I gotta tell ya: If you don’t have major doubts about President Obama’s framework deal to deny Iran nuclear weapons after reading the transcript of his interview Tuesday with National Public Radio, you must be a real fan boy (or girl). Mr. Obama’s answers to questions posed by “Morning Edition” host Steve Inskeep alarmingly indicate that the president doesn’t know what can be expected of the agreement, especially on the crucial question of what kind of “breakout” capability Iran would retain if his own goals are achieved.
“Breakout” refers to the time it would take Iran to enrich enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon upon deciding to do so, and the time Iran would need once any restrictions are lifted. (The framework consists mainly of fixed-term provisions, which vary from 10 to 25 years.) According to the president, Iran today is poised to become a nuclear weapons state in between two and three months.
Mr. Obama and other deal supporters maintain that the greatest achievement of the framework is extending this breakout time to “at least a year.” Critics keep asking, “And then what?” Buying time can be a worthy, even vital, goal in international relations. But worries understandably persist that whatever regime is in power in Tehran at that point could promptly relaunch a drive to go nuclear, and leave the volatile, oil-rich Middle East and the rest of the world right back at Square One. His NPR remarks represent an Obama answer that is shockingly muddled.
Asked about the situation when the prospective deal expires, the president told Inskeep that as long as it remains (successfully) in force, the agreement would ensure that Iran’s enriched uranium would remain diluted far below weapons-grade level. Therefore, Tehran is “not going to have been able to horde a bunch of uranium that somehow they then convert to weapons-grade uranium….” And so critics shouldn’t worry that this enriched unanium will be permitted to stay inside the country.
But in the very next sentence, the president appeared to directly contradict himself, claiming that “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.”
He made yet another seemingly different argument moments later:
“[E]ssentially, 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….”
So which is it as the deal starts expiring – “almost” zero breakout time, or a breakout time that would be “much shorter” than “over a year”?
The president’s formulations were confusing enough that they prompted an “I told you so” from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – who of course has slammed the president’s approach nearly from the beginning. Partly as a result, the State Department was moved to issue this supposed clarification. Said Foggy Bottom spokeswoman Marie Harf, “I cannot be more clear about this. He was referring to a scenario in which there is no deal. It may not be clear in the transcript. I’m telling you what my colleagues at the White House” say he was referring to.
The breakout issue of course is far from the only concern surrounding the framework. Comparably important, for example, are the major questions that even the president acknowledges must be answered regarding verification and enforcement procedures.
But matters like these are still understandably up in the air because Mr. Obama doesn’t have complete control over them. And although I’m skeptical, it’s certainly defensible to insist that they can be resolved acceptably through further negotiations. The president’s own assessment of what a final deal can accomplish is entirely a function of his own capabilities, and those of his administration. If at this stage he’s not sure about critical details of what he’s trying to achieve, how can anyone hoping to keep Iran non-nuclear trust in any final agreement he signs?