For example…

Buying Silence: How the Saudi Foreign Ministry controls Arab media

On Monday, Saudi Arabia celebrated the beheading of its 100th prisoner this year. The story was nowhere to be seen on Arab media despite the story’s circulation on wire services. Even international media was relatively mute about this milestone compared to what it might have been if it had concerned a different country. How does a story like this go unnoticed?

Today’s release of the WikiLeaks “Saudi Cables” from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs show how it’s done.

The oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its ruling family take a systematic approach to maintaining the country’s positive image on the international stage. Most world governments engage in PR campaigns to fend off criticism and build relations in influential places. Saudi Arabia controls its image by monitoring media and buying loyalties from Australia to Canada and everywhere in between.

Documents reveal the extensive efforts to monitor and co-opt Arab media, making sure to correct any deviations in regional coverage of Saudi Arabia and Saudi-related matters. Saudi Arabia’s strategy for co-opting Arab media takes two forms, corresponding to the “carrot and stick” approach, referred to in the documents as “neutralisation” and “containment”. The approach is customised depending on the market and the media in question. {…}

The documents show concerns within the Saudi administration over the social upheavals of 2011, which became known in the international media as the “Arab Spring”. The cables note with concern that after the fall of Mubarak, coverage of the upheavals in Egyptian media was “being driven by public opinion instead of driving public opinion”. The Ministry resolved “to give financial support to influential media institutions in Tunisia”, the birthplace of the “Arab Spring”.

The cables reveal that the government employs a different approach for its own domestic media. There, a wave of the Royal hand is all that is required to adjust the output of state-controlled media. A complaint from former Lebanese Prime Minister and Saudi citizen Saad Hariri concerning articles critical of him in the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat newspapers prompted a directive to “stop these type of articles” from the Foreign Ministry.

This is a general overview of the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s strategy in dealing with the media. WikiLeaks’ Saudi Cables contain numerous other examples that form an indictment of both the Kingdom and the state of the media globally.

Unable to read Arabic myself, I’d been anxiously awaiting some input and I’ve since found this excellent resource in Global Voices(more…)

Former OPEC Official Believes Price of Oil Will Fall This Year

Oil refinery in Philadelphia, PA

Hasan Qabazard, former director of research at OPEC, said the Brent crude oil price will fall to at least $40 per barrel later this year.

Qabazard cited more oil production by Iraq and Iran, along with recovering shale oil, as the reasons why a drop will be expected.

Currently, the Brent crude oil price is hovering nearly $70 per barrel after a sharp drop last year from more than $100 per barrel.

In 2009, Qabazard predicted the price of oil possibly falling, although it rose a few months later.

Still Qabazard is not alone in believing the price of oil will fall as Goldman Sachs reported last May how the price of oil may go as low as $45 per barrel. In fact, analysts at the bank believe there is no equilibrium between the supply and demand of oil:

We find that the global market imbalances are in fact not solved and believe that the rally will prove self-defeating as it undermines the nascent rebalancing,

OPEC recently finished a conference in Vienna, Austria, where the group decided it would not cut supply.

Qatari Minister of Energy and Industry Mohammed Bin Saleh Al-Sada spoke on the first day of the meeting and mostly blamed the drop in oil prices on “speculators.”

Al-Sada also suggested recent conditions were tough for countries producing oil:

The current environment is clearly challenging – and has become a test for both oil producers and hydrocarbon investors,

Saudi Arabia’s Minister for Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali Al-Naimi said early last week the market was stabilizing and the current strategy by OPEC was working:

You can see that I am not stressed, that I am happy,

Meanwhile, Iraq is seeking to increase its crude oil exports to get as much money as it can after the massive drop in oil.

Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the country’s oil minister, previously told reporters how oil prices would rise to $75 per barrel by the end of this year.

In terms of Iran, Iranian Petroleum Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh said, before the conference in Vienna, how Iran would sell on the market whether OPEC liked it or not:

We don’t need permission from OPEC to return to the market. This is our right, we were limited by sanctions and this is completely normal if we return to the market with the ceiling we had before [the sanctions were imposed],

Moreover, Zangeneh said foreign oil companies were interested in coming back to Iran once the internationally imposed sanctions against Iran were removed.

ExxonMobil hired a lobbyist to “monitor congressional activity” over anything Iran related, although the firm insisted it had done no such thing.

Based on a report by the Energy Information Administration, the United States is estimated to produce even more crude oil in the next few years:

Total U.S. oil production is projected to increase 23 percent between 2014 and 2020. After 2020, tight oil production declines, as drilling moves into less-productive areas,

 

Qabazard may be right after all.

*Creative Commons Licensed Image by pontla  

The Bomb Iran Lobby Gears Up for 2016

The billionaire gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson is among those bankrolling a scare campaign against U.S. diplomacy with Iran. (Image: DonkeyHotey/flickr/cc)

A tight-knit group of neocon dead-enders is pushing Iran to the forefront of the GOP’s foreign policy agenda.

