Media Falsely Portrays Iran’s Nuclear Deal Breach As Dash To Bomb


by Ben Armbruster

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—the UN nuclear watchdog tasked with vigorously monitoring Iran’s nuclear program under the 2015 accord—confirmed this week that Iran exceeded the limit on its supply of low-enriched uranium (LEU). Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, reporting from many in the media on this development wasn’t great. Reporters and commentators portrayed Iran, not Donald Trump, as the primary provocateur, with many going so far as to claim, without any evidence whatsoever, that Iran is now racing to build a nuclear weapon.

One goal of the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) was to stretch the timeline to one year in terms of how long it would take Iran to enrich enough uranium for one bomb. To achieve that outcome, the United States, the UK, France, Germany, China, Russia, and Iran agreed that Tehran could continue enriching uranium for civilian energy purposes but also to cap the amount of LEU it could have on hand at any one time to about 660 pounds. Before the agreement, and ostensibly under the untenable George W. Bush-era policy of “zero enrichment,” Iran had amassed around 10,000 pounds of LEU, which if further refined, could be transformed into fuel for nuclear weapons. After the JCPOA’s implementation, Iran shipped out 98 percent of its LEU stockpile and verifiably maintained, until this week, the 660-pound cap, even after Trump last year unilaterally reimposed sanctions that were lifted as part of the deal.

And the reason Iran surpassed the cap? Back in May, as part of its unprovoked “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, the Trump administration revoked sanctions waivers allowing Iran to ship out any excess LEU it produces beyond the 660-pound cap. That left Iran with a choice: bow to Trump’s gratuitous demands even though Iran was adhering to the deal or carry on enriching uranium as allowed under the JCPOA.

Iran chose the latter course, in a move that experts say is actually “a calculated effort to get European leaders to reinforce the nuclear deal and halt the drift toward war.” Experts also say that breaching the cap, for now, “does not pose a near-term proliferation risk.” But that’s very far from how some in the U.S. mainstream media portrayed it.

Hours after the news broke, CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto tweeted that Iran surpassing the 660-pound LEU stockpile limit “appears to be the first violation of the terms of the JCPOA following the US withdrawal from the deal last year.” This is completely false. Donald Trump first violated the terms of the JCPOA in November 2018 when he reimposed all economic sanctions on Iran without cause. Trump set this JCPOA-violation crisis in motion, not Iran.

In another example, editors at The New York Times headlined an opinion piece responding to the news: “Iran Is Rushing to Build a Nuclear Weapon—and Trump Can’t Stop It.”

There is no evidence that Iran is rushing to build a nuclear weapon. In fact, U.S. intelligence has concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program some time between 2002 and 2004.

The text of the Times piece argued, somewhat controversially, that given everything that Iran has endured from the United States, Iran probably should build a nuclear weapon to deter further American right-wing aggression. But the piece never presented any evidence that Iran, based on the latest news of breaching the LEU cap, is dashing toward a bomb. And its author, an American professor of political science at the University of Chicago, isn’t involved in the Iranian leadership’s decision-making processes. He is stating what he believes Iran should do, not what Iran is actually doing or plans to do.

Similarly, but perhaps less surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal editorial board referred to the news as a “nuclear breakout,” a term that is used to describe an actual move toward building nuclear weapons, which of course Iran is not doing.

Perhaps the most egregious reporting on Iran surpassing the LEU cap came in a piece from the seemingly left-leaning news outlet Vox. The original version of the story falsely claimed that Iran “vows to increase enrichment to weapons-grade level by July 7.” Although Iran has gotten close, it has actually never enriched uranium to weapons-grade levels, and its leaders have made no such vow. Vox corrected that assertion, but the entire piece, entitled “Why Iran just violated part of the 2015 nuclear deal,” never once mentioned the actual reason Iran violated the deal, namely that Trump reimposed sanctions and thereby prevented Iran from shipping out its stockpiled LEU.

These are just a few examples of how the media has underserved the American public on the recent Trump-induced crisis with Iran. And it’s reminiscent of how the mainstream U.S. media handled the Bush administration’s march to war in Iraq. At that time, the media often relayed false or misleading administration claims at face value with little to no scrutiny and did the White House’s bidding by framing the issue on its own aggressive terms, which in turn helped produce public opinion supportive of military action. This same dynamic appears to be at play today.

