Washington walks back ‘near-zero’ Iran breakout time comment

Obama was referring to a scenario, 13-15 years hence, in which there was no nuclear deal, claims State Department

US President Barack Obama looks at a tablet while walking to the West Wing of the White House in Washington, DC,  on April 7, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Brendan Smialowski)
US President Barack Obama looks at a tablet while walking to the West Wing of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 7, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

The State Department denied on Tuesday that President Barack Obama had acknowledged Iran will be able to build nuclear weapons at will after 13 years under the emerging nuclear deal.

In an interview with NPR Tuesday, Obama appeared to say that the deal would leave Iran with near-zero breakout time to a bomb within 13 years.

Breakout time refers to how long it would take Iran to build a bomb if it decided to pursue one full-bore — in other words, how long the rest of the world would have to stop it from producing a nuclear weapon. The framework deal, if honored, expands Iran’s breakout time — currently two to three months, according to American assessments — to at least a year. But that constraint would stay in place only for 10 years, at which point some restrictions would start phasing out.

Obama, whose top priority at the moment is to sell the framework deal to critics, was pushing back on the charge that the deal fails to eliminate the risk because it allows Iran to keep enriching uranium. He told NPR that Iran will be capped for a decade at 300 kilograms of enriched uranium — not enough to convert to a stockpile of weapons-grade material.

“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,” Obama said.

But according to State Department acting spokesperson Marie Harf, Obama “was referring to 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 he was referring to — even though it was a little muddled in the words — a scenario in which there was no deal.”

In a briefing Tuesday, Harf noted that some of the restrictions that would be in place during those years have not yet been negotiated.

“Part of the negotiations remains what happens to some of those pieces in those further-on years. I don’t have a specific breakout time to put on to those years at this point, but obviously we want as long of a breakout time for as long as possible. So it would not be zero,” Harf said.

The logic of the State Department assertion was hard to follow: It’s unclear why Obama would have put the zero-breakout point at 13-15 years hence in the absence of a deal, when the US has said it believes Iran is currently only two to three months from breaking out to a nuclear weapon, and has thus set a goal for the nuclear negotiations of pushing that figure back to at least a year.

In addition, the terms of the outline deal would see many restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program expire after 10 years, long before the 13- to 15-year mark cited by Obama. Still, many of the terms of the nuclear deal have yet to be hammered out — negotiators face a June 30 deadline for a final accord — and the president, or Harf, could have been alluding to longer-term provisions that have yet to be agreed with the Iranians.

In his interview, Obama also said the world would have better insight into Iran’s capabilities because of extensive inspections in the earlier years.

“The option of a future president to take action if in fact they try to obtain a nuclear weapon is undiminished,” Obama said.

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