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The Secret Side of the Iran Nuclear Deal

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Important details of the nuclear agreement President Barack Obama says would bring unprecedented transparency to Iran's nuclear program will themselves be shrouded from the U.S. and Iranian publics, according to nuclear experts.

Officially, negotiators in Vienna have not made any decisions on what parts of the agreement would be released openly and what elements will be briefed to Congress but not publicly disclosed. Last week, a senior U.S. official briefing reporters said: "We expect that a text of the political understanding and the annexes will be public. Whether there will be any attachments or other documents that will be classified is not yet decided."

But several people familiar with the negotiations told us that there are likely to be certain elements of the complicated agreement to relax sanctions in exchange for inspections of Iran's nuclear infrastructure that would have to be kept from public view. For example, the precise details of how the International Atomic Energy Agency will inspect and monitor Iranian facilities is likely to be secret because the agency doesn't want to tip off other proliferators. The names of Iranian scientists associated with the program whom the agency would like to interview will also not be shared with the public.

There is also a potential for difficult gaps between the Western and Iranian positions to be papered over with mutual, but secret, interpretations of vague text in the agreement. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has publicly said that no military facilities should be inspected, whereas Western leaders have insisted there would have to be such monitoring. An undisclosed interpretation could be a way to bridge this kind of gap and allow both sides to save face.

Richard Nephew, who served as a U.S. negotiator in the talks until February and is now the head of the economic statecraft program at Columbia University, told us that he didn't expect that large sections of the agreement would be secret, but he anticipated that there would be some interpretations of the text that the administration would share only with Congress.

"Will there be carefully worded sections that seem odd? That will happen," Nephew predicted. "Will there be some wholesale manipulation of what is agreed to? I don't think it's possible. In the end most of this stuff will be public. There may be a few things withheld or interpretations made clear in classified interpretation."  

"Some aspects of the annexes may not be made public, which is different than being secret," Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, told us. "The Iranians will have to brief their lawmakers, their decision-makers. The Obama administration will have to brief theirs. I think they will probably reveal more than is available to folks like you and me."

Both Kimball and Nephew emphasized the importance of ensuring that any elements of the agreement that are not made public won't allow for the agreement itself to fall apart down the road. "Both sides need to demonstrate their core interests will be met and there are no serious loopholes that will be exploited by the other side," Kimball said.

While the administration may see such ambiguity as vital, Congress is nonetheless wary. The full details of the interim agreement with Iran and six great powers reached at the end of 2013 was classified and shared with lawmakers only in a special reading room. This time Congress has passed a law requiring administration officials to provide it with all elements of any Iran agreement for a review period of 30 or 60 days, depending on whether it receives the documents before or after July 9.   

"For months on end, the administration conducted these negotiations in secret and then sought to make the deal on the president's authority alone, without ever exposing it to public debate or a vote by Congress," Jamil Jaffer, who until last month was chief counsel on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told us. "Now that Congress has taken that option off the table, it would be troubling, but not surprising, if the administration continued its longstanding effort to keep key elements of this deal away from public scrutiny." 

So far, senior U.S. officials have insisted that they intend to share all documents and understandings about any nuclear agreement with Congress. Expect lawmakers of both parties to scrutinize them carefully.

"Should a final agreement with Iran be reached, it will be incumbent upon all members of Congress to not prejudge the agreement, but rather, to rigorously and judiciously review the accord and, with a seriousness of purpose, fulfill our oversight responsibilities during the congressional review period," Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told us.

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To contact the authors on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net