FPI Analysis: What U.S. Officials Said on Iran, What We Know Now

January 7, 2015

The latest extension of talks between the P5+1 and Iran comes as Tehran continues to spurn America’s repeated efforts to obtain meaningful concessions on the regime’s nuclear program. Indeed, Iran’s behavior directly contradicts the Obama administration’s stated goals for the talks as well as its assessment of the impact and potential of the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). This FPI Analysis highlights statements by Obama administration officials prior to and in the aftermath of the JPOA—and what we know now about the results of their efforts.


On the Impact of U.S.-Led International Sanctions

What They Said Then

December 10, 2013: In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, David Cohen, the Treasury Department official responsible for overseeing Iran sanctions, calls the sanctions relief in the interim agreement “economically insignificant to Iran.” “Iran,” he claims, “will be even deeper in the hole six months from now, when the deal expires, than it is today.”

December 10, 2013: In testimony before the House, Secretary of State John Kerry says: “This agreement does provide Iran with a very limited temporary and reversible relief. … The total amount of relief is somewhere between the $6 billion and $7 billion that I described.”

February 4, 2014: “Our analysis indicates that the JPOA appears unlikely to provide Iran any significant economic benefits, especially any that could resolve the Iranian economy’s many problems,” says chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman in testimony before the Senate.

What We Know Now

Rather than provide Iran with little or no economic benefits, the interim agreement spurred a partial economic recovery:

August 5, 2014: The International Monetary Fund says Iran’s economy has stabilized due to the easing of international sanctions and Iranian policies reducing energy subsidies.

July 18, 2014: The decision to extend talks by four months gives Iran an additional $2.8 billion in oil export revenues that U.S. sanctions had previously frozen.

October 10, 2014: The governor of the Central Bank of Iran, Ali Taieb Nia, highlights Iran’s economic growth over the previous year: “Inflation rate has decreased from 40 percent in September 2013 to 21 percent in September 2014 with projections of less than 20 percent at the end of October 2014. … In this direction, current spring GDP growth rate shows 4.6 percent.”

October 31, 2014: According to a joint report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Roubini Global Economics, Iran achieved a “modest economic recovery” due to the easing of sanctions. Total sanctions relief during the first six months of the interim agreement amounted to about $11 billion, not $6-7 billion, as the Obama administration originally pledged. 

November 24, 2014: The decision to extend talks by seven more months gives Iran an additional $5 billion in sanctions relief on top of the $2.8 billion allocated in the first extension.

On Extending the Talks

What They Said Then

November 23, 2013: “If Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the [sanctions] relief and ratchet up the pressure,” states President Obama.

June 30, 2014: “The United States and our partners will not consent to an extension merely to drag out negotiations,” writes Secretary of State John Kerry in an op-ed for the Washington Post. An extension is only possible if the Iranians “show a genuine willingness to respond to the international community’s legitimate concerns in the time that remains.” 

What We Know Now

Despite its failure to receive any meaningful concessions from Iran during negotiations, the P5+1 agrees in July 2014 to extend talks for four months. In November 2014, the P5+1 agrees to extend them again for seven more months. In conjunction with the two extensions, the P5+1 agrees to provide a total of $7.8 billion in additional sanctions relief.

On Consulting with Congress

What They Said Then

April 8, 2014: Asked during a Senate hearing whether the Obama administration would consult with Congress about sanctions relief in the event that the P5+1 reaches a final deal with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry says: “Well, of course, we would be obligated to under the law. … What we do will have to pass muster with Congress. We well understand that.”

July 29, 2014: Chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman states in Senate testimony: “President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and the entire administration understand how vital a role Congress and this Committee play in shaping U.S. policy towards Iran. We remain committed to regular consultations, to hearing from you, and to sharing ideas.”

What We Know Now

Rather than consult with Congress, the Obama administration has effectively sidelined lawmakers throughout the negotiating process, and has made clear that it will seek to bypass the legislative branch in providing sanctions relief if the P5+1 and Iran reach a final deal:

July 29, 2014: The New York Times reports a recent statement by a senior administration official that the Obama administration plans to bypass Congress in the first stages of implementing a final deal with Iran. With regard to lifting sanctions, the official says, “The early suspensions would be executive action.”

October 19, 2014: A senior U.S. official says the White House seeks to bypass Congress in its implementation of any deal with Iran. “We wouldn’t seek congressional legislation in any comprehensive agreement for years,” the senior official says.

On Rejecting a Bad Deal

What They Said Then

“No deal is better than a bad deal.”

– State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki, September 30, 2013
– Chief U.S. Negotiator Wendy Sherman, October 3, 2013
– U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, October 31, 2013
– President Barack Obama, December 7, 2013
– Secretary of State John Kerry, July 18, 2014

What We Know Now

The United States reportedly offers proposals to Iran that would effectively preserve its ability to develop a nuclear weapon—the very definition of a bad deal:

September 19, 2014: In what the New York Times describes as “face-saving diplomacy,” the United States reportedly has offered Tehran a compromise proposal that would entail disconnecting Iran’s centrifuges while allowing Iran to keep the machinery itself—effectively maintaining Iran’s capacity to develop a bomb.

