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More Iran deal loopholes/ The war on Syria’s hospitals

Sep 9, 2016

Update from AIJAC

Sept. 9, 2016

Update 09/16 #02

This Update looks at the implications of the revelation last week of a number of previously not publicly known loopholes or exceptions granted Iran in January as part of the implementation of the nuclear deal – as exposed by the the Institute for Science and International Security, a thinktank run by former International Atomic Energy Agency senior official David Albright.

First up is an editorial from the Wall Street Journal, detailing the exemptions granted Iran. These include allowing higher levels of low-enriched uranium and heavy water than agreed in the original agreement, if kept in certain forms or ways – as well as maintenance of 19 large radiation containment chambers, or hot cells, which can possibly be used for some nuclear weapons work. The newspaper questions US Administration denials that these exemptions will not allow Iran to skirt its commitments, noting that they seem to be part of a trend which amounts to allowing Iran to systematically weaken the agreement. For the newspaper’s complete argument, CLICK HERE

Next up is Israeli proliferation specialist Dr. Emily Landau, who argues these latest revelations about non-public exceptions are part of a larger pattern. She argues transparency about the deal and how it is working and monitored has been very lacking on a number of fronts, which she discusses in some detail – despite the claims about the importance of transparency from both the Administration and its supporters. She says today the debate about the Iran deal has shifted from its problematic provisions to the problematic attitude toward the deal by the Administration, with repeated instances of “unjustified lack of transparency, followed by unconvincing US excuses and explanations.” For Landau’s complete analysis of the transparency problem, CLICK HERE. Making some similar points about the “befuddling brand of secrecy” which has featured in the US approach to implementing the deal is Washington Institute expert Patrick Clawson.

Finally, the Economist magazine looks at one of the ugliest aspects of the parade of  unspeakable ugliness which is the Syrian civil war – the effort by the Assad regime and its allies to target hospitals and other medical facilities in rebel areas. The magazine appears to make it clear that these attacks are deliberate, and have turned Syria’s hospitals into deathtraps, with 265 medical facilities hit since the conflict began. Further, it quotes experts who note that the ongoing attacks on hospitals, and lack of any serious international efforts to stop the attacks or hold those responsible accountable, means the norms of international law which forbid such conduct are being eroded, possibly permanently. For this additional glimpse inside the horrors of Syria, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, American author and pundit Lee Smith argues that US refusal to act against the Assad regime’s atrocities can be traced back mainly to an Administration determination to preserve the nuclear deal with Iran, the Assad regime’s key backer, and collects several pieces of evidence to support his case.

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Article 1

Loopholes for the Mullahs

Secret side deals allow Iran to skirt limits in the nuclear deal.

Wall Street Journal, Sept. 1, 2016

Socrates is rumored to have said that the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing, and maybe we should adopt a version of the Greek philosopher’s motto when it comes to the nuclear deal with Iran. To wit, we are learning again that what the Obama Administration says Iran can do under the agreement, and what Iran is allowed to do, are almost never the same.

The latest discrepancy was revealed Thursday in a report by David Albright and Andrea Stricker of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a think tank in Washington D.C. that specializes in nuclear issues. The agreement specifies that Iran is to limit its stockpile of reactor-grade, low-enriched uranium (LEU) to no more than 300 kilograms for 15 years. Tehran shipped more than 11 tons of LEU to Russia last year, and the Administration has trumpeted the Islamic Republic’s supposed compliance with the deal as a way of justifying wider sanctions relief.

But as Mr. Albright and Ms. Stricker note, Iran‘s “compliance” came about thanks to a series of secretive exemptions and loopholes that the Administration and the deal’s other signatories created for the mullahs sometime last year. Had those exemptions and loopholes not been created out of thin air, the authors report, “some of Iran’s nuclear facilities would not have been in compliance” with the deal.

