Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Politics & Government

White House: Iran Deal Delays Potential Nuclear Weapon


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. The nuclear accord reached over the weekend with Iran is, according to President Obama, an important first step. The new Iranian president calls it a definite achievement but to the Israeli prime minister it's a historic mistake. The six-month deal freezes important parts of Iran's nuclear problem. In exchange, Iran gets temporary relief from economic sanctions amounting to about $7 billion.

The idea is that this short term agreement could pave the way for a long term comprehensive settlement. Joining me from the White House to talk about the next phase is Ben Rhodes. He's deputy national security advisor to President Obama. Mr. Rhodes, welcome to the program.

BEN RHODES: Good to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Let's start with this. By one current estimate, Iran could produce fuel for a nuclear weapon in one to two months. Now with this agreement, the estimate is that it could take a few weeks, maybe an additional month for Iran to produce a weapon. That doesn't sound like much progress if the gain in time is that small.

RHODES: Well, Melissa, first of all, it's important to note that it would take, we assess, up to a year from a decision from Iran to build a weapon. Now, the question is how can they break out to develop fuel before that decision.

BLOCK: Right.

RHODES: We believe that this deal does put time on that clock because it neutralizes Iran's stockpiled 20 percent enriched uranium, the high enriched uranium necessary to weaponize. And our estimate would actually be a little bit further than the one said, but the fact of the matter is, for the first time in a decade, there are constraints and limits on Iran's ability to move forward with its program.

BLOCK: And with adding, as you put it, time on the clock, one component of this is verification or inspection of Iran's nuclear facilities. The United States is calling this intrusive monitoring. How confident are you that the monitoring would be robust enough to provide a true picture of Iran's program, possibly including sites that we don't know about?

RHODES: Well, it's unprecedented monitoring. What we have with this agreement is daily access to Iran's nuclear facilities at Natanz and Fordow, but we'll also have access to their production facilities where they build centrifuges, where they mine uranium, as well as their development of a potential heavy water reactor in the city of Arak.

So this monitoring covers all elements of the Iranian program. It will allow us to verify that they're meeting their commitments and it will allow us to gain a much better understanding of the comprehensive nature of their program.

BLOCK: But why shouldn't we look at the example, say, of North Korea where the U.S. reached an agreement. The North Koreans ended up cheating. They ended up developing and testing nuclear weapons. Why shouldn't we expect the same thing here at approached with the same skepticism?

RHODES: Well, first of all, I've heard the 2005 North Korean nuclear agreement reference. The fact of the matter is North Korea already had a nuclear weapon at the point of that agreement. We are dealing with Iran at a point where they do not yet have a nuclear weapon, so what we're doing is halting the progress of their program before they reach that threshold.

Secondly, these inspections are much more intrusive than the inspections that we had with North Korea. We'll have much broader access to their facilities than we've have in the North Korean situation.

BLOCK: You've heard, of course, the line from Israel which is that Iran is merely a wolf in sheep's clothing.

RHODES: Well, this agreement is not based on trust, Melissa. We have to test Iranian intentions. In the first six months, we have to test whether or not they can live up to their end of the bargain and then we have negotiate a comprehensive resolution that could give us complete confidence that their program is purely peaceful and they do not have the capability to develop a nuclear weapon.

BLOCK: I'd like to have you respond to criticism that came from Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York. He calls the agreement disproportional. In other words, he thinks the U.S. gave more than it got from Iran. He says this agreement makes it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will pass additional sanctions when Congress comes back next month. What do you do about that?

RHODES: Well, first of all, I do not at all think this is disproportionate. If anything, we are getting more in this agreement than the Iranians are. The fact of the matter is, they are halting the progress of their program, rolling it back, getting rid of that stockpile. At the same time, we're going to be enforcing our sanctions so they get that relief, about $7 billion worth, but they are going to lose far more revenue over the course of the six months from the sanctions that we continue to enforce.

What we said to Congress is, those sanctions have been helpful in getting us where we are, but now we have to test whether we can get an agreement with the pressure of those sanctions.

BLOCK: Let's talk about what happens after this first phase. If this is phase one that creates, as President Obama put it, time and space for a broader deal over the next six months, how much more difficult is the next step or the next steps in this process?

RHODES: I think it is more difficult. What we're talking about is a comprehensive resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. On the Iranian side, that's going to have to involve dismantlement developments of their program. It's going to have involved very intrusive inspections and monitoring of their capabilities so that the P5-Plus-1 international community can have complete confidence that their program is peaceful. Only then could we consider more broader sanctions relief and Iran rejoining the community of nations.

That's going to be a tough negotiation, but I think we've demonstrated that we can get something done through this first step and frankly, a peaceful resolution to this issue through diplomacy is far preferable to the other options, which essentially are Iran being able to continue to move towards a nuclear weapon or potentially having to consider military options.

BLOCK: Ben Rhodes is deputy national security advisor to President Obama. Mr. Rhodes, thanks very much.

RHODES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.