September 23, 2014: David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security reports that the United States offered Iran a proposal that would allow Tehran to keep all its centrifuges, but the regime’s compliance with the agreement would be measured by the rate of enrichment, or separative work units (SWU). However, as Albright notes, such an agreement “is easily reversible. It does not extend breakout time or provide time for warning in the case that Iran reneges on a long term deal. Moreover, it would be extremely difficult to verify, tying up valuable international inspectors’ resources in an unproductive manner.”

September 26, 2014: America has reportedly offered Iran a proposal that would enable it to keep half of its uranium enrichment centrifuges—up to 4,500—such that “it would take more than a year of enriching to create enough material for a nuclear warhead.” However, as independent analysts have noted, such a timeframe would require Iran to have fewer than 4,000 centrifuges.


On Iranian Nuclear Intentions

What They Said Then

September 27, 2013: In a background briefing after President Obama’s phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a senior administration official notes that Obama said when he took office that America “would be willing to extend a hand if there was an unclenched fist. And what we’ve seen is an unclenching, hopefully, of that fist and an opportunity to pursue diplomacy.”

November 23, 2013: The interim agreement, says President Obama in a statement upon its announcement, “opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure—a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon. … The first step that we’ve taken today marks the most significant and tangible progress that we’ve made with Iran since I took office.”

What We Know Now

Throughout the negotiations, Iranian leaders have repeatedly stated that they have no intention of ever dismantling their nuclear program, and issued rigid red lines that would preserve Tehran’s ability to build a bomb:

January 23, 2014: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tells CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that nuclear technology constitutes “part of our national pride,” and that Tehran would not dismantle its existing centrifuges “under any circumstances.” The statement prompts Zakaria to call the negotiations a “train wreck.”

February 27, 2014: “I can tell you that Iran’s nuclear program will remain intact,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tells reporters. “We will not close any program.”

April 9, 2014: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tells a gathering of Iranian nuclear scientists, “None of the country’s nuclear achievements can be stopped, and no one has the right to bargain over it.”

October 8, 2014: On his website, Khamenei issues a series of red lines for any final agreement that would effectively preserve the bulk of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including its uranium enrichment efforts.

On Iran’s “Right” to Enrich Uranium

What They Said Then

April 6, 2012: Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, says, “Our position is clear: Iran must live up to its international obligations, including full suspension of uranium enrichment as required by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

September 29, 2013: National Security Adviser Susan Rice tells CNN that the United States does not support “a right of Iran to enrich,” but supports Tehran’s “right to the use of peaceful nuclear energy” once it has fulfilled its obligations under resolutions by the U.N. Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

October 3, 2013: Chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman says in Senate testimony that it has “always been the U.S. position” that Iran may have access to uranium or plutonium for peaceful purposes, but may not themselves enrich or reprocess.

What We Know Now

Despite their past statements, Obama administration officials have indicated that they will permit Iran to maintain a uranium enrichment program as part of a final deal:

November 24, 2013: The text of the JPOA states that a “comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the programme.”

December 3, 2013: “We are prepared to negotiate a strictly limited enrichment program in the end state,” says Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

December 7, 2013: “It is my strong belief,” states President Obama, “that we can envision an end state that gives us an assurance that even if they have some modest enrichment capability, it is so constrained and the inspections are so intrusive that they, as a practical matter, do not have breakout capacity.”

On the Arak Heavy Water Reactor

What They Said Then

December 4, 2013: Chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman tells the PBS NewsHour that a comprehensive agreement with the Iranians requires the “dismantling of their [nuclear] infrastructure, because, quite frankly, we’re not quite sure what you need a 40-megawatt heavy water reactor, which is what Arak is, for any civilian peaceful purpose.”

December 10, 2013: “From our point of view, Arak is unacceptable,” says Secretary of State John Kerry in House testimony. “You can’t have a heavy water reactor.”

What We Know Now

Iran not only has refused to dismantle Arak, which Robert Einhorn, a former senior official in the Obama administration, has called a “plutonium bomb factory,” but also has sought to purchase components to advance its development:

November 20, 2014: The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, says Tehran would no longer negotiate about the design of the Arak heavy water reactor.

December 8, 2014: Foreign Policy reports that the United States has accused Iran of purchasing components for Arak.

On Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s Nuclear Program

What They Said Then

November 23, 2013: “The set of understandings” in the interim agreement, states a White House Fact Sheet, “also includes an acknowledgment by Iran that it must address all United Nations Security Council resolutions—which Iran has long claimed are illegal—as well as past and present issues with Iran’s nuclear program that have been identified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This would include resolution of questions concerning the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program, including Iran’s activities at Parchin.”

December 10, 2013: Secretary of State John Kerry says in House testimony: “The fact is that we believe this [interim] agreement also opens the door for our ability to deal with some of [the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program]. And the language specifically is the plan says that Iran will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern. Past and present issues of concern is formula language for the IAEA and Iran in addressing possible military dimensions, including Parchin.”

What We Know Now

In violation of U.N. Security Council and IAEA resolutions, Iran has stonewalled international efforts to seek information about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program:

September 6, 2014: The IAEA says Iran has failed to meet an agreed deadline to address concerns about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.

September 15, 2014: Yukiya Amano, the director general of the IAEA, says—citing Iran’s continued lack of cooperation in its investigation—that the IAEA is still not in a position to “conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

November 7, 2014: The IAEA says Iran has yet to cooperate with an investigation into the possible military dimensions of its program.

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