Among the exemptions: Iran was allowed to keep more than 300 kilos of low-enriched uranium provided it was in various “waste forms.” The deal was also supposed to cap Iran’s production of heavy water at 130 tons, but another loophole now allows Iran to exceed that. In a third exemption, Iran was allowed to maintain 19 large radiation containment chambers, or hot cells, which are supposed to be used for producing medical isotopes but can be “misused for secret, mostly small-scale plutonium separation efforts.”

The White House has waved off the ISIS report by insisting it “did not and will not allow Iran to skirt” its commitments. The non-denial would be more credible if the Administration hadn’t last year agreed to a secretive process in which Iran was allowed to inspect its own nuclear-related military facilities.

It would also be more credible if Iran weren’t testing ballistic missiles thanks to another nuclear side-deal. That one was supposed to ban such tests for eight years but contained a semantic loophole that Iran claims makes it unenforceable. Iran was also supposed to be subject to a five-year embargo on the purchase of major conventional weapons. Yet only last week it chose to deploy its newly acquired S-300 air defense system—purchased from Russia thanks to another U.N. loophole—to defend the Fordow underground nuclear facility. The deal was supposed to have rendered Fordow harmless by turning it into a science and technology center.

Iran showcases what it claims are parts of its newly received S-300 missile defense system, which it is deploying around the Fordow underground enrichment factility, despite the fact this facility is supposed to be devoted to only non-nuclear technology under the nuclear deal

Throughout all this the Administration has gone to unusual lengths to keep its side deals secret. The ISIS report notes that Congress was secretly informed of the exemptions in January, but there was never public disclosure. “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at” has been a constant of U.S. diplomacy for nearly a century, but that’s another American principle lost with the Iran deal.

As for Iran, Mr. Albright and Ms. Stricker note that the secretive process by which Iran is gaining these exemptions “risks advantaging Iran by allowing it to try to systematically weaken” the agreement. Given the evidence presented in their report, the mullahs are well on their way.


Article 2

There’s Still a Lot We Don’t Know About the Iran Deal


The deal has been marked by lack of transparency from the beginning.

Emily B. Landau


Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on April 19, 2016. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of State
Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on April 19, 2016. Wikimedia Commons/U.S.

The latest report issued by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) reveals confidential exemptions that Iran was granted by the Joint Commission in order to meet its requirements for implementing the Iran deal last January. The report has sparked a debate over whether there were in fact exemptions, and what they entailed. But the more serious issue raised by this report—and emphasized by its authors—regards the question of secrecy and confidentiality surrounding elements of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and its implementation. From this perspective, the ISIS report is only the latest in a string of episodes over the past year in which issues involving secrecy (or lack of disclosure) have been exposed. Sometimes the issues have related directly to JCPOA provisions, and sometimes to the U.S. administration’s portrayal of events or policies related to the deal.

In their eagerness to block any criticism of the Iran deal, JCPOA supporters immediately denounced the ISIS report and attacked its credibility—not an easy task, considering David Albright is one of the most reputable voices on this topic. In a worrisome exchange with reporters, State Department spokesperson John Kirby denied any exemption for Iran, or that Iran had accumulated more than three hundred kilograms of “usable” low-enriched uranium—employing a new term that does not exist in the deal itself. On the question of secrecy, experts who support the deal have been arguing on social media that not only do they not view secrecy as a problem, but that it is a common element in arms-control agreements, citing U.S.-Soviet/Russian arms-control treaties as a case in point.

There are several problems with this line of argument. First, one cannot escape the irony that arms-control experts that have joined the camp of JCPOA supporters—and that now seem totally fine with secrecy—are the same people that for years hailed transparency as a key ingredient of successful arms control. But more substantively, the Iran deal was purposely devised as a very public arrangement (the full text is available online), and President Obama has stated on many occasions that he does not trust Iran, which is why its program must be transparent, and under constant scrutiny through an intrusive inspection regime. Finally, and most significantly, Iran is a known violator of the NPT—having worked on a secret and illicit nuclear-weapons program for decades while a member of the treaty. Because of its very troubling past record, openness and transparency—not only regarding all elements of Iran’s nuclear program, but including the terms of the deal and its implementation—are so essential. It makes little sense to grant a state like Iran confidentiality privileges—would anyone have thought to do so with Saddam Hussein after the extent of his illegal nuclear-weapons program was revealed in the wake of the 1991 war?

