Speaking of the Iran deal (1)

There is no more important issue before us at the moment than the catastrophic Iran deal negotiated by President Obama with Iran. Yesterday Secretaries Kerry and Moniz disseminated their talking points in favor of the deal on the Sunday morning gabfests. Omri Ceren has commented on the talking points in a series of email messages this morning, of which this is the first. Omri writes:

Happy Monday from Washington DC, where today’s conversation is going to be about the talking points rolled out yesterday by Secretaries Kerry and Moniz as they toured all five major Sunday morning news shows to defend the Iran deal.

When you reconstruct what happened accross the five shows, Kerry and Moniz ended up trying to address all three of the broad questions about the deal: will it work to keep Iran away from a nuclear weapon for a decade (the verification debate); even if it works, is it worth the cost of empowering Iran with advanced weapons and hundreds of billions of dollars (the arms embargo debate); doesn’t the deal make Iran into a nuclear power – the opposite of what it was supposed to do – because it expires and allows Iran’s breakout time to go to zero (the sunset clause debate). You should expect walkbacks today on their answers in each category, many of which were simply false, soon to be followed by a new set of talking points.

The sunset clause is arguably the most basic flaw of the final JCPOA: instead of dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, the deal puts it under international protection until, 15 years from now, Iran emerges as a legal nuclear power with the ability to build a nuclear weapon at will. Kerry and Moniz were pressed on the concession on CNN and Fox News [a][b].

They had a couple of answers: (1) that the Obama administration couldn’t do any better because President Bush let the Iranians get too far (the problem here will be Kerry’s characterization of where the Iranians were in January 2009, which was off by roughly 15,000 centrifuges and 11,000 kg of uranium) (2) that the Iranians will never get to zero breakout (it’s genuinely unclear what Kerry and Moniz think they mean).

(1) The Obama administration couldn’t do any better because President Bush let the Iranians get too far

CNN State of the Union
QUESTION: I’ve spoken to a lot of experts, ones who wanted this deal to be good, who were rooting for you. And they say the best case scenario is that over the next 15 years… the Iranians will be closer to the capacity to build a nuclear weapon… and they’ll have done it all under the guise of international law.
KERRY: … Guess what, my friend: Iran had 12,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, and that’s enough if they enriched it further for 10 to 12 bombs. They had it. That’s what Barack Obama was dealt as a hand when he came in: 19,000 centrifuges already spinning; a country that had already mastered the fuel cycle; a country that already was threshold in the sense that they are only two months away from breakout.

Fox News Sunday
QUESTION: Secretary Moniz… why didn’t [President Obama] keep his pledge to the American people that we would end Iran’s program?
MONIZ: Well, first of all, the issue of Iran having a nuclear program was already established in the previous administration.

Every single part of the Kerry claim is false. The Iranians didn’t have 12,000 kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU) when Obama took office they had 0 kg of HEU. Kerry might have been thinking of the 12,000 kg of low enriched uranium (LEU) they had by 2014, but that doesn’t work either because the Iranians stockpiled most of that under Obama: as of February 2009 they only had 1,010 kg of LEU [c]. They also didn’t have “19,000 centrifuges already spinning” they had 3,936 centrifuges spinning [d]. And they were not 2 months away from breakout but instead were just getting around to stockpiling enough uranium for a single bomb [e].

What actually happened under President Obama is almost exactly the opposite. When he took office the Iranians had less than 4,000 centrifuges spinning and experts were still arguing over whether they had enough uranium for a bomb. He almost immediately began to reach out to the Iranians with confidence-building measures [f]. Meanwhile he fought against Congressional efforts to impose new sanctions [g] [h]. As part of his justification for urging inaction he misled the public and American allies about how rapidly the Iranians were reducing their breakout time, until they eventually got to 2 months [i]. Nonetheless Congress repeatedly ignored administration excuses – including that new legislation would unravel international support for sanctions and crash the global economy – and by the summer of 2013 the Iranian economy was in a downward spiral and on the brink of a regime-threatening collapse [j]. Then in November 2013 the administration secured the interim JPOA, which loosened sanctions and allowed Iran to stabilize its economy [k]. Then in July 2015 the administration secured the final JCPOA, which puts obligates the international community to work with Iran on its nuclear program until the Iranians will legally have achieved a zero breakout time [l].

(2) The Iranians will never get to zero breakout

Fox News Sunday
QUESTION: But the President said in April:
OBAMA: In year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges, they can enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.
QUESTION: That’s not ending the program.
MONIZ: The breakout time, in fact, will not be going to zero at that time.
QUESTION: So the President was —
MONIZ: The – I’m just telling you we have the agreement has – the final agreement has the one-year breakout time securely for 10 years and then there will be a soft landing after that for several years.
QUESTION: Right. So by year 13, 14 it’s —
KERRY: It never, ever goes to zero. Ever.
MONIZ: No, it will never go to zero.

This claim is not clarified anywhere, nor is it clear what a clarification would look like. The administration sometimes uses a not-false-just-misleading version of this talking point as part of its messaging for why the JCPOA is a “forever promise” or “forever agreement”: the modified version is that the deal never expires because Iran is forever prohibited by the NPT from building a nuclear weapon. But that’s not a very compelling argument since Iran is already a member of the NPT regardless of the JCPOA, and anyway that’s not what Kerry and Moniz were saying here. Moniz seemed to be saying that Iran won’t get to zero breakout until after year 15 (“a soft landing after that for several years”) but then both he and Kerry went further and said the breakout time will never shrink to zero.

They might be leaning on some kind of pedantic point that it would physically take the Iranians a day or two to break out, but that’s what everyone means by zero breakout. Otherwise it’s very difficult to imagine what they could mean. The JCPOA restrictions on centrifuge R&D sunset at year 8. The restrictions on uranium stockpiling and enrichment sunset at year 15. In a decade and a half the Iranians will have as many advanced centrifuges as they want enriching as much uranium as they want to whatever levels they want. It’s the definition of a zero breakout capability.

Note that in the State Department transcript Kerry’s final line about breakout never going to zero is rendered as “Never, ever – (inaudible) ever.” But you can make it out in the Fox video as “It never, ever goes to zero. Ever.” [m].

[a] http://m.state.gov/md245052.htm
[b] http://m.state.gov/md245056.htm
[c] http://www.isisnucleariran.org/assets/pdf/IAEA_Report_Iran_Feb_2009.pdf
[d] http://www.isisnucleariran.org/assets/pdf/IAEA_Report_Iran_Feb_2009.pdf
[e] http://fas.org/blogs/security/2009/02/irans-uranium-dont-panic-yet/
[f] http://www.wsj.com/articles/iran-wish-list-led-to-u-s-talks-1435537004
[g] http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/obamas-tortured-history-with-sanctions-against-iran/article/2539865
[h] http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/12/01/menendez-livid-at-obama-teams-push-to-shelve-iran-sanctions-amendment/
[i] http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-04-21/obama-kept-iran-s-short-breakout-time-a-secret
[j] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/01/world/middleeast/iran-staggers-as-sanctions-hit-economy.html
[k] http://www.defenddemocracy.org/media-hit/press-release-roubini-report-sanctions-relief-economic-recovery/
[l] http://www.npr.org/2015/04/07/397933577/transcript-president-obamas-full-npr-interview-on-iran-nuclear-deal
[m] http://video.foxnews.com/v/4362510895001/secretaries-kerry-and-moniz-defend-iran-nuclear-deal/?#sp=show-clips