State Dep’t Clarifies Obama’s 'Muddled' Words on Iran Nuclear Breakout Time

Patrick Goodenough | April 8, 2015 | 4:40am EDT
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NPR’s Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep interviews President Obama at the White House on Monday, April 6, 2015. (Photo: Maggie Starbard/NPR)

( – President Obama appeared to concede this week that under a final nuclear deal, Iran -- after 13 or so years -- would be able to build a nuclear bomb quickly if it chooses to do so. But State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf insisted later that the words had been misread.

Harf told a daily briefing that Obama’s words “were a little mixed up” and “a little muddled,” saying they had referred to a hypothetical state of affairs in which an agreement had not been reached, rather than the situation as it will be in 13 years’ time under a negotiated agreement.

A crucial declared achievement in last week’s framework agreement is extending Iran’s “breakout” time – the period of time it would take the Iranians to acquire the material needed for one nuclear weapon, once it initiates the work – to at least one year, from current estimates of two or three months.

According to the State Department, that minimum one-year breakout situation will pertain “for a duration of at least ten years.”

In an interview with NPR, Obama spoke of concerns that after 13-15 years, Iran could “have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.”

He then noted that current 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,” he said, “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,” Obama continued. “We have much more insight into their capabilities. And the option of a future president to take action if in fact they try to obtain a nuclear weapon is undiminished.”

That seeming acknowledgement that after 13 or so years, Iran’s breakout time will be “much shorter” than the one-year minimum set for the intermediate years came up at the State Department briefing.

“I would like to go to Iran and the president’s rather unusual sales job in this most recent interview in which he said that after 13 years, Iran would have the capability or could have the capability to produce a weapon,” began the Associated Press’ Matt Lee. “Is the idea simply –”

Harf interrupted, “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.”

“But I thought that without a deal, they could – they’re at breakout in two to three months, not 13 years,” Lee said.

“Right, right. He wasn’t saying something different,” Harf replied. “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.”

Asked what the breakout time would be under the deal after 13 years, Harf said that such issues remain a subject of negotiation.

Given that we’re still – 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 onto those years at this point, but obviously we want as long of a breakout time for as long as possible,” she said.

In an assessment of the framework agreement reached in Switzerland last week, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz wrote in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday that, under the proposed deal, “for 10 years Iran will never be further than one year from a nuclear weapon and, after a decade, will be significantly closer.”

(A full transcript of the president’s NPR interview is here.)

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