Fact-Checker: Obama Over-Stated Progress in Halting Iran

January 22, 2015  

Experts on the negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear capabilities have taken issue with two main points made by U.S. President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address this week.

“Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran,” Obama said, “where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.”

Glen Kessler, author of the Washington Post’s Fact-Checker blog, quotes Olli Heinonen, who headed the safeguards section of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) during the 2003-2005 talks between Iran and the UK, France and Germany, and said, “It is true that 20-percent enriched uranium stocks have decreased, but Iran is still producing uranium enriched up to 5-percent uranium. The latter stocks have actually increased when you talk about stocks of UF6 [uranium hexafluoride] and other chemical compounds.” And regarding the centrifuges, he said that it is true that no new ones have been installed – but production of them continues – ready for installation on short notice.

David Albright, who heads Institute for Science and International Security, is quoted as saying Obama’s language was “a little bit odd.” It is not correct that the 3.5-percent enriched stock had been reduced, he said; rather, it has been converted from one form to another (oxide). A significant portion of 20-percent enriched material has also been retained as scrap, rather than converted into fuel.

A key Western goal of the talks is to extend the amount of time it would take Iran to “break out” period under which Iran could manufacture a nuclear weapon. Albright noted that the conversion of 3.5 percent to oxide form adds only about two weeks to the break-out period.

In short, Kessler said, Obama would have been a lot more accurate had he said, “We’ve slowed the progress of Iran’s nuclear program” instead of “we’ve halted” it. Similarly, he should have said that Iran has now reduced its stockpile “of the most dangerous nuclear material” – not of all nuclear material.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to Washington, which will focus on differences between the U.S. and Israel in the drive to stop Iran, will certainly bring out these points in full relief.

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