What Tim Kaine Actually Got Wrong About the Iran Nuclear Deal During the Veep Debate

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by Ali Gharib

An exchange about Iran during last night’s vice presidential debate is getting a lot of attention from mainstream media fact-checkers. The discussion about the Iran nuclear deal came as Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine was listing the national security bona fides of his running mate, Hillary Clinton. “She worked a tough negotiation with nations around the world to eliminate the Iranian nuclear weapons program without firing a shot,” Kaine boasted.

Mike Pence, the Indiana governor and Donald Trump’s running mate on the Republican ticket, interjected incredulously: “Eliminate the Iranian nuclear weapons program?”

“Absolutely,” Kaine responded quickly, “without firing a shot.”

Fact-checkers, the most in-vogue means of covering these sorts of debates, latched on to the exchange and quickly issued their rulings.

ABC News gave the discussion a nifty heading—”Kaine says Clinton helped eliminate the Iranian nuclear program”—and, after rehashing the back-and-forth, rendered its judgment: “Grade: False.” Luckily for us, they offered a justification, with my emphasis:

Explanation: 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.

The New York Times was a little less harsh on Kaine, but the newspaper of record also took a dim view of the Democrat’s assertion, grading it an “exaggeration.” The paper’s White House correspondent, Mark Landler, offered up his own explanation:

Senator Tim 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 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.

Kaine’s assertion was, in fact, “false.” It was also an “exaggeration.” The problem is that it was neither false nor an exaggeration on the grounds that either ABC or the Times said it was. Instead, what both news outlets—and Kaine himself—got wrong is that Hillary Clinton didn’t actually eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The negotiations that she helped jump-start—by involving her State Department in nascent talks conducted by then-Senate Foreign Relations Chair John Kerry—weren’t to eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but rather to roll it back and block any potential path toward building a bomb. The key word in that last sentence is “potential”—it’s doing a lot of heavy lifting, because at the time the talks got underway, Iran was not, according to all publicly available information, making any concerted effort to build a bomb.

As much as Iran hawks in Washington—both Democrats and Republicans—go on about “Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” the best information we have suggests that the Islamic Republic was engaged in an organized nuclear weapons program before 2003 but later halted it. At least that’s what the American intelligence community reported in a 2007 document called the National Intelligence Estimate. Later reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency indicated that Iran was doing some research that could be related to developing nuclear weapons, but these reports were not inconsistent with—nor did they contradict—the notion that Iran had halted, as one nuclear expert put it to me at the time, a “determined, integrated weapons-development program.”

So, Hillary Clinton didn’t help to eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program because the talks weren’t about eliminating Iran’s nuclear weapons program because Iran didn’t have a nuclear weapons program at that time to eliminate. Kaine, therefore, did exaggerate Clinton’s role: he credited her with participating in talks that didn’t actually do what he said they did.

In its fact-check, ABC News deserves a special shout-out for conflating Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s erstwhile nuclear weapons program (see bold above). This exact conflation has been a mainstay talking point for the hawkiest of Iran hawks, and ABC’s lack of precision will surely give these warmongers comfort.

But Landler, a solid reporter, also committed a sin of omission. He writes, “[T]he deal has a sunset clause, meaning Iran will be able to resume its work after the deal expires in 15 years.” What “work”? Iran will not, in fact, be able to resume its pre-2003 weapons work because having a nuclear weapons program will still be prohibited not only by Iran’s signature to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but also by express promises the country made as part of the nuclear deal itself. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran deal’s formal name) says, “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” It’s plain as day, right there in the first paragraph. And there’s no sunset clause on that pledge; it stays in force forever.

These are complex issues, so addressing them with subtlety and precision is of paramount importance. That’s what was so galling about Kaine’s initial remark. He should have simply said something along the lines that Clinton worked towards blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, and none of this hubbub would have arisen in the first place. Instead, Kaine seized the opportunity to make an exaggerated boast that was inaccurate for reasons that the fact-checkers, in all their wisdom, failed to grasp. Kaine has been good on issues of nuclear diplomacy and he ought to have known better.

Photo of Tim Kaine courtesy of ABC/Alycia Monaco via Flickr.

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Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.

9 Comments

  1. The Iranians as well as the GWB’s administration apparently had the same intelligence that Saddam Hossain has begun his research and nuclear related activities with the intent to becoming a nuclear power prior to 2003! This intelligence, accurate or inaccurate, was even more alarming to the Iranians than to the west since Iran had suffered through the war initiated by Saddam Hossain in 1980-1988! So the Iranians began their own research and nuclear related activities with the intent to be ready in case Saddam is successful in achieving his goal! This scenario and the story inadvertently popped out of Rafsanjani’s mouth during one of his speeches at the Tehran University!
    I believe the Iranians began to go forward on a dual track which nuclear capability was one of the two options! Since Iran didn’t have the resources for another war with Iraq, they pursued the second option by using one of the Iraqi immigrants by the name of Chalabi for convincing GWB that Saddam Hossain is on a destructive path! I believe Mr Chalabi played his role well as an Iranian security agent in America!!

  2. Cyrus is quite correct. The Iranian religious and political leadership has been totally opposed to nuclear weapons development for several decades – see wideasleepinamerica.com/2012/10/the-goldberg-predilections-ignoring.html.

    The small-scale studies of some technologies of possible relevance to nuclear weapons, but not involving nuclear materials, was an unauthorized program that was closed down by Rouhani when he became nuclear policy chief in 2002 – see nytimes.com/2013/07/27/opinion/global/rouhani-and-the-iranian-bomb.html

  3. The sleight of hand is easy to see.

    Kaine boasted of an agreement to
    “eliminate the Iranian nuclear WEAPONS program”
    and the mainstream press then gave him a fail-mark on the agreement’s failure to
    “eliminate the Iranian nuclear program”

    Hellooooooooooo. The MSM has just “fact-checked” a red-herring.

    The agreement never intended to eliminate the entire Iranian “nuclear program”, and at no time did Kaine make any such claim.

    Honestly, this isn’t rocket-science: if the press want to fact-check what Kaine *said* then the very first requirement is to ensure that they correctly parse his words.

  4. The first successful enrichment of U235 by centrifugation was achieved in a FOM laboratory in the Netherlands. I was associated with it as a chemist. I assert that Kaine was much closer to the true situation than Pence who has absolutely no clue at all. The test whether Iran is stealthily trying to produce weapons-grade U235 hinges not only on whether they use the existing battery of centrifuges for that purpose which is possible but on the regular IAEA tests of the U235 concentration of the product. As long as Iran does not interfere with these tests there will be no “Iranian Bomb Program”. Until today the IAEA has reported full Iranian compliance.
    Any addition of “live” centrifuges to the battery will be almost immediately known.
    The 15-year limit of the agreement is a non-issue. Who knows what the governance of Iran will be 15 years from now.

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