WASHINGTON (AP) — Iran could be able to obtain a nuclear weapon much more quickly after the first 13 years of the emerging nuclear deal, President Barack Obama acknowledged Tuesday. Yet he said that with no deal, the world would be even less equipped to stop it.
Under the framework announced last week, Iran would be kept at least one year away from a bomb for the first decade of the deal, Obama said as he sought to sell the deal to skeptics. Yet that constraint would stay in place only for 10 years, at which point some restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities would be eased.
"Essentially, we're purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years assurances that the breakout is at least a year," Obama said in an NPR News interview. "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.
Breakout time refers to how long it would take to build a bomb if Iran decided to pursue one full-bore — in other words, how long the rest of the world would have to stop it. U.S. intelligence officials estimate Iran's breakout time is currently two to three months.
Obama's comments to NPR appeared to suggest that even with a nuclear deal, Iran could shrink its breakout period to almost zero once the initial restrictions expire. But Obama administration officials clarified later Tuesday that Obama was arguing that even a shorter breakout period in the out-years would be preferable to what Iran could do if there were no agreement at all.
"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," said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.
Despite their assurances, Obama and his aides have not specified how long it would take Iran to build a bomb after the first 13 or so years of the deal. Harf said it would be more than zero — meaning the world would still have some time to act — but didn't say whether that period would be longer or shorter than Iran's current breakout period of two to three months.
"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," she said.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, reacted tersely to Obama's comments, arguing that the president had confirmed what critics of the deal have long feared. He said Tehran was taking the long view and cautioned that the Iranian regime could exploit the easing of restrictions to fulfill its ambitions of exporting revolution across the globe.
"It is clear that this 'deal' is a direct threat to peace and security of the region and the world," Boehner said. Considering Iran's history of evading international inspections, he added, "no one should believe that the proposed inspection and verification are bullet-proof."
The tough talk from Boehner suggested congressional leaders were continuing to sour on the framework deal that Obama and world leaders reached with Iran last week in Switzerland. Previously, Boehner had expressed serious concerns about the deal's parameters, but withheld full judgment until lawmakers had time to digest all the details.
Other top lawmakers, including some members of Obama's party, have been pressing for Congress to hold a vote on whether to approve the deal — a prospect Obama has rejected outright. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is pushing legislation that would also prevent Obama from using his own authority to temporarily waive existing U.S. sanctions while Congress debates the deal.
The White House raised a new concern to Corker's bill on Tuesday, objecting to a provision that would require the administration to eventually certify to Congress that Iran is not carrying out terrorist attacks against Americans. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that provision "essentially makes the agreement contingent upon Iran renouncing terrorism."
"Now, that's an unrealistic suggestion, because we've been very clear that this agreement is focused on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," Earnest said. "That it is not going to succeed in resolving the long list of concerns that we have with Iran's behavior."
The wrangling over the finer points of the deal came as the president seeks to quiet a growing chorus questioning whether the deal he and world leaders have negotiated merely delays the certainty of a nuclear-armed Iran. Obama has insisted confidently that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon on his watch, which ends in roughly 20 months, but has made no similar assurances about his successors.
Tehran has always maintained it doesn't want a nuclear bomb, but the international community has been skeptical, and America's close ally Israel considers a nuclear Iran an existential threat.
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