By Sina Toossi

In a recent TV ad, a van snakes its way through an American city. As the driver fiddles with the radio dial, dire warnings about the perils of a “nuclear Iran” spill out of the speaker from Senator Lindsey Graham and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The driver then steers the vehicle into a parking garage, drives to the top level, and blows it up in a blinding flash of white light. Words shimmer across the screen: “No Iran Nuclear Treaty Without Congressional Approval.”

While diplomats from Iran and the “P5+1″ world powers work to forge a peaceful resolution to the decade-long standoff over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, a well-financed network of “experts” — like the “American Security Initiative” that produced the above “Special Delivery” ad — is dedicating enormous amounts of time and energy to weakening public support for the talks in the United States.

These think-tank gurus, special interest groups, and media pundits have peddled a plethora of alarmist narratives aimed at scuttling the diplomatic process — and they’ve relied far more on fear mongering than facts.

So who are these people?

A Close-Knit Network

Despite their bipartisan façade, these reflexively anti-Iran ideologues are in reality a tight-knit group. Many were also prominent supporters of the Iraq War and other foreign policy debacles from the last 15 years. They work in close coordination with one another and are often bankrolled by similar funders.

Four GOP super-donors alone — the billionaires Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, Bernard Marcus, and Seth Klarman — keep afloat an array of groups that ceaselessly advocate confrontation with Iran, like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Other groups forming the core of this network include the neoconservative Hudson Institute and the Foreign Policy Initiative, as well as more explicitly hardline “pro-Israel” groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Emergency Committee for Israel, The Israel Project, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Several of these outfits also rely on right-wing grant-making foundations such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Scaife Foundations, which together funnel millions into hardline policy shops.

Hardline Senators

Together these groups have established what amounts to their own echo chamber. They’ve built an anti-Iran communications and lobbying infrastructure that enjoys substantial influence in Washington’s corridors of power, particularly in Congress.

One of this network’s more prominent beneficiaries has been Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), a through-and-through neocon disciple whose truculent opposition to the Iran talks has given pause to even conservative figures like Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, who asked him what the “point” was of his infamous open letter to Iran last March that was signed by 47 Senate Republicans. Other prominent senators with close ties to this network include Cotton’s Republican colleagues Lindsey Graham, Mark Kirk, Kelly Ayotte, and John McCain.

Cotton’s successful run for Senate last year came on the heels of massive financial contributions he received from key members of the anti-Iran lobby, including Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, which spent roughly $1 million to get Cotton elected. Adelson, Singer, and Klarman, as well as the PAC run by former UN ambassador and avowed militarist John Bolton, also contributed significantly to Cotton’s campaign.

While some pundits and politicians say they’re looking for a “better deal” with Iran than the one the Obama administration has negotiated, Cotton has explicitly said that he’s looking for no deal at all. He’s called an end to the nuclear negotiations an “intended consequence” of legislation he’s supported to impose new sanctions on Iran and give Congress an up-or-down vote on the agreement.

Think Tank Warriors (more…)

Former CIA Officer Jeffrey Sterling Sentenced to Jail for Leaking to Journalist

Jeffrey Sterling (Photo by Institute for Public Accuracy)

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for leaking information to a journalist. It was the longest sentence issued by a federal court during President Barack Obama’s administration.

During a trial in January, the government convinced a jury, with largely circumstantial evidence, that Sterling leaked information about a top secret CIA operation in Iran called “Operation Merlin” to New York Times reporter James Risen, who published details on the operation in a chapter of his book, State of War. “Operation Merlin” involved the passage of flawed nuclear blueprints to Iran in order to get them to work on building a nuclear weapon that would never function.

He was convicted of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses. The government had argued a sentence ranging from 19.5 to 24 years in prison would be reasonable.

Judge Leonie Brinkema, according to Times reporter Matt Apuzzo, said Sterling had “jeopardized the safety of a CIA informant.” And, “Of all the types of secrets kept by American intelligence officers, she said, ‘This is the most critical secret.’”

“If you knowingly reveal these secrets, there’s going to be a price to be paid,” Brinkema added. Sterling had to be punished in order to send a message to other officials, who might consider revealing these kinds of secrets.

Still, Brinkema did not issue a sentence that advocates for Sterling had feared might be issued against him.

“This is the least worst outcome,” Jesselyn Radack, director of the Government Accountability Project’s National Security and Human Rights division, declared. “I expected it to be worse given the huge amount of time that the government was requesting. That said, in my opinion, any jail time is excessive in light of the sweetheart plea deal that [David] Petraeus received for leaking classified information to his mistress.”

Sterling’s defense had argued [PDF] that the court could not “turn a blind eye to the positions the government has taken in similar cases.”

The government agreed to sentence Petraeus to two years of probation and a fine of $40,000 (which the judge hearing the case increased to $100,000). It was lenient considering the fact that Petraeus leaked “Black Books” containing the names of covert officers, war strategy notes, discussions from high level National Security Council meetings and notes from his meetings with President Barack Obama. He also lied to the FBI but was not charged with perjury or obstruction of justice. And the government allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor violation instead of a violation of the Espionage Act.

“Sterling should not receive a different form of justice than General Petraeus,” Edward MacMahon Jr. suggested. (more…)