Now that the Pentagon seems to have come to terms with the fact that Russia and Iran are coordinating their military activities in Syria in support of their mutual ally Bashar al-Assad, the Obama administration has a problem.
As we said last month, “with the GOP unable to block the Iran nuclear deal in the Senate, should Iran's involvement in Syria become common knowledge, then Obama will be faced with the biggest diplomatic headache in his administration's history, namely the explanation of why he is scrambling to restore diplomatic connections with a regime that couldn't even wait for the Iran deal to be formally passed before it turned its back on its newest ‘best friend’ in the Oval Office, only to promptly side with the KGB agent who over the past two years has emerged as the biggest US enemy in three decades.”
This will of course be complicated immeasurably in the event Congress gets the idea that Iran is attempting to hide anything and indeed, GOP lawmakers were enraged when, late last month, AP reported that “Iran will be allowed to use its own inspectors to investigate a site it has been accused of using to develop nuclear arms, operating under a secret agreement with the U.N. agency that normally carries out such work.”
The site in question is Parchin which, amusingly, AP originally referred to as a "nuclear site” before getting a tap on the shoulder and correcting the article. “In fact, it's a military site where some believe nuclear work occurred,” the correction reads.
Yes, some do believe that and before the P5+1 deal can be implemented and crippling economic sanctions fully lifted, Tehran must first satisfy the IAEA’s worries about Parchin.
On Monday, in what will surely create a stir with Republicans and will likely be raised at the next raucous GOP primary debate, Iran and the IAEA said the first samples from the site were collected in the absence of international inspectors. Here’s AFP:
Iran said Monday it independently collected samples at a suspect military site where illicit nuclear work is alleged to have occurred and later handed them to the UN's absent inspectors.
The disclosure that international monitors were not physically present is likely to feed critics of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, who have poured scorn on measures used to check if Tehran's atomic programme is peaceful.
In a mark of the high stakes at play it drew a quick reaction from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, whose chief insisted that "the integrity of the sampling process and the authenticity of the samples" was not compromised.
The samples were taken under "established procedures", IAEA director general Yukiya Amano said, noting "significant progress" is being made in its long-running probe of whether Iran ever sought to develop a nuclear bomb.
The site at Parchin, east of the capital Tehran, has been at the centre of international scepticism of Iran's activities, specifically that as late as 2003 it carried out work there aimed at developing an atomic weapon.
Iran says accusations from Western intelligence agencies -- including that it conducted explosives tests at Parchin -- are groundless and based on malicious information provided by its enemies.
"It was done by Iranian experts, in the absence of IAEA inspectors," said Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation.
Needless to say, "it was done by Iranian experts" isn't a line that's likely to inspire much confidence with the deal's many detractors and neither is the IAEA's insistence that the "integrity" of the samples has been maintained.
Meanwhile, concerns linger over the whether construction activity at the site will serve to undermine inspectors' ability to determine if in fact Iran ever tried to develop a nuclear weapon. Here's more from Reuters:
IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said he and the head of the agency's Department of Safeguards, which carries out inspections, visited a building at the Parchin site on Sunday that the agency had previously only observed by satellite.
"Inside the building, we saw indications of recent renovation work," Amano said in a statement he read to reporters in Vienna, where his agency is based. "There was no equipment in the building."
But in a report to its Board of Governors last month, the IAEA said activities it had observed at a location within Parchin since 2012 could undermine its ability to verify what activity occurred there. Amano repeated this point on Monday.
In a confidential report to the board on Monday obtained by Reuters, Amano said the building to which the small extension had been added was not "the main building of interest".
And here's Reuters with an interesting bit of color on the samples taken at the site:
Amano said the environmental samples had been taken before his visit to Parchin on Sunday. He did not explain exactly how the samples were collected, but said "the Iranian side played a part in the sample-taking process by swiping samples".
The IAEA has said it has a legal obligation to keep details of the arrangement confidential, but insists it is technically sound and will ensure the samples are not compromised.
In the text of a statement to reporters, the head of safeguards at the IAEA, Tero Varjoranta, said one important element of sample-taking was that it is carried out "under redundant continuous surveillance", suggesting that the agency had carried out such surveillance when swipes were taken.
When he read his statement immediately after Amano spoke, however, Varjoranta omitted that phrase.
What's clear here is that the character and extent of Iran's nuclear ambitions will likely never be fully ascertained and it also seems very likely that the dynamic described above - wherein the West says one thing and Iran another with the details only leaking out incrementally by way of draft documents that find there way into the hands of the media - will persist in perpetuity.
Maintaining the narrative is critical for both sides, which helps to explain the apparent tug-of-war between competing accounts. For Iran, the Rouhani government cannot be seen to have adopted an overly concilliatory stance without drawing the ire of Iranians who the Ayatollah is famously adept at whipping into a frenzy. For the Obama administration, the Iran deal is a key part of the President's legacy and The White House can ill-afford to see it jeopardized by the perception of Iranian intransigence.
What all of this portends is that between Iran's involvement in Syria and the tenuous Parchin agreement with the IAEA, the cornerstone of Obama's foreign policy may ultimately blow up (figuratively speaking we hope) in America's face.