Those set on drawing a comparison between the JCPOA and U.S.-Soviet Cold War arms control are on particularly shaky ground. Beyond the fact that both agreements deal with nuclear-weapons capabilities, they have little in common. The latter experience involved two nuclear-armed powers that decided to introduce stability into their bilateral relationship through a political process where they called the shots. This is a fundamentally different situation than negotiating with a state that was caught cheating for decades on an international treaty that bans work on a nuclear-weapons capability. In the latter case, the P5+1 were actually negotiating on behalf of the nonproliferation regime that was violated by Iran. As such, the P5+1 and Iran were not on equal standing in the negotiation, and in light of its deceptive past behavior, there was no rationale for granting Iran confidentiality.

Over the past year, additional cases of secrecy, confidentiality and lack of disclosure have been revealed, each with its unique features, but all following a similar pattern: revelation of secrecy in the deal and/or lack of full disclosure by the U.S. administration, and then attempts by the administration to deny or cover up, bolstered by claims that everything was either already known, legitimately kept confidential or insignificant. Each additional case that has been exposed has had the effect of gnawing away at the Obama administration’s credibility regarding the nuclear deal, while eroding confidence that Iran will be firmly held to its commitments.

The first instance occurred already last summer, regarding the secret side deal between Iran and the IAEA for a one-time inspection of the military facility at Parchin. The question of whether, and under what conditions, Iran would in the future allow inspections of suspicious military facilities like Parchin was one of the more thorny issues negotiated by the parties. For the P5+1, the JCPOA satisfactorily resolved the issue by determining that any suspicion could be checked by the IAEA within twenty-four days. A close reading of the text of the agreement, however, reveals that the twenty-four-day timeframe could easily be stretched out by Iran—a true cause for concern, in light of emphatic statements issued by Khamenei and others that Iran would never allow inspection of its military facilities.

Against this backdrop, the terms of the Parchin inspection in September 2015 were an important test case, and yet the P5+1—who ran the negotiation—claimed to have no role in the arrangement reached between Iran and the IAEA. Was it possible that the critical issue of the Parchin inspection was outside the purview of the P5+1, when the entire JCPOA was negotiated and authored by these six powers? Not likely. And after it became clear that IAEA inspectors would only be monitoring from outside the facility, while Iranians collected soil samples from within, the problematic nature of the arrangement was exposed. The response to critics who pointed out that the P5+1 were in effect enabling Iran to inspect itself was to accuse the critics of distorting reality.

There have been additional attempts to obfuscate concessions that were made to Iran. Two cases in particular are worthy of mention. The first involves a report in the Associated Press from July 2016, revealing a document that laid out Iran’s enrichment plans for year eleven of the deal. According to the document, Iran plans to install and operate 2,500–3,500 advanced centrifuges, with the effect of bringing breakout time down to six months by year thirteen. Once again, this was portrayed as being between Iran and the IAEA. The administration’s reaction to the AP revelation was to deny any secret deals, while claiming that it was known that Iran’s breakout would come down after ten years. And yet, when Obama had said as much back in April 2015—namely, that breakout time could go down almost to zero in year thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen—the State Department immediately denied in a press conference that he had said this in relation to a prospective deal.

The second case involves the $400 million paid to Iran at the same time that American prisoners held on bogus charges in Iran were released in mid-January. At the time of the prisoner exchange, the Obama administration had hailed the release of Americans as a sign of easing of tensions with Iran—a direct result of the nuclear deal. But when the Wall Street Journal released its story in August, the revealed temporal proximity of the two events sparked accusations of ransom paying. The administration’s first response was to deny that the two events were in any way connected, but when a subsequent report presented evidence that they were, officials were forced to back away from this false claim and change their story. According to the new version, the money was to be transferred to Iran in any case, and it had thus “only” been used as “leverage” to ensure the prisoners’ release. The administration’s deception in this case was most likely driven by the perceived need to preserve its narrative of a more cooperative Iran post-deal; this had been a key selling point for the deal in the struggle for congressional approval in 2015.

