(CNSNews.com) – When President Obama 15 months ago appeared to concede that under the nuclear deal Iran would, after 13 or so years, be able to build a nuclear bomb relatively quickly if it decided to do so, the State Department asserted that his words had been “a little muddled” and misconstrued.
But those remarks are now in the spotlight, after the emergence of an official document outlining Iran’s plans to expand its uranium enrichment program a decade into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The Associated Press obtained and reported Monday on the confidential document, which indicates that a little over a decade into the deal, Iran plans to install centrifuges far more efficient than those it is currently restricted to using.
Centrifuges are devices that spin at high speeds to enrich uranium, producing fuel for nuclear power plants or, when enriched to very high levels, for nuclear weapons.
The advanced centrifuges Iran plans to install would be twice as efficient at enriching uranium, the report said, and as a result could reduce by half Iran’s so-called “breakout” time – the time needed to acquire the material needed for one nuclear weapon, once the work begins – from an estimated one year down to six months.
One of the JCPOA’s key accomplishments, promoted by the administration as it sold the deal to Congress and the American people, is the extension of Iran’s breakout time from 2 to 3 months to one year.
The document obtained by AP – not part of the JCPOA itself, but an Iranian submission to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – raises questions about that, underlining critics’ concerns about JCPOA sunset clause easing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program after 10-15 years.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Tuesday rejected the notion that the document acquired by AP was “secret,” though he acknowledged that it was not known to the public before Monday’s news report.
Characterizing it as Iran’s “R&D [research and development] plan,” he said it had been shared with the IAEA and with the U.S. and its P5+1 negotiating partners – Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
Toner conceded, however, that “it was not in the public domain.”
He said it had always been a provision of the nuclear agreement that Iran could begin to grow its enrichment capacity after a decade, “under the IAEA’s watchful eye.”
The administration was “confident that Iran’s enrichment capacity in the years after, I guess, year ten – the initial decade of the JCPOA – will undergo measured, incremental growth that is consistent with a peaceful civilian nuclear program.”
“And if, for whatever reason, Iran tries to pursue a military nuclear program, we’re confident that we have the safeguards in place and the access in place to the information, to the data, to the material that we need to watch that we can detect that,” Toner added.
Obama spoke of ‘much shorter’ breakout times
Between 2006 and 2010, six U.N. Security Council resolutions – five under the Bush administration and one under the Obama administration – demanded that Iran suspend “all” uranium enrichment.
But Tehran was adamant on its right to enrich, and during the marathon nuclear negotiations the P5+1 yielded. A Security Council resolution adopted exactly one year ago on Wednesday endorsed the JCPOA, and the provisions of all six of those earlier resolutions were terminated.
In April last year, Obama in an NPR interview made comments about Iran’s enrichment capacity under the nuclear deal that caused a stir.
He discussed concerns that, 13 to 15 years into the JCPOA, Iran could “have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.”
Obama pointed out that Iran’s breakout at the time he was speaking – April 2015 – was “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,” the president continued.
“We have much more insight into their capabilities,” Obama told NPR. “And the option of a future president to take action if in fact they try to obtain a nuclear weapon is undiminished.”
After the interview aired Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a leading critic of the nuclear deal, was quick to respond.
“Israel shares the view that upon the expiry of the nuclear agreement with Iran the latter’s breakout time to achieve nuclear weapons will be zero,” he said. “This will be the inevitable result of the automatic lifting of the restrictions, which would enable Iran to achieve an industrial-grade production capability.”
One of Toner’s predecessors at the State Department, Marie Harf, was then asked at a daily press briefing about Obama’s remarks.
“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,” Harf said.
“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,” a reporter contended.
“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 actually be under the deal after 13 years, Harf said the issue was still under negotiation.
Recalling Harf’s comments back then in the light of the AP’s report this week, Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) executive director Mark Dubowitz, an Iran expert, suggested Tuesday the former State Department spokeswoman was mistaken.
“Obama was confused about near-zero breakout time @marieharf once said,” Dubowitz tweeted. “Guess he really wasn’t.”