Obama: Iran Will Face Longer 'Breakout Time,' Though Not Indefinitely : Parallels Iran will need at least a year to produce the material needed for a bomb, up from the current two or three months, the president says. But he acknowledges that those limitations will fall away.

Obama: Iran Will Face Longer 'Breakout Time,' Though Not Indefinitely

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

President Obama is facing harsh criticism of his nuclear deal with Iran. Lawmakers who are set to vote on the deal are concerned about how long limits on Iran's nuclear program will last. They also want to know how and when inspections will be carried out. We'll hear about the challenge of inspecting Iran's nuclear facilities in a moment - but first to the question of breakout time. That's the time it would take Iran to produce enough nuclear material, such as enriched uranium, for one bomb. NPR's Steve Inskeep talked with President Obama about that.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The deal would limit Iran's nuclear activity in ways that stretch the breakout time. Instead of a few months, it would be a year. If Iran did violate the deal and go for a bomb, the international community would then have time to respond. The president first discussed this with us in April. He acknowledged that as the agreement ages and some provisions expire, the breakout time goes back down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BARACK OBAMA: What is a more relevant fear would be that in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium fairly rapidly. And at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.

INSKEEP: Almost down to zero - that doesn't sound good. But the president says that's well in the future. He says the deal would buy time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: Essentially, we're purchasing, for 13, 14, 15 years, assurances that the breakout is at least a year.

INSKEEP: His critics did not see it that way. His forecast of an eventual breakout time near zero made headlines. It was repeated by opponents and the media for months. The State Department said the president misspoke, but opponents say he told the truth. And those opponents include Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last month, Netanyahu told NPR's David Greene that the deal eventually frees Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: And they'll be very close to breakout. I think President Obama, in one of his previous interviews, said at that point, they could have effectively zero breakout time for the bomb, and that, unfortunately, is true. So I think if the idea is, well, at least we get them away from the bomb; no, you don't.

INSKEEP: Netanyahu says the deal only delays Iran's nuclear threat. Skeptical U.S. lawmakers have said that delaying the threat is not enough for them. So we asked the president about this again. We were talking in the White House Cabinet Room late last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

INSKEEP: Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel has argued that as the agreement begins to expire 13, 14, 15 years from now, the breakout time goes back down...

OBAMA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...To near zero. And in saying that, he quotes you in an interview with us in which you you made a statement that was later clarified. I just want to be absolutely clear on this. Fifteen years from now, as some provisions expire, what is Iran's breakout time going to be?

OBAMA: Well, it shrinks back down to roughly where it is now.

INSKEEP: Which is close to zero?

OBAMA: Well, which is a matter of months.

INSKEEP: A matter of months - in other words, the breakout time eventually does go back down. Here's a case where the president agrees his critics are right, but he says the deal is still good.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: If, in fact, the breakout times now are a few months and we're able to push that breakout time out to a year so that we have more time and space to see whether or not Iran is cheating on an agreement, kicking out inspectors, going for a nuclear weapon - if the breakout time is extended for 15 years and then it goes back to where it is right now, why is that a bad deal?

INSKEEP: For those 15 years, he says, the world gains extra security. By then, Iran's government or its interests may change. Even if Iran never changes, the president says, weapons inspectors will remain at work permanently. The president says his critics are ignoring the idea that it's good to buy time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: And what that tells me is that there may be ideological opposition to doing any business with Iran.

INSKEEP: It would be more honest, the president contends, if his critics simply admit they don't favor any diplomacy with such a hostile nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

OBAMA: If you want to just say, we don't think you should deal with Iran, then that at least has a logic to it. If you're saying, though, that this is an issue that can't be resolved diplomatically and you share my view that Iran can't get a nuclear weapon, then you really are narrowing your choices at that point.

INSKEEP: Congress votes next month on whether to reject the nuclear deal, and the president is framing this as a narrow choice indeed. Accept the negotiated agreement with all its complexities an risks, or take a risk on chaos and even war. Steve Inskeep, NPR News.

BLOCK: And you can watch a video of the entire interview at npr.org.

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