These cases expose a hyper-defensive administration that is harshly silencing any criticism of the JCPOA or its implementation. The administration obfuscates important details (as seen at the State Department press conferences), defends problematic secrecy and lack of transparency, and acts as Iran’s advocate regarding problems that arise. But there is no justification for secrecy regarding the JCPOA, Iran’s arrangements with the IAEA or discussions regarding implementation of the deal in the Joint Commission. When dealing with a known violator, confidentiality has no place.

At the end of the day, the secrecy and the cover-ups are creating a sense that the U.S. administration is not being forthright about what the JCPOA is and what it entails—either to make us believe the deal is working, or that Iran is changing behavior for the better. The original sin in this regard was the abrupt closing of the PMD file last December, letting Iran off the hook regarding its past weaponization activities. Here too, Iran was provided an exemption from the requirement to answer all questions related to the PMD, to the satisfaction of the IAEA. Despite only partial cooperation with the IAEA investigation, and even though Secretary of State John Kerry had maintained that answering all questions was “fundamental for sanctions relief,” the file was nevertheless closed and everyone moved happily to Implementation Day.

The implication of closing the PMD file is that Iran has not been officially declared an NPT violator, and this creates the basis for its claims to confidentially. By not clarifying that the entire case against Iran turns on its deceptive behavior, the official narrative fails to underscore that Iran not only does not deserve “normal” treatment, but that its record of behavior demands an extra measure of scrutiny. Iran intends to significantly expand its enrichment program, to remain very close to breakout capability, and shows no indication of moving away from its nuclear ambitions. Indeed, Iran fought hard to hold on to its breakout capability, and its success finds expression in a deal that only extends breakout from two or three months to a year.

A year after introducing the JCPOA, the focus of debate has shifted from the problematic provisions of the deal itself to the attitude displayed by the Obama administration toward the deal. The ISIS report is simply one more case of unjustified lack of transparency, followed by unconvincing U.S. excuses and explanations, which leave one less and less confident about the deal and the United States’ intent to uphold it.

However we look at this, U.S.-Iran dynamics will be a key factor in the implementation of the deal, and in determining whether Iran is able to manipulate its way to nuclear weapons. U.S. passivity—not to mention acting as Iran’s defender—risks weakening America’s ability to keep Iran in line. The United States must wake up to the reality that the struggle with Iran continues, at least as far as Iran is concerned. Not responding to Iranian challenges risks losing the game.

Emily Landau is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and head of its Arms Control and Regional Security Program.


Article 3

The war on Syria’s doctors

Dr Assad turns Syria’s hospitals into death traps as part of a “kneel or starve” policy

The Economist, Sept. 3rd 2016

ON A wintry morning in February warplanes supporting Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad launched a series of missiles that slammed into a field hospital in northern Syria. Medics raced towards the thick cloud of grey dust that mushroomed above the building, before clambering over breeze blocks and fallen trees to pull the wounded from the rubble.

About 40 minutes later, the jets—either Russian or Syrian, no one is sure—circled back and dropped another bomb on the medics as they worked. The air strikes killed 25 civilians, including eight medical workers, making it the single deadliest attack on medical personnel since the war in Syria began in 2011. Unsatisfied with the death toll, the jets tracked the ambulances carrying the wounded to another field hospital three miles north. They hit the hospital entrance with another missile and then, ten minutes later, dropped yet another bomb. “There’s no way on that day they didn’t know what they were doing,” says Ahmed Tarakji, president of the Syrian American Medical Society, which financed the second hospital hit that day.