The truth is that Donald Trump, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are responsible for the current crisis with Iran. They established a policy of confrontation, trashed the nuclear agreement (which is so far working to block Iran from building a bomb), and created the conditions that make another catastrophic war in the Middle East more likely. The U.S. media has to do better at holding them to account. The stakes are too high.

Ben Armbruster

Ben Armbruster has more than a decade of experience working at the intersection of politics, foreign policy, and media. He holds a bachelor of arts in history from Ohio University and a master of arts in international relations from King’s College London. Ben previously held senior editorial and management positions at Media Matters, ThinkProgress, and ReThink Media.



  1. Nice to get some reaction to my comment. Here is more about the US, Iran and the JCPOA. The Dispute Resolution Mechanism built into JCPOA (paras 36, 37) starts with a complaining participant referring an issue to a Joint Commission, starting a complex process which can end up in the UN Security Council. By withdrawing from JCPOA in May 2018, the US is no longer a participant in the Joint Commission and therefore cannot raise an issue there. So, not having that possibility, the State Department has decided to bring its issue to the IAEA Board of Governors, at a Special Meeting to take place on July 10, The US will try to get a decision of the Board that there is significant non-performance by Iran in meeting its JCPOA commitments. The US is likely to try to get the Board to refer the matter to the UN Security Council. The US can count on considerable support by Board Member countries, perhaps aided by giving favors to smaller countries on the Board.
    Recall that the UNSC unanimously passed S/RES/2231 (2015) bringing JCPOA under international law. What would really make the Washington warmongers happy would be a UNSC resolution authorizing military action against Iran for not meeting its JCPOA commitments. How many vetoes would such a resolution get? Russia for sure. So, no such resolution should come out of the Security Council. But I bet the US will try anyway, to get on the record that a resolution authorizing military action against Iran was before the UNSC.

  2. The US has made itself the laughingstock of the entire world! First the US leaves the JCPOA and then raises hand in the class and says to the teacher “this boy really bothers me, haha”. This whole IAEA meeting may backfire and the members may ask the US to re-join JCOPA before they can hear the matters regarding Iran’s enrichment which is not a violation!

  3. There was no evidence of a pre-2003 nuclear weapons program in Iran either. The worst the IAEA ever actually said about it, contrary to the hype in the media, was that Iran had a program that was “suitable for” a ” wide range of activities” that were “relevant to” nukes, and that it had undertaken “scattered and incomplete” paper studies. None of that is actually the IAEA concern legally, their job under the terms of the NPT is limited “exclusively” according to Iran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA to verifying that nuclear material has not been “diverted to nonpeaceful uses” (something the IAEA has always verified to be true in Iran in every report) (The IAEA is not a “nuclear watchdog” nor in
    charge of enforcing the NPT nor finding hidden nuclear weapons.) Note further the NPT encourages nuclear tech development even requiring the sharing of data from nuclear test explosions, all very much “relevant to” nukes. It also contains no upper limit on enrichment. Many countries of NAM criticized the IAEA under Amano’d leadership for using such language outside of its legal authority.

  4. Cyrus,
    With all due respect, Iran had a nuclear weapon development program. The explosive implosion testing done, with help of a Soviet scientist, at the Parchin military site was one part of it. The trove of documents spirited last year by Mossad out of a hidden archive in Tehran contains many details of how the program was organized.
    Whether IAEA is authorized under its Statute and NPT safeguards agreements to investigate so-called weaponization was a matter of discussion; I believe that the matter has been settled positively, after the experience with DPRK, Iran, Libya, South Africa and now Iran. There is no doubt that the UN Security Council can mandate IAEA to investigate weaponization, as it did in the Iraq case.

  5. James LARRIMORE

    NPT does not prohibit investigations of nuclear weapons components.

    I would like to draw your attention to the Ph.D. thesis of one Brazilian student that was the design of hydrogen bomb, just google it.

    The fact of the matter is that there is a new sovereign power in Western Asia, the only functioning state as well, that is a virulent enemy of Israel.

    Protestant Churches in US cannot contenance that and have now, foolishly in my opinion, engaged their country in an explicit religious war against Shia Islam.

    It did not have to be this way but the die is now cast and the war has resumed.

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