An exchange about Iran during this week'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 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,” Tim 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?”
"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."
“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.