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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

David Albright’s Hidden Talents

The head of the Institute for Science and International Security—aka “the Good ISIS”—recently demonstrated again his penchant for using sloppy analysis as a basis for politically explosive charges about Iran, in this case using a faulty translation from Persian to misleadingly question whether Tehran is "mass producing advanced gas centrifuges."

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Nuclear proliferation expert and Iran nuclear agreement skeptic David Albright revealed a heretofore unknown talent on Tuesday: a mastery of the Persian language that apparently supersedes that of even native speakers of the language.

Earlier in the day, Albright’s Institute for Science and International Security—which bills itself as “the Good ISIS”—issued a report coauthored by Albright and Olli Heinonen of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, entitled “Is Iran Mass Producing Advanced Gas Centrifuges?” It seemed like a clear test of Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, which postulates that any headline that takes the form of a question can be answered with a “no.” Without getting ahead of ourselves, let’s just say that Ian Betteridge was on to something.

Albright and Heinonen’s report begins ominously:

Iran says it has initiated mass production of advanced centrifuges. Taken at face value, this statement implies that Iran could be in material breach of the nuclear deal. The mass production of these centrifuges (or their components) would greatly expand Iran’s ability to sneak-out or breakout to nuclear weapons capability or surge the size of its centrifuge program if the deal fails or after key nuclear limitations end. The United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) need to determine what Iran is doing and provide assurance that Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing is consistent with the nuclear deal.

The problem is that their entire argument rests on what turns out to be a mistranslation. They claim that, in April, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, “stated that Iran has initiated ‘mass production’ of several advanced centrifuges.” This would, indeed, constitute a serious violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But Ali Vaez, Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group and—this is important—a native Persian speaker, took to Twitter to explain that the Good ISIS was relying on a mistranslation of Salehi’s remarks. On Tuesday afternoon he tweeted in response to the Albright-Heinonen report that “Salehi said Iran has the capacity to mass produce advance centrifuges, not that it’s doing so.”

Vaez’s clarification would mean that Iran has not admitted to mass-producing advanced centrifuges and thus is not violating the JCPOA. At this point it might also be helpful to point out that the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has the jurisdiction to inspect Iran’s centrifuge production facilities, has said nothing about Iran breaching the JCPOA in this way. Even the Trump administration, which loathes the deal to its collective core, grudgingly admitted in April that Iran is in compliance with the agreement’s terms.

Faced with evidence from a native Persian speaker that Albright and Heinonen had relied on a mistranslation of Salehi’s remarks, what did Albright and the Good ISIS do? Did they walk back their inflammatory report? Acknowledge their error? Ignore Vaez altogether?

No! Incredibly, the Good ISIS appears to believe that it understands Persian better than Vaez. Responding to Vaez on Twitter, the Good ISIS tweeted “What you [Vaez] say seems doubtful given the structure of Salehi’s comments.” It’s unclear what, exactly, about the “structure of Salehi’s comments” makes it doubtful that Vaez understands Persian better than Albright and Heinonen, who relied on an English translation in writing their report, presumably because neither speaks Persian well enough to interpret what Salehi said for themselves.

This Kafkaesque situation continued. When Vaez noted that he’d listened to Salehi’s interview in the original Persian, and reiterated, as though it were necessary, that he’s a native Persian speaker, the Good ISIS switched tactics, insisting that its report was only raising concerns about flaws in the IAEA’s verification procedures. Albright and Heinonen also insisted that Salehi’s remarks, whatever they might have been, served to “highlight profound weaknesses in the JCPOA” (this is the Good ISIS’s favorite substance-free JCPOA criticism, the one about unspecified “weaknesses” that almost no other arms control experts seem to see). They hilariously accused Vaez of misquoting them, because he’d said Iran isn’t mass-producing advanced centrifuges while the Albright-Heinonen report only accused Iran of initiating the mass production of advanced centrifuges. If ever there were a distinction without a difference, this would be it.

The exchange included some of Albright’s well-established penchant for personally attacking his interlocutors, with the Good ISIS at one point accusing the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin of being “so biased you could not recognize a violation if it hit you on your head.” Albright accusing anyone else of bias when it comes to the JCPOA is truly a pot-and-kettle moment. The argument finally concluded with the Good ISIS reduced to arguing that “being capable of mass production is a problem too,” which may be true but is miles away from the urgency of the Albright-Heinonen report, which, to reiterate, accused Iran of actually mass-producing—excuse me, of initiating the mass production of—advanced centrifuges, not of having the capability to do so.

With the Trump administration scrambling for an excuse to undo the JCPOA, it would be advisable for the arms control community to deal strictly with the facts as regards Iran’s nuclear program rather than playing loose with the truth in order to feed a narrative. That Albright and Heinonen reacted to what they believed was a shocking admission from Tehran isn’t in itself problematic. The problem is that Albright and his organization refused to budge from their narrative when presented with evidence that their report’s key assumption was wrong. Of course, given Albright’s history of faux “objectivity” when it comes to Iran, perhaps it’s not surprising that he was unwilling to surrender such an appealingly anti-JCPOA story simply because it was factually wrong.

Update: Several hours after their exchange with Vaez, the Good ISIS tweeted this: “All—We were able to obtain our own translation and have revised report accordingly. Will re-issue tomorrow. Findings remain the same.” In other words, the Good ISIS published a report based entirely on the mistaken belief that Iran had initiated the mass production of advanced uranium centrifuges, but after learning that Iran has not initiated the mass production of advanced uranium centrifuges, that report’s findings haven’t changed. How can that possibly be? The answer has probably been lost in translation.

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