The Secret Behind the “Secret Iran-IAEA Side Deal”

on September 24 | in CIA, Congress, Intelligence Analysis

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There’s a rearguard effort afoot to extend the “Iran Deal” deadline in Congress. Led by Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the Senate and Peter Roskam (R-IL) & Mike Pompeo (R-KS) in the House, this effort suggests the 60 days in which Congress can review the P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran has not yet started since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cut a secret side agreement with Tehran.

As Senator Cruz explained, stuff “Those side deals have not been submitted to Congress. Under the terms of Corker-Cardin, the review period has not started, and does not start until the entire deal is submitted to Congress and the president cannot lift these sanctions until the review period expires.”

This comes on the heels of other public efforts to emphasize the secretive nature of Iran-IAEA agreements and its consequences. “The American people deserve to see the secret side deals!” thundered a Youtube video released by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). The Foundation for Defense of Democracies Executive Director Mark Dubowitz furthered this analysis on Fox News by noting the deal’s supporters “are betting the future of the United States and the survival of Israel on a bunch of UN officials who have negotiated a side agreement that is secret that the American people and their legislators and the Executive branch is claiming that they’ve never seen and don’t know the details.”

Indeed, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano acknowledged there are indeed non-public agreements between his organization and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But the Administration has long insisted that this is incorrect. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in late July “this does not represent some sort of side deal” between Iran and the IAEA. Nuclear safeguard experts note the IAEA has non-public (secret?) relationships with 180 countries, including the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice seem to be sanguine about this particular issue.

Setting aside the transparently partisan rationale for gumming up the political works over the Iran deal, how can one square this side-deal circle? Let’s examine what exactly top U.S. policymakers have said publicly about the topic:

John Kerry, at the House Armed Services Committee hearing in late July: “No, I haven’t seen it. I’ve been briefed on it. It’s in the possession of the IAEA.”

Susan Rice, during a press briefing on 22 July: “…the IAEA and Iran did reach an understanding as is always the case that is an understanding between the country in question and the IAEA. These documents are not public. But nonetheless, we have been briefed on those documents. We know their contents. We are satisfied with them and we will share the contents of those briefings in full and classified session with the Congress. So there is nothing in that regard that we know that they won’t know.” (emphasis mine.)

Here’s my hunch: yes, there was some sort of non-public written agreement or agreements between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran, and yes, neither Iran nor the IAEA officially shared those documents with the U.S.

But it would be naïve to think intelligence services from a dozen nations wouldn’t have used sort of clandestine means to determine the contents of those documents. What, you think the intelligence services from various countries that swarmed all over Vienna during the negotiations were just enjoying the coffee and the warm summer weather? No, they were hard at work trying to determine what the other side was up to. One of these efforts came to light when the Wall Street Journal reported Israel had reportedly hacked the hotels where the negotiations were being held.

Notice how senior Administration officials take pains to indicate the US knows the contents yet also specifically state they have never physically seen the documents. They’re caught in a bind, as they want to say they know the contents but cannot divulge why they know — since it could compromise intelligence sources and methods. Of course, this information cannot be shared publicly with Congress since it was derived from either (A) our own clandestine capabilities or (B) from foreign reporting.

So they state they have been briefed on the contents of the agreement…and who “briefs” the National Security Advisor and the Secretary of State? Why, intelligence community briefers, of course.

So who in Congress would know—or should know—whether my hunch about the nature of the information is correct? Why, the members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees—members such as Rep. Pompeo and Sen. Cotton. Sen. Cruz sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which might have access to this information, too. Surely they have the power to demand the truth from our intelligence agencies.

Again, this is speculation. But if you carefully parse what both sides who are in-the-know are saying (and unless one side is lying), it more or less leads to one conclusion.

Blasting away at the White House’s perfidy over the “secret side deal” question might pay political dividends, especially as the presidential campaign season gears up. But any Member of Congress who is privy to classified material can request a classified briefing on this topic. The Administration might not technically have the documents in hand, but they know the contents due to clandestine efforts.

But that rather mundane rationale wouldn’t make for good political theater.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and the Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, signing the Roadmap for the clarification of past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program on 14 July, 2015. (IAEA)

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