The Impact of the Iran Nuclear Deal: Fact-Checking the Fact Checkers

Squadrons of fact-checking journalists have been deployed by news organizations over the past several months trying to provide some perspective on claims about key campaign issues, including the 2015 nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran that the Barack Obama administration and former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton have claimed credit for and that the Trump-Pence campaign has criticized.

Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.)Their effort to clarify the facts about these and other issues is vital to ensuring we have a more informed electorate. But sometimes the fact-checkers themselves – perhaps in their rush to provide information in near-real time on the candidates’ statements – garble complex technical issues or leave out key facts.

Last night during the course of the first and only debate between Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence, veteran diplomatic reporter Mark Landler from The New York Times, unnamed reporter(s) from ABC News, and veteran journalist Glenn Kessler from The Washington Post separately tried to fact check a Tim Kaine statement on the impact of the Iran deal, which Hillary Clinton when she was Sec. of State helped advance:

Kaine: "She [Clinton] worked a tough negotiation with nations around the world to eliminate the Iranian nuclear weapons program without firing a shot."

The following is an analysis of the fact-checking efforts of each of these news outlets:

ABC News graded Kaine’s statement “False” which is just not fair or accurate.

Kaine would have been more accurate if he had said: “The Iran deal verifiably blocks all of Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons for at least a decade, and probably more.”

It should also be noted that the U.S. intelligence community assessed in 2007 that Iran had halted an organized program for building nuclear weapons in 2003 but that some elements of the program continued but not in an organized manner. The 2015 Iran nuclear deal has certainly disrupted and probably has halted any remaining nuclear weapons development effort.

Furthermore, while the ABC News explanation of the Iran deal (quoted below) is partially correct, it omits key elements and also contains factual inaccuracies.

ABC News claimed that:

“The nuclear agreement reached between six world powers and Iran last year does not completely eliminate the Iranian nuclear program. Its major achievement, as told by the Obama administration, was getting Iran to commit to reduce its stockpile of nuclear material and cease further enrichment, effectively extending the time it would take Iran to build a bomb.”

ABC News made the sloppy error of conflating a “nuclear program” and “nuclear weapons program.” Kaine did not claim the Iran deal eliminated Iran’s entire nuclear program, only its nuclear weapons program.

ABC News and the other fact-checkers also omit mention of several of the other restrictions on Iran’s program that effectively block Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons for at least a decade or possibly more, including:

  • the verifiable removal of the core and conversion of Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor so it cannot produce plutonium that could be used for nuclear weapons;
  • an Iranian commitment not to engage in spent fuel reprocessing, which allows for the extraction of plutonium for 15 years, and possibly more;
  • a permanent prohibition on certain explosive experiments, which could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device;
  • new verification and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing and uranium mining to guard against an illicit, parallel nuclear program;
  • restrictions on research and development of more advanced types of centrifuge machines for a period of 10 years and restriction on their deployment for 13 years;
  • more rigorous International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring and inspections and earlier reporting to the IAEA of changes to Iran’s plans on an indefinite basis;
  • a process for additional IAEA inspections within a time-limited (maximum of 24 days) period to investigate sites of concern for a period of 15 years;
  • and a Joint Commission of the six powers, the European Union, and Iran to resolve compliance concerns.

ABC News also incorrectly suggests the nuclear deal got Iran to “cease further [uranium] enrichment.” It did not. Rather the 2015 nuclear deal:

  • limits Iran to using 5,060 first generation centrifuges for 10 years and limits to the deployment of advanced centrifuges so that Iran’s enrichment capacity remains the same for 13 years;
  • limits uranium enrichment to 3.67% U-235 for 15 years;
  • limits Iran to a stockpile of no more than 300kg of enriched uranium for 15 years;
  • bars all uranium enrichment at the Fordow facility for 15 years.

Landler at The New York Times dubbed Kaine’s statement an “exaggeration,” and we would agree that Kaine did somewhat overstate the impact of the deal.

Landler wrote:

Kaine’s assessment gives Hillary Clinton more credit than she or the Obama administration deserves. It is true that the nuclear agreement sharply cuts back the number of centrifuges and nuclear material Iran can have, prolonging the period of time Iran would need to manufacture a weapon."

But Landler does not help to clarify matters when he says:

"But it does not eliminate Iran's nuclear infrastructure, and the deal has a sunset clause, meaning Iran will be able to resume its work after the deal expires in 15 years.”

Some infrastructure is effectively “eliminated,” specifically the original Arak reactor, and the deal does not have a “sunset clause.” While key restrictions established by the Iran nuclear deal expire in 15 years, the agreement does not expire in 15 years. In fact, as our summary chart (below) shows, many key restrictions extend longer and some last indefinitely.

CLICK TO ENLARGE<br />Key Nuclear-Related Commitments and Limitations of the P5+1 and Iran Over TimeFurthermore, Landler is vague about what kind of “work” Iran could resume after the key uranium enrichment limits phase-out. He should be clear that it could possibly be the accumulation of more enriched uranium and uranium enrichment on a faster timeline and/or at higher levels using more advanced centrifuge machines, which could mean the time it could take Iran to amass enough material for one nuclear weapon could shrink from more than 12 months to just a few weeks, if such work were not detected first.

But it is also important to recognize that the other restrictions would not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons and all of its key activities would remain under rigorous IAEA safeguards that would very likely detect, within weeks, any effort to “break out” of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and try to build nuclear weapons.

Glenn Kessler’s take in The Post repeats the same simplistic, short-hand claim the Iran nuclear deal “expires in 15 years.” (*UPDATE: Since publication of this blog post, Mr. Kessler has adjusted The Washington Post article.) But Kessler does provide what I would consider to be a more accurate summation of the overall impact of the nuclear deal than the other fact-checkers. He writes:

“The deal … did increase the amount of time that Iran would need to build a nuclear weapon by reducing its centrifuges for uranium enrichment and its stockpile of enriched uranium. [Among other restrictions and additional monitoring provisions.]

“… While Iran has insisted it has no interest in building nuclear weapons, the deal does not eliminate the risk that it will obtain nuclear bombs.”

No one has an absolute lock on the facts and there are certainly different ways to characterize the impact of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which is a complex, multi-year agreement. And it can certainly be difficult to accurately summarize the nonproliferation impacts of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in a few short words.

But it is essential that the fact-checkers pay closer attention to the details of the 2015 Iran deal so they are not themselves misinforming or misleading their readers about this pivotal international security issue.