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Obama's Remarks On Nuclear Deal Provide Fuel For Critics

President Obama is pressing hard for a nuclear agreement with Iran. But critics have cited his remark that Iran's 'breakout' time for acquiring nuclear material for a bomb might be very brief as parts of the deal expire.
Maggie Starbard

As President Obama makes his sales pitch for a nuclear deal with Iran, critics have seized on his remark that Iran's "breakout" time for acquiring the nuclear material needed for a bomb could shrink as restrictions ease after about 13 years.

In an interview Monday with NPR, the president said the framework agreement would greatly reduce Iran's nuclear stockpile for more than a decade and give inspectors unprecedented access. If Iran wanted to enrich enough uranium to make a bomb, the breakout time would be a year or more, up from an estimated two to three months at present, Obama said.

"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," the president told NPR's Steve Inskeep.

But Obama also said: "What is a more relevant fear would be that in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero."

House Speaker John Boehner was among the Republicans who cited this as a sign of the plan's weakness.

"It is clear that this 'deal' is a direct threat to peace and security of the region and the world," Boehner said. "No one should believe that the proposed inspection and verification are bulletproof."

Asked about Obama's remarks, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday, "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."

Last week's agreement was a general framework, but many technical details must still be worked out by the June 30 deadline for a final deal. One key question is how much research and development Iran would be able to conduct during the first 10 years of an agreement. After that, the restrictions begin to ease.

A White House statement outlining the parameters of the framework agreement said Iran "will engage in limited research and development with its advanced centrifuges," but did not provide more specific information.

Middle East analyst Jeffrey Goldberg, speaking Wednesday on NPR's Morning Edition, said it's unrealistic to expect any agreement to last in perpetuity.

"Iran was not going to agree to a forever deal," said Goldberg, who writes for The Atlantic.

However, he said negotiations to reach a final deal should focus on keeping Iran from advancing its research and development while the agreement is in place.

"This is one of the big controversies about this deal," he said. The final agreement should not enable Iran to "emerge from the back end of this deal [and] spin much more sophisticated centrifuges and move toward nuclear breakout, at least theoretically, much faster than they could today."

"The person we're not talking about in all of this is the person who's going to be president 10 or 15 years from now. Because a lot is going to be riding on that person's shoulders," Goldberg added.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.