Omri Ceren emailed another update on the pending arrangement with Iran yesterday afternoon. If you’ve been following Omri’s comments here, this should be of interest:
Just wanted to make sure you had the full text of President Obama’s interview in your inbox [omitted here]. There’s a particular quote that has gotten a lot of attention, and which was the source of a bit of confusion at today’s State Department press briefing. The President acknowledged that Iran’s breakout time would shrink to zero after 13-15 years under the JCPOA:
“What is a more relevant fear would be that in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero. Keep in mind, though, currently, the breakout times are only about two to three months by our intelligence estimates. So essentially, we’re purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years assurances that the breakout is at least a year … that — that if they decided to break the deal, kick out all the inspectors, break the seals and go for a bomb, we’d have over a year to respond. And we have those assurances for at least well over a decade. And then in years 13 and 14, it is possible that those breakout times would have been much shorter, but at that point we have much better ideas about what it is that their program involves.”
Under that scenario there will be no way to physically prevent them from building a nuclear weapon, and they would be able to go nuclear at will. How the White House intends to spin the concession is still a bit unclear. There was open confusion about the issue at today’s State Department briefing. Spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters – somewhat weirdly – that the President wasn’t talking about a post-JCPOA world, but in fact a world in which the JCPOA wasn’t passed:
“That quote I think that people are referring to – I think his words were a little mixed up there – but what he was referring to was a scenario in which there was no deal. And if you go back and look at the transcript I know it’s a little confusing – I spoke to the folks at the White House and read it a few times – it’s my understanding that he was referring to – even though it was a little muddled in the words – to a scenario in which there was no deal… it was more of a hypothetical, ‘well look, without a deal, this is what could possibly happen.’ He was not indicating what would happen under an agreement in those years.”
The State Department will need to come up with a new spin on the President’s comments. Otherwise they’re going to get accused of blatantly trying to gaslight reporters.
The President wasn’t muddled at all. He said that right now the Iranians have a 3 month breakout time, the deal extends that breakout time to a 1 year for the next 13 years, at which point the breakout time shrinks to 0: “we’re purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years assurances that the breakout is at least a year.”
Then he acknowledge the cost of the purchase was steep – a breakout time of 0 after year 13 – but said at least transparency measures will have allowed us to develop a picture of the Iranian program: “in years 13 and 14, it is possible that those breakout times would have been much shorter, but at that point we have much better ideas about what it is that their program involves.”
If you read the full transcript, he was specifically responding to a question about whether the deal was worth it given concessions on Iran’s stockpile: he dismissed the stockpile concern, then said the “more relevant fear” had to do with the sunset provisions that would allow Iran to have a 0 breakout time after year 13. There’s no room for reinterpretation here.
The substantive problem, of course, is the one that the AP’s Matt Lee pointed out in today’s briefing: under a scenario with a breakout time of 0, the transparency measures will at best allow us to watch the Iranians as they build nuclear weapons. We won’t have time to do anything. Lee might have added that the President himself said in the NPR interview that the Iranian regime is unlikely to change, either in general or in its commitment to the eradication of Israel. But the power outage hit the State Department, more or less delaying any reckoning for another day.
But that’s a different debate. It can’t even be discussed until State and the White House figure out what they’re saying about the President’s NPR interview. Look for that to happen before the news cycle, if only because they’ll have to.
Omri cutes the State Department briefing posted by C-SPAN here (timestamp: 9:30).