Confidentiality and the JCPOA

It appears that a number of people who might be expected to understand how diplomacy and international agreements work have become confused on some matters. They seem to be calling for complete transparency in the dealings of the IAEA with Iran and the P5+1. To be sure, there may be differences in how lines should be drawn, but radical transparency is new in diplomatic relations.

A further problem with this insistence on transparency is that opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran, the formal title of which is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also advocate a radical transparency. They keep trying, unsuccessfully, to find “secret side deals.” The latest was supposedly uncovered by the Institute for Science and International Security; their word is “exemptions”. There are major problems with their report, which Jim Walsh and I have dealt with.

“Secret side deals” suggest nefarious purpose by the dealers, who in the antagonistic narratives are always the United States, desperate for a deal with Iran, flummoxed by those crafty Iranians. Often forgotten are the other members of the P5+1 (Russia, China, UK, Germany, France) who must have been equally flummoxed. In a recent press conference reporters badger John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, to formulate his answers in terms of the word “exemptions.” To his credit, he resists.

So perhaps a refresher course in Diplomacy 101 is in order: the uses of and necessity for confidentiality. We can start with a precept that Kirby mentioned:

I’d say in general diplomatic discussions are confidential in nature unless all the parties agree otherwise.

There are good reasons for this assumption. Confidentiality prevails in many areas of life, and the reasons are similar: someone may be hurt if information is made generally available. There are legal presumptions of confidentiality for discussions with medical, legal, and spiritual counselors. Reporters protect their sources, as Reuters did in reporting the story..

Negotiations, too, require confidentiality, whether negotiating to buy a house or negotiating the JCPOA. In the case of the JCPOA, we can see how badly negotiations can go without confidentiality. During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, confidentiality was often breached by the Iranians. Those negotiations failed. The negotiations that resulted in the JCPOA were held closely, with occasional joint statements and even the occasional comment resulting from frustration. Significant details were not leaked.

Confidentiality provides a minimal level of trust that neither party will try to humiliate the other. With that trust, trial balloons can be floated. Errors are found in statements. Ideas are pushed beyond what the other side will accept. Public exposure will harden stands and undercut domestic support. Without the flexibility to modify positions, negotiation cannot take place. That flexibility requires confidentiality.

The JCPOA specifies a Joint Commission for working out differences in interpretation and for situations that were not fully forseen. Something like the Joint Commission is an element of every complex international agreement. Not every situation can be foreseen, and differences of interpretation arise. The Commission’s discussions will be negotiation, and confidentiality will be needed. Mark Fitzpatrick suggests the nature of the interpretation in this case.

All nations that are inspected the IAEA require some degree of confidentiality. Part of the purpose of the JCPOA is to bring Iran to a status more like that of other nations. While the United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program were in force, IAEA reports on Iran were highly detailed. Much of that detail is now absent, as it is in other countries’ reports.

The argument for transparency from the Institute for Science and International Security seems to be that they must be able to work out the details of Iran’s compliance to their satisfaction. I love seeing and working those numbers, too, but the agreement is between the P5+1 and Iran, not designed to satisfy all possible curiosity by those on the outside.

Even the earlier level of detail was not sufficient for some types of calculations. I tried to work out materials balances from those more detailed IAEA reports. The amounts of uranium reported for different parts of the process were for different dates, sometimes weeks apart. A materials balance is the simplest way to see if material is being added or removed from the process. I could not verify that, but the IAEA does. A full accounting might run to tens or even hundreds of pages of data printout, especially with the increased surveillance that the JCPOA requires.


The Institute’s report does not identify its sources beyond “One senior knowledgeable official”.  Once again, we see confidentiality in action. Can we trust the source? What is the context of the material? Those questions are critical for this report, which is mostly based on unattributed claims.

I have engaged one of the authors of the report and the Reuters reporter on Twitter. Both assure me that they cannot do their jobs without confidentiality, but refuse to consider that the same might be the case for the IAEA inspectors.

The motivations of the leaker must be considered. There is a history of leaked documents relating to Iran’s nuclear program. Single documents are presented with exaggerated claims and without context. Some have turned out to be not as represented. The material in the Institute’s report seems plausible, but trivial.

The balance between disclosure and the ability of the Joint Commission and the IAEA to be effective is what is in question when transparency is demanded. The argument of the report, the Reuters article, and several reporters at the September 1 State Department press briefing seems to be that absolute transparency is required for the JCPOA. This is nonsense.

It’s reasonable to argue that the line separating confidential and public information should be drawn elsewhere. Those insisting on transparency must be specific about what information they feel must be disclosed and how it would improve the enforcement of the JCPOA. Then they need to convince the P5+1 that they have a case that could even be negotiated through the Joint Commission.


Top photo: Reuters

One comment

  1. J R in WV · September 9

    Very interesting, well made point. I feel good about the Iranian agreement, in part because it is a multi-lateral agreement with many parties, all working toward a common goal.

    When we learned that the Iranian heavy-water reactor was filled with concrete was when I first felt optimistic that yet another mid-eastern nation was not going to join the nuclear “family” – that’s good, because it is a very dis-functional family.


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