Misleading AP Story on Iran Deal Draws Fierce Critique

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Misleading AP Story on Iran Deal Draws Fierce Critique

Soon after publication of exclusive report, questions began to circulate about its accuracy and aim

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ali Akhbar Salehi at the signing of a roadmap for the clarification of past and present issues regarding Iran's nuclear program in Vienna on July 14, 2015. (Photo: IAEA Imagebank/flickr/cc)

An Associated Press exclusive report on the Iran nuclear program, published to much hoopla on Wednesday afternoon, appears to have been at best unintentionally misleading and at worst knowingly inaccurate, according to analyses of the reporting on Thursday.

"Iran will be allowed to use its own inspectors to investigate a site it has been accused of using to develop nuclear arms, operating under a secret agreement with the U.N. agency that normally carries out such work," the AP's George Zahn wrote, setting off backlash from conservatives who oppose the nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S., and five world powers. 

Reporting on the story and its aftermath, the Huffington Post wrote:

Critics of the Iranian nuclear deal declared vindication, citing the report as evidence that the broader nuclear agreement negotiated between Iran, the U.S. and five world powers was flawed. "How does this not set a precedent for future inspections at suspicious military sites in Iran?" asked House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), suggesting that the Iranians would be entrusted to oversee their own nuclear inspections going forward.

Indeed, "readers were given the impression that President Obama had made a catastrophically foolish concession to the Iranians; that our much-touted inspections regime was a big joke," Max Fisher wrote in a media critique for Vox on Thursday. "And indeed, a number of prominent political journalists tweeted out the story with exactly this alarmed interpretation."

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However, the HuffPo reports:

[N]o sooner had the report surfaced than questions began to circulate about its underlying assertions and the accuracy of its claims. Hours after publication, nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis noted on Twitter that the AP deleted several paragraphs that contained the most damning allegations about the way in which inspections would occur."

[...] The revised version of the exposé also scrubbed a paragraph that suggested IAEA inspectors would oversee Iranian scientists as they collected samples and photographs at Parchin, despite other parts of the report claiming that officials from the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency would be barred from entering the facility.

"The oldest Washington game is being played in Vienna. And that is leaking what appears to be a prejudicial and one-sided account of a confidential document to a friendly reporter, and using that to advance a particular policy agenda."
—Jeffrey Lewis, Middlebury College's Monterey Institute of International Studies

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for its part, rejected the AP's report as "a misrepresentation."

AP spokespeople insisted the details were cut for space—and no correction or explanation of the changes had been posted as of Thursday afternoon.

But in an interview with Vox, Lewis, the Middlebury College arms control expert cited by the HuffPo, suggested that the incident illustrated how mainstream media reporting can be used as a tool of manipulation in debates over foreign policy.

"The oldest Washington game is being played in Vienna," Lewis said. "And that is leaking what appears to be a prejudicial and one-sided account of a confidential document to a friendly reporter, and using that to advance a particular policy agenda."

Added Fisher: "This is certainly not the first time that someone has placed a strategic leak in order to achieve a political objective. But it is disturbing that the AP allowed itself to be used in this way, that it exaggerated the story in a way that have likely misled large numbers of people, and that, having now scrubbed many of the details, it has appended no note or correction explaining the changes. It is not a proud moment for journalism."

Still, according to the HuffPo, "momentum on Thursday appeared to be growing for ultimate passage of the deal."

Just after the AP story was published, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) announced he would vote in favor of the nuclear accord. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) followed suit Thursday morning, bringing the Obama administration eight votes away from what is needed to implement the agreement.

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