Kerry statement on Iranian nuclear deal leaves out important element

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The nuclear agreement with Iran “never sunsets. There’s no sunset in this agreement.”

— John Kerry on Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015 in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”

President Barack Obama achieved a significant victory on Sept. 2, 2015, when enough Democratic senators announced that they would support the Iran nuclear agreement to effectively secure its passage despite the opposition of most, if not all, congressional Republicans.

Earlier that day, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe as part of a back-to-back appearance with two foes of the agreement, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz Cheney, a foreign policy veteran in her own right.

At one point, Kerry responded to Liz Cheney’s claim that the agreement “sunsets,” thus allowing Iran the relatively unfettered ability to proceed with a nuclear weapon.

“No, it never sunsets,” Kerry said.

We thought we’d take a closer look at Kerry’s claim that nuclear agreement with Iran “never sunsets. There’s no sunset in this agreement.”

Generally speaking, we found that Kerry’s description includes elements of both truth and spin — as do the arguments made by the deal’s opponents that prompted Kerry to make this claim.

Kerry’s vigorous denial that any sunsets exist “in this agreement” is not entirely accurate.

As Kerry himself subsequently points out, a number of provisions of the agreement expire over time. Several provisions last for 10 years, including a limit of 5,060 operating centrifuges and curbs on research and development on advanced centrifuges. Other provisions last for 15 years, including a variety of caps on uranium enrichment, international inspector access in no more than 24 days, and prohibitions on new heavy-water reactors and reprocessing. Meanwhile, continuous surveillance of centrifuge production areas would last for 20 years, while continuous surveillance of uranium mines and mills would last for 25 years.

Each of these time-limited provisions — which collectively form important bulwarks of the agreement — would seem to qualify as “sunsets” by any reasonable definition.

In a statement to PolitiFact, State Department spokesperson John Kirby argued that it’s more important to focus on the entirety of the agreement and its goal of keeping a nuclear weapon out of Iranian hands. He pointed to paragraph 2 of the main text of the agreement, which says, “The full implementation of this (agreement) will ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”

Meanwhile, critics of the agreement have also gone too far by implying, and sometimes outright stating, that the deal’s leverage will almost entirely dissipate once certain elements of the agreement expire.

Experts, however, say this argument against the agreement is an exaggeration.

Scrutiny and limits on Iran don’t simply drop to zero after 10, 15, 20 or 25 years. While a number of the particularly intrusive provisions will lapse, Iran will still be bound — permanently — by other curbs on its ability to produce a nuclear weapon.

Iran must comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that it signed in 1974. This commits Iran to not pursuing nuclear weapons. It must also ratify the stricter curbs contained in the “Additional Protocol,” which expanded the types of sites inspectors could visit on short notice. Iran signed the protocol in 2003 but quit adhering to it three years later and has never ratified it. Under the nuclear deal, Iran must ratify the Additional Protocol within eight years, or else the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany would be able to take punitive action, said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

The agreement also demands that Iran implement “modified Code 3.1,” which requires the country to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency when it decides to build a nuclear facility.

Such ongoing and unending scrutiny provides Kerry with support for his claim that the agreement itself “never sunsets,” even if individual elements of the agreement do.

Matthew Bunn, a nuclear-policy expert at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, said Kerry’s claim “seems within the bounds of normal optimism by a political figure about the position he’s arguing.”

Still, Kerry’s claim could lead listeners to believe there’s more permanence in the deal than there actually is.

Our ruling

Kerry said the nuclear agreement with Iran “never sunsets. There’s no sunset in this agreement.”

He’s right that the agreement as a whole does live on, and scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear ambitions will continue indefinitely under both earlier agreements and certain provisions within the nuclear deal. But his statement glosses over the fact that a number of key elements of the agreement do expire in 10, 15, 20 or 25 years.

We rate Kerry’s claim Half True.