President Donald Trump’s Wednesday tweet on the Iran nuclear deal contained three inaccurate claims.
“Iran has long been secretly ‘enriching,’ in total violation of the terrible 150 Billion Dollar deal made by John Kerry and the Obama Administration,” Trump tweeted. “Remember, that deal was to expire in a short number of years.”
Facts First: All three parts of this tweet are wrong. International nuclear monitors and Trump’s own intelligence officials say Iran complied until recently with the agreement’s limits on its enrichment activities. Trump exaggerated the amount of money Iran gained access to because of the agreement. And he mischaracterized the deal by saying the whole thing would soon “expire.”
Let’s go through the claims one by one.
No evidence Iran was secretly enriching
There is no public evidence to support Trump’s claim that Iran “has long been secretly ‘enriching.'” The claim has been contradicted by the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose monitors were tasked with ensuring that Iran was complying with the terms of the 2015 deal, as well as by independent experts and by Trump’s own top intelligence officials.
Iran announced this week that it was breaching a limit on uranium enrichment set by the agreement. But there was no evidence Iran had broken its enrichment promises under the agreement until now, much less that it had “long” done so.
“There is absolutely no truth to that statement. Iran has not, repeat not, been enriching in secret,” said Gary Sick, an Iran expert who served on the National Security Council under Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
Trump withdrew the US from the multi-country agreement, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in May 2018. According to public comments from Trump’s intelligence officials and the IAEA, Iran continued to comply with the enrichment provisions of the agreement, and the rest of the agreement’s provisions, for the next year.
The agreement limited Iran, for 15 years, to enriching uranium to a maximum of a 3.67% concentration of a fissile isotope called U-235. That is a U-235 level suitable for use in a nuclear reactor but far from the approximately 90% suitable for use in a nuclear weapon.
As of this spring, the IAEA certified that Iran was still complying with the 3.67% limit. In a May 31 report, the IAEA again said: “Iran has not enriched uranium above 3.67% U-235.”
In January, US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Central Intelligence Agency director Gina Haspel, both of whom Trump appointed, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Iran kept abiding by the terms of the agreement even after the US withdrew.
Brett McGurk, who served as anti-ISIS special envoy under Trump and Barack Obama and before that as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, cast doubt on Trump’s claim in his own tweets on Wednesday. Noting that Trump’s assertion was “totally contrary to the unanimous assessment of our own intelligence community” earlier in the year, he said it was “likely to further undermine American credibility in these partner capitals.”
Trump, of course, has access to secret intelligence we do not. But he has presented no proof whatsoever that his top intelligence appointees and international experts have been incorrect.
Trump’s $150 billion figure is too high
Trump has repeatedly claimed that the agreement involved a $150 billion payment the US made to Iran. He was a little vaguer than usual this time, but his claim that this was a “150 Billion Dollar deal” was still inaccurate.
The US did not pay Iran even tens of billions of American dollars in the agreement. Rather, the US agreed to unfreeze a significant sum of Iran’s assets that had been frozen in international financial institutions, predominantly outside the US, because of sanctions against Iran.
Trump did not invent the $150 billion figure out of thin air: Obama himself mused in a 2015 interview about Iran having “$150 billion parked outside the country.” But experts on Iran policy, and Obama’s own administration, said that the quantity of assets the agreement actually made available to Iran was much lower.
In 2015, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew put the number at $56 billion. PolitiFact reported that Garbis Iradian, chief economist at the Institute of International Finance, put it at about $60 billion, and that Nader Habibi, professor of economics of the Middle East at Brandeis University, thought it was between $25 billion and $50 billion after discussing the issue with officials at Iran’s Central Bank.
Adam Szubin, a senior Treasury Department official, testified to Congress in 2015 that the “usable liquid assets” would total “a little more than $50 billion.” The rest of Iran’s foreign assets, he said, were either tied up in “illiquid” projects “that cannot be monetized quickly, if at all, or are composed of outstanding loans to Iranian entities that cannot repay them.”
The agreement wouldn’t have expired soon
Trump could have accurately said that some central provisions of the agreement would have expired in the next 10 to 15 years. But the deal as a whole — including a blanket prohibition on Iran developing nuclear weapons — was written to continue in perpetuity.
“It’s not accurate to say the deal expires,” said Naysan Rafati, Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Certain clauses of the deal expire and a lot of the key clauses don’t expire.”
The deal includes important sunset clauses. Its limits on the number of first-generation centrifuges Iran can possess, and on the research and development of more advanced centrifuges, are scheduled to end in 2025. The 3.67% uranium purity limit is to end in 2030.
So is the 300-kilogram limit on Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, which Iran said last week it has now broken. And so is the ban on building a new heavy-water reactor and on reprocessing spent fuel, which effectively bars Iran from developing a plutonium weapon.
However, some of the limits in the deal extend past 2030 — and some do not expire at all. Centrifuge production sites are to be under continuous surveillance until 2035. Iran’s uranium mines and mills are to be monitored until 2040.
Other provisions were written to be in place in perpetuity. For example, Iran is permanently required to provide advance notice of plans to build a nuclear facility. Iran promised that it will not “ever” seek a nuclear weapon. And IAEA monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities is to continue indefinitely.