In the euphemistic lexicon of war, these attacks are known as “double-tap” or “triple-tap” strikes. This devastating tactic, used to hit schools, bakeries and marketplaces, has become a common feature of the Syrian government’s air campaign.

It has also turned Syria’s hospitals into death traps. Barrel bombs, artillery and air strikes have struck more than 265 medical facilities since the start of the war. Last month, possibly the deadliest since the war began, bombs and missiles hit a hospital or field clinic every 17 hours. Experts reckon that no previous war has witnessed such widespread, systematic targeting of hospitals and medical workers.

There is little doubt among human-rights groups and UN officials that many of these attacks are deliberate. There is also little doubt about who is responsible: those documenting attacks on medical facilities say Syria’s government and its Russian backers have launched more than 90% of the attacks. “It’s not that hospitals haven’t been bombed in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. It’s that the intent and strategy as a tool of war is on another level. The government of Assad has aimed its weapons at the delivery of health care,” says Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights, a New York-based chronicler of the atrocities in Syria.

Dr Death

By laying siege to rebel-held areas and bombarding civilian buildings, the Syrian president has sought to make life unbearable for civilians trapped in rebel areas. It is a classic counter-insurgency technique, a chilling response to Mao Zedong’s maxim that a guerrilla should move among the population as a fish swims in the sea. Mr Assad’s “kneel or starve” policy—so-called after the graffiti scrawled on walls by government loyalists—is designed to deprive the rebels of the sea in which they swim.

The strategy is working. In the besieged east of Aleppo, once the country’s largest city, residents say they live inside a “circle of hell”. Less than a quarter of its hospitals can operate at all. Fuel for the generators needed to power vital equipment is scarce. When air strikes hit blood banks and oxygen tanks, patients are simply left to die. Fewer than 35 doctors remain to treat a population of 300,000. The rest have fled or been killed, detained or tortured. In the nearby rebel-held town of Madaya, only two dentistry students and a veterinarian are left to treat a population of 40,000.

“The attacks are designed to terrify civilians. During sieges, people don’t want to give blood. They’d rather save it for themselves. Many are too scared to go to hospitals because they know they’ll be hit,” says Dr Hatem, one of the few remaining paediatricians in eastern Aleppo.

The rebels have clung on in Aleppo, despite the intensity of Russian and Syrian air raids. Elsewhere, however, Mr Assad’s strategy has proved too much. On August 26th rebels in the Damascus suburb of Daraya surrendered to the government after enduring a siege that lasted four years and saw residents forced to eat grass to stay alive. A week before the surrender, Mr Assad’s air force bombed the last remaining hospital with incendiary weapons. Mr Assad once trained as a doctor himself.

The destruction of Syria’s once sophisticated health system has forced doctors and medical charities to come up with innovative ways to escape the daily bombardment. Western-funded aid agencies have built a handful of secret hospitals underground. Others have tunnelled into the side of a mountain to build wards inside caves. But the costs are prohibitive.

The legacy of the war and the regime’s unrelenting attacks on health facilities and medical workers could have broader repercussions. The international community’s failure to stop the attacks has led to fears that the deliberate targeting of medical facilities will become the new norm in future wars. “The laws of war were drafted to protect civilians, to make war less hellish. These laws are being eroded in Syria,” says Widney Brown of Physicians for Human Rights. “When no one enforces these laws, when those who commit war crimes aren’t held to account, then what message does that send?”

Efforts to hold the Syrian regime and its foreign backers to account have failed. Russia and China blocked the country’s referral to the International Criminal Court in 2014. Governments in the West have begun to look at launching their own investigations into war crimes in the hope of prosecuting individuals under universal jurisdiction, but the creation of an independent body that investigates every alleged hospital attack is a dream.

“Without justice, it will be impossible to get rid of this feeling of revenge,” says Dr Rami Kalazi, the only neurosurgeon working in eastern Aleppo. “Without justice people will lose their trust in the international community completely. They will lose their trust in everything except for weapons.”




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