Spinning like a centrifuge
State Dept.: Obama Was 'a Little Mixed Up' in NPR Interview

Spokeswoman Marie Harf tries to undo damage done by Obama's admission that under deal, Iran's breakout time would eventually be 'near zero.'

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Gil Ronen,

Marie Harf
Marie Harf
US State Department

State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday that President Barack Obama's wording had been “a little mixed up” and “muddled” when he stated, in an NPR interview, that the deal being struck with Iran would eventually enable it to break out and build a nuclear bomb in “near zero” time.

She insisted that he had not been talking about a scenario that would result from the signing of the deal that is being negotiated, but rather the opposite – what could happen if the deal is not signed.

Is it possible, however, to reconcile Harf's representation of what Obama meant with what he actually said? Here is the video in which Obama, who is considered to be a masterful speaker, supposedly "muddled" his words:

In response to a question by NPR's Steve Inskeep, at 4:14 in the Youtube video above, Obama clarified that the enriched uranium that Iran possesses will not pose a danger when the deal expires, because it will have been “set off to the side and diluted.” While Iran will be allowed to keep it inside its territory, the President said, it will be limited to 300 kilograms or below, and so “they're not going to have been able to hoard a bunch of uranium that somehow they then convert to weapons-grade uranium.”

“What is a more relevant fear is that in the year 13, 14, 15, [the Iranians] have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero,” Obama explained – quite clearly and cogently – to Inskeep.

“Keep in mind, though, currently, the breakout times are only about two to three months by our intelligence estimates,” he noted. “So essentially, we're purchasing for 13, 14, 15 years, assurances that the breakout is at least a year ... that — that if they decided to break the deal, kick out all the inspectors, break the seals and go for a bomb, we'd have over a year to respond. And we have those assurances for at least well over a decade.

“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. We have much more insight into their capabilities. And the option of a future president to take action if in fact they try to obtain a nuclear weapon is undiminished.”

In the wake of the storm created by Obama's remarks, Harf tried to convince reporters that Obama did not, in fact, mean what he said. Grilled by AP's Matt Lee, she explained that when Obama spoke of “near zero” breakout time, he was not talking about “year 13” after a deal had been signed, but about what would happen if the deal was not signed.

But is there any possible way to understand Obama's words differently from how they were initially understood by all and sundry, including Israel's leadership, top political figures in the US and the press in both countries? Arutz Sheva will let you, the readers, be the judges. Here is the transcript of the exchange between Lee and Harf, and the video (the exchange begins at the 9:03 mark). Note that JCPA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) refers to the deal being negotiated with Iran, and PMD stands for Possible Military Dimensions:

MS. HARF: Yes, Matt.

QUESTION: I would like to go to Iran --

MS. HARF: Okay.

QUESTION: -- and the President’s rather unusual sales job in this most recent interview in which he said that after 13 years, Iran would have the capability or could have the capability to produce a weapon. Is the idea simply --

MS. HARF: That quote, I think, that people are referring to – 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. And if you go back and look at the transcript, I know it’s a little confusing. I spoke to the folks at the White House and read it a few times. It’s my understanding that he was referring to – even though it was a little muddled in the words – to a scenario in which there was no deal.

QUESTION: But I thought that without a deal, they could – they’re at breakout in two to three months --

MS. HARF: Correct.

QUESTION: -- not 13 years.

MS. HARF: Right, right. He wasn’t saying something different. It was more of a hypothetical: Well, look, without a deal, this is what could possibly happen. He was not indicating what would happen under an agreement in those years.

QUESTION: So after 13 years, if there is a deal based on the parameters that you got in Lausanne, the Administration’s contention is that they still would not be able to – they would still not be able to produce – they would still be a year away?

MS. HARF: Well, as we’ve said, we needed to get to a year breakout – up to – at least a year breakout time for at least 10 years. Given that we’re still – part of the negotiations remains what happens to some of those pieces in those further-on years, 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.

QUESTION: So the year --

MS. HARF: So it would not be zero. I mean, that’s why he was addressing a hypothetical scenario in which there was no agreement.

QUESTION: Does that mean that the year – say, year 11 – hasn’t been decided?

MS. HARF: I’m happy to check with our technical team, Matt, and see. There’s some – there’s still some items to be negotiated in those years and when it comes to some of the research and development, for example, which affects breakout time.


MS. HARF: As I said, I think, yesterday or the day before or last week, breakout time doesn’t go up very quickly, it doesn’t go down very quickly. These – there’s all these different pieces to this.


MS. HARF: Given there are still pieces of those additional years to negotiate, I don’t have a specific breakout time to give you today.

QUESTION: But we’ve been told since the beginning that there would – 10 years for one thing, 15, 20, 25 --

MS. HARF: Fifteen, 25, absolutely. Those are – and – but many of those are transparency measures. Some of the issues that affect breakout, like research and development, for example, in outer years, is still being negotiated.

QUESTION: So your contention would be, then, that in the out years, should Iran move within the agreement to closer than a year breakout or even actually develop a weapon, they --

MS. HARF: Well, they would not be able to develop a weapon under the guidelines they are operating under, including the Additional Protocol, which is a forever commitment.

QUESTION: Well, if they abide by it.

MS. HARF: Correct, and if they don’t, we will see that very quickly, and we will have every option on the table --


MS. HARF: -- we have today. We will have them then to respond quickly.

QUESTION: So the benefit is that you’ll be able to see them building a bomb, right?

MS. HARF: That’s – Matt, that’s what we’ve always said, that they have the technological knowhow in their country already. They have mastered the nuclear fuel cycle. So the goal with this agreement has always been to push their breakout time to a year, to get the kind of transparency that we would see very quickly if they attempted to break out and we would have time to act. That’s always been the premise underlying this agreement.

Harf's news conference was interrupted by a power outage and she continued talking by the light provided by her cellphone for a while. Some would see symbolism in this and say that it was not just the people in the press room who were being kept in the dark by Harf's briefing. 

Press briefing by cellphone light. Reuters

Harf came under fire in February after she claimed that the "root cause of [ISIS and other] terrorism… is poverty and lack of opportunity."

Speaking with Chris Mathews on MSNBC, Harf said, “We cannot win the war on terror, nor can we win the war on ISIS, by killing them. We need to find them jobs. We need to get to the root cause of terrorism and that is poverty and lack of opportunity in the terrorist community.”