The Cable

Obama Administration Denies Allowing ‘Secret’ Exemptions in Iran Deal

The pushback follows claims by a former U.N. weapons inspector that world powers allowed Tehran to evade restrictions on its nuclear program.

State Department Spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the State Department on January 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. Even as world powers work to implement the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea's apparent detonation of a new bomb marks a stark setback for global anti-proliferation efforts. Kirby's message to Pyongyang was clear -- "we have consistently made clear that we will not accept it as a nuclear state" -- but not new. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN / AFP / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
State Department Spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the State Department on January 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. Even as world powers work to implement the Iran nuclear deal, North Korea's apparent detonation of a new bomb marks a stark setback for global anti-proliferation efforts. Kirby's message to Pyongyang was clear -- "we have consistently made clear that we will not accept it as a nuclear state" -- but not new. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN / AFP / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration denied claims by a former U.N. weapons inspector on Thursday that the United States and other countries agreed to allow Iran to evade restrictions in last year’s historic nuclear deal.

“There has been no loosening of Iran’s commitments and there have been no exceptions given,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby at a daily press conference.

The comments came in response to a new paper by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. The report claims that the United States and other countries granted Iran exemptions regarding certain aspects of the nuclear deal so that Tehran would be eligible to receive relief from punishing economic sanctions earlier this year. David Albright, the president of the organization and co-author of the study who has often voiced skepticism over provisions of the nuclear deal, says his findings are based on interviews with government officials but he declined to name them.

The alleged exemptions included allowing Iran to exceed limits on how much low-enriched uranium (LEU) it can store in its nuclear facilities, the study claimed. LEU stockpiles are monitored because they can be purified into weapons-grade uranium. The study said that the exemptions were made by the joint commission tasked with overseeing implementation of the deal — a body comprised of the P5+1 and Iran.

“The Joint Commission’s secretive decision making process risks advantaging Iran by allowing it to try to systematically weaken the [Iran deal],” said the study.

Republican critics of the deal, including Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, immediately seized on the study, calling it an “alarming” example of the Obama administration hiding details of the deal from the American people.

But the Obama administration flatly denied the the group’s claims. Kirby said the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, set the limit of low-enriched uranium at 300 kilograms and since implementation day, “Iran has been in compliance with holding to that limit.”

Albright’s report also said the joint commission allowed Iran to keep 19 functioning radiation containment chambers that are larger than provided for under the deal. The chambers, or “hot cells,” are made for handling radioactive material but the report says they can be “misused for secret, mostly small-scale plutonium separation efforts.”

Kirby said that the text of the Iran deal explicitly permits Iran to use larger hot cells if approved by the joint commission.

“Iran has been in full compliance of their JCPOA commitments,” he said

Ever since the Iran nuclear negotiations became public, Albright has offered criticisms of certain aspects of the agreement, but remained neutral on whether or not it should be implemented. His study claims that the exemptions given to Iran were made so that it would meet a deadline to start receiving economic sanctions relief.

Non-proliferation groups and arms control experts have largely been supportive of the deal and some openly dismissed the report.

“It is a bridge too far to call this a secret exemption necessary to reach implementation day,” Kelsey Davenport, director of non-proliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, told Foreign Policy.

She also defended the joint commission as a necessary component to a complex agreement that involves an array of technical issues. “The Joint Commission was created in part to address implementation issues and distinguish between attempts to circumvent the deal’s limits and technical issues,” she said.

Experts said there is nothing clandestine about the joint commission — which is made up of the major powers that signed the deal along with Tehran — working out details on how to carry it out, especially given that Congress was briefed on those details.

“Every nuclear agreement has had confidential annexes,” said Jim Walsh, a contributor with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, and a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s security studies program.

The text of the 2003 agreement in which Libya agreed to give up its nuclear weapons has never been released and key provisions in arms control deals with the Soviets were kept secret and classified, Walsh said.

“Every nuclear agreement has had confidential annexes,” he said. “If countries had to negotiate their nuclear particulars in front of television cameras, we would have no nuclear agreements,” he said.

The report seemed to imply that the Obama administration should have shared more information about the implementation details with Albright and other experts in the think tank and academic community. In that case, that would represent a criticism about how the White House handled its public relations for the deal, but it would not constitute a “secret” arrangement with Iran that violated the spirit of the accord, said Richard Nephew, who was on the U.S. negotiating team for the Iran agreement and is now a fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy.

The report failed to make the case that something secret or covert had taken place, he said.

“There’s no allegation there that this wasn’t briefed to Congress,“ Nephew told FP. “I find it hard to see anything nefarious in what went on here.”

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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