The National Council of Churches (NCC), along with a number of other Christian institutions in the United States, is supporting the Iran nuclear deal. In addition to promoting a pro-deal letter to Congress prepared by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the NCC co-sponsored a conference call on Aug 27, during which the organization’s General Secretary, Jim Winkler, encouraged 600-plus listeners to call lawmakers to vote in favor of the deal.
Other conference-call sponsors included Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street and Pax Christi, a Catholic peace organization.
During the conference call, Marie Herf, senior adviser for strategic communications at the U.S. State Department, expressed gratitude to representatives of faith-based communities for their support of the deal with Iran.
“It is very heartening and nice to have friends like all of you,” she said. Earlier in the call, she accused opponents of the Iran deal of spreading misinformation about the deal itself.
“There are a lot of misperceptions out there. Our opponents have a lot of money and a lot of egregious falsehoods that they’re putting out there, and it’s hard for us to do it all alone,” she said.
Harf also described opponents of the deal as “advocating for conflict, or all-out war or bombing to resolve this conflict.”
During the question-and-answer period, Harf was asked about a secret agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Iran. In response, she stated, “There are no secret agreements between the IAEA and Iran. There’s no agreements between them that we are not fully aware of in all the details and we have not fully briefed Congress on.”
Harf further explained that in its dealings with countries it inspects, the IAEA negotiates agreements that include a number of “technical secrets, if that’s the right word.”
“These agreements are always kept confidential between the IAEA and that country for very good sensitive technology reasons,” she said. While U.S. officials do not have the piece of paper describing the arrangements between the IAEA and Iran, they do know “every detail” of the agreement.
“Iran allowed and the IAEA insisted on briefing us and all of our P5+1 members on every detail of their technical agreement with Iran,” she said. “So we have every detail on that and we have briefed members of Congress on that.”
One concern about this side agreement that was not addressed during the question-and-answer period is that it allegedly gives Iran the ability to decide where to draw the samples when looking for evidence of nuclear activity. This “self-inspection” regime has prompted some concerns from knowledgeable experts.
On August 20, CNN quoted David Albright, an analyst who has inspected Iran’s nuclear facilities in the past, as expressing concerns over Iran’s ability to self-inspect.
“It’s really not normal, and you have to worry that this would set a bad precedent in the Iran context and in the context of other countries,” said Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. “I don’t know why they accepted it. I think the IAEA is probably getting a little desperate to settle this.”
Harf was also asked by one of the call’s organizers if Iran can delay inspections of its nuclear sites. She responded that in areas where Iran has declared nuclear facilities, the deal provides daily 24/7 access and transparency.
“So everywhere we know where nuclear activity is happening, we have 24/7 access,” she said.
In areas where there is a suspicion that Iran is engaging in illicit nuclear activity, access can be granted within 24 hours “and at the absolute most, 24 days.” Such a requirement exists nowhere else in the world, Harf said. All other countries being inspected by the IAEA can simply refuse inspection of facilities, she added.
“We thought that was a pretty extraordinary provision,” she said, adding it was the “first time we were able to get a time-bound end to that process.”
There is some question as to whether or not inspectors can get access to a site “at the absolute most” after 24 days, as Harf stated. On July 21, The Wall Street Journal published an article by Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby, which stated that the process would likely take as many as 63 or 78 days to play out.
None of these or other concerns were addressed during the conference call. Winkler ended the call with praise for Harf’s presentation.
“It was wonderful tonight to hear Marie Harf speak about the agreement in depth and to answer some questions,” Winkler said. “It certainly helped me. It is really important that we all work together for peace.”
In 2007, Winkler participated in a controversial meeting with then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The National Council of Churches is an umbrella organization of mainline Protestant and Orthodox Christian Churches in the United States, which, according to Winkler, have a total of 30 million members.