Peter Thiel. Picture: REUTERS
Peter Thiel. Picture: REUTERS

Vienna — Silicon Valley billionaire — and US President Donald Trump supporter — Peter Thiel has emerged as an unlikely player in the international debate over Iran’s nuclear deal with six world powers.

Thiel’s big-data engine, Palantir Technologies, is at the heart of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) system for verifying Iran’s compliance with the landmark 2015 agreement, according to officials familiar with the programme. The accord lifted years of punishing sanctions on the Islamic Republic in exchange for curbs on its ability to develop nuclear weapons.

Scrapping the accord, as Trump is threatening to do as early as Tuesday, would not only anger the other signatories — China, Russia, Germany, France and Britain — it would also hamstring the IAEA’s increasingly sophisticated ability to track the use of uranium in Iran and around the world, according to Ernest Moniz, who helped negotiate the deal as US secretary of energy.

"We have a completely unique and unparalleled intrusive verification regime that was not there before the agreement," Moniz said on PBS. If Trump kills the deal, "the number one downside is that we lose this regime".

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Trump not to scupper the accord during recent visits to Washington. Macron warned over the weekend that abrogation by the US could lead to war.

Israeli heist

Palantir has spent years modifying its predictive-policing software for inspectors at the Vienna-based IAEA, which was founded in 1957 to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The tool is at the analytical core of the agency’s new $50m Mosaic platform, turning databases of classified information into maps that help inspectors visualise ties between the people, places and material involved in nuclear activities, IAEA documents show.

That sets up Palantir, which Thiel and his partners built with CIA funding, as the platform of choice for assessing the documents Israel claims to have detailing Iran’s secret efforts to build a bomb. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Iran’s arch foe, announced the trove just days before Trump’s May 12 deadline to either make good on pledges to scrap the deal or extend sanctions relief.

Palantir, which Thiel and his partners built with CIA funding, [is] the platform of choice for assessing the documents Israel claims to have detailing Iran’s secret efforts to build a bomb

While experts say Netanyahu revealed little new, parties involved want the 55,000 files and 183 CDs he says Mossad agents stole in Tehran vetted through the IAEA. This could offer Trump a third option — re-instating penalties without officially abandoning the deal while the agency investigates, a process that could take years, according to Ali Vaez, a former Federation of American Scientists official, who runs the International Crisis Group’s Iran Project.

Whatever Trump decides, the "dirty" or unstructured data obtained by Mossad, which prides itself on deception, could serve as a stress test for Palantir’s nuclear analytics. Even a small amount of false information could trigger a flurry of unnecessary snap inspections and derail an agreement that took years to reach, Vaez said.

"Turning the access issue into a‘ gotcha’ exercise might very well be the ulterior motive," Vaez said. "The more the issue appears as a fishing expedition, the harder it will be for Iran to open its doors to inspectors."

Iran refuted Netanyahu’s allegations, calling his presentation, which was carried live by US cable news networks, "cartoonish". Trump’s issue with the deal isn’t compliance — the IAEA has certified Iran’s work 10 times — it’s that it doesn’t address the country’s missile programme or regional actions.

Trump dinner

Palantir’s role at the IAEA, which has access to information that governments don’t, has come under increasing scrutiny since the company revealed a worker’s misuse of Facebook data in March, according to diplomats and international officials. Also of concern for an international agency known for its independence are Thiel’s close personal ties to Trump, the people said.

Thiel, a PayPal co-founder and early Facebook investor, dined at the White House with Trump and the Israeli-born co-CEO of Oracle, Safra Catz, just hours after Trump spoke with Netanyahu about Iran on April 4.

A deputy White House press secretary, Lindsay Walters, declined to comment on what was discussed at the dinner. Palantir declined to comment. An IAEA spokesperson said the agency’s data-mining programme operates in "a secure environment" and within its "existing legal framework".

Palantir’s software helps the IAEA plan and justify unscheduled probes, which have totaled 60 in Iran since the agreement came into force in 2016. The amount of information available to inspectors that Palantir can process has jumped 30-fold in three years to some 400-million "digital objects" around the world, including social media feeds and satellite photographs inside Iran.

These enhanced investigative abilities, which are inextricably linked with the Iran deal, have raised concern that the IAEA may overstep the boundary between nuclear monitoring and intelligence-gathering.

Chasing shadows

Historically, IAEA inspectors have worked more like atomic accountants, tracking stockpiles of fissile material to ensure it isn’t diverted for weapons. But new methods of inspection — from Palantir’s analytics to mass spectrometry — have turned them into potential cyber-sleuths.

Russia’s envoy for non-proliferation issues, Vladimir Yermakov, said last month that the growing powers of the IAEA are only justified "if the safeguards system remains objective, de-politicised, technically credible, clear to the member states, and based on rights and obligations".

Other countries are also starting to worry about the agency’s expanding arsenal of surveillance tools. The Non-Aligned Movement, which includes Brazil and India, said the agency’s "integrity and credibility" are at stake.

Of equal concern is the false data that "predictive-analysis" systems such as Palantir’s can generate — either by accident or design, according to Andreas Persbo, who runs Vertic, a London-based company that advises governments on verification issues. "You will generate a false return if you add a false assumption into the system without making the appropriate qualifier," Persbo said. "You’ll end up convincing yourself that shadows are real."