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.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Critics of the U.S. deal with Iran say they found evidence for their skepticism. They're focusing on a statement by President Obama in his interview this week with NPR News. In that talk on video, the president spoke frankly about an agreement that would not last forever, as many arms control agreements do not. Key provisions begin to expire after 10 years or 15 years or more, and that will require vigilance by his successors.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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. Keep in mind, though, currently, the 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.
INSKEEP: Purchasing assurances - buying time. Yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner blasted that remark by the president. Boehner said Obama's NPR interview shows the deal is, quote, "a direct threat to peace and security of the region and the world." Those who have aired misgivings about the agreement include Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. He's a journalist who's covered many of the key players in the U.S., Iran, Israel and beyond. Jeffrey, welcome back to the program.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Thank you for having me.
INSKEEP: First, does it surprise you that there's an expiration date on this deal?
GOLDBERG: No, because, Steve, as you know, these - these deals - all deals like this come with expiration dates. It would be nice to have a 20-year deal rather than a 10-year deal, but, you know, Iran was not going to agree to a forever-deal.
INSKEEP: So what does bother you, then?
GOLDBERG: Well, something in your interview is very interesting. You know, the goal of this agreement - of this framework agreement - is to at least keep the Iranian program frozen - right? - so that 10 years or 12 years from now, they're at the same place, more or less, that they are today at least, if not set back. But what you - what you heard from the president in your interview was a kind of suggestion that, during this period, they might actually advance in their research and development.
This is one of the big controversies about this deal, that during this frozen period, during the period in which they are constrained by the agreement, that they will actually be allowed to develop faster, more sophisticated centrifuges, so that when they emerge from the backend of this deal, they will be able to spin much more sophisticated centrifuges and move toward nuclear breakout, at least theoretically, much faster than they could today. So that's one of the challenges that they have in going forward and trying to get a final agreement.
INSKEEP: Well, now, the president said a little more in this NPR interview. He said, you know, 10 or 15 years from now, we'll have 10 or 15 years of information from the inspections that the agreement allows. And he argues, anyway, that Iran will still be forbidden at that time from making nuclear weapons. Is that reassuring to you at all?
GOLDBERG: Somewhat. You know, but the big - the person that 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. It is true that we'll have good insight into the program, or hopefully, you know, better insight at least. But what the president is doing - and this is fair because President Obama can't control the future 15 years down the road completely. But what he's saying, essentially, is that the next president or the president after the next president is going to have to be particularly vigilant about Iran when it emerges from this deal. And so the question is, what can he do in the next three months to make sure that Iran does not emerge 10 or 15 years from now with a really advanced program?
INSKEEP: In just about 10 seconds, what is one thing he could do?
GOLDBERG: One thing he could do is negotiate a framework agreement, negotiate the final agreement so that Iran is limited in what it can do in research and development.
INSKEEP: OK, Jeffrey, thanks very much.
GOLDBERG: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. You can take a look, by the way, at President Obama's full interview for yourself at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.