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Published Oct. 21, 2013

Make sure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon

"But to the issue of Iran, as long as I'm president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon."

Sources: Remarks at a presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., October 22, 2012

Subjects: Foreign Policy, Nuclear, Second Term Promise

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The threat of a nuclear Iran played an important part in the foreign policy debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. During the debate, Obama called on Iran to "re-enter the community of nations" by giving up their nuclear program. But he also said that the "clock is ticking" and time for negotiations is running out. Then Obama promised that "as long as I'm president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon."

It's not possible to issue an ultimate rating on this promise until the end of Obama's term. However, we thought we would review recent events in Iran in light of Obama's promise.

As we have previously noted, Iran has faced U.S. sanctions since its 1979 Islamic revolution. The United Nations and other nations have repeatedly tightened sanctions since 2006 in response to Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.

The circumstances have since then changed significantly. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, widely considered a hardline, was replaced by Hassan Rouhani this summer. Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator, presented himself as a different and more moderate leader at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month, refraining from verbal attacks on Israel, while his chief of staff met with influential American business leaders (both firsts!).

In New York, Rouhani actively tried to lower tensions with the West. "Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defence doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions," Rouhani said in front of the U.N. General Assembly on September 24. Two days later he spoke at the U.N. nuclear disarmament meeting and concluded that "no nation should possess nuclear weapons."

Rouhani is also the first Iranian president to have an actual conversation with an U.S. president in over 30 years. On Sept. 27, Obama called Rouhani and they spoke by telephone for about fifteen minutes.

The talk was met with criticism in Tehran, but its importance should not be underplayed: "The biggest taboo in Iranian politics has been broken. This is the beginning of a new era," Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Reuters.

In 2010, Obama kept one of his original campaign promises by strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation-Treaty. In his second term, the administration has not pursued any new sanctions against Iran, but the existing ones remain intact and continue to deeply harm Iran's economy.

According to one of our previous fact-checks oil exports, which fund nearly half of Iran's government spending, have fallen by about half since 2011, from about 2.5 million barrels a day to about 1.25 million. The drop has been driven by a European Union embargo and U.S. pressure on Iranian oil customers. The sanctions have also resulted in a high unemployment rate and a drop in Iran's currency. (Read more about it here.)

Rouhani and his new moderate approach can be seen as a direct result of the international sanctions against Iran. But politics in Tehran are extremely complicated. While Rouhani might be the elected president, the real power lies in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader - a fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed out on CBS's Face the Nation.

Israel is concerned about the shift in Iran's rhetoric and has repeatedly warned the United States and its allies to be skeptical and not to trust Iran. In a passionate speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Prime Minister Netanyahu described the difference between Rouhani and his predecessor: "Rouhani doesn't sound like Ahmadinejad but when it comes to Iran's nuclear weapons program the only difference between them is this: Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf's clothing. Rouhani is a wolf in sheep's clothing. A wolf who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community."

Netanyahu is not the only one concerned: David Albright, a physicist and the founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in early October 2013. According to his assessment, Iran has the technology to build nuclear weapons but isn't moving forward at the present moment. His concern, however, is that within a few months the country could have the ability to "build a nuclear weapon so fast and quickly that they don't have to fear military strikes before they are finished."

At this point, the Obama administration keeps pursuing diplomacy. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met in New York in September, and Kerry has since stated that it would be "diplomatic malpractice of the worst order" not to at least test Iran's true willingness to stop its nuclear program.

At the same time, President Obama made it clear that military action is not off the table. In an interview on ABC's This Week about not launching attacks against Syria, he noted that "the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue."

Representatives from Iran and the European Union-chaired P5+1 group (the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, plus Germany) met on October 15-16, 2013, in Geneva. According to Catherine Ashton, the EU's top foreign policy official, the two-day meeting was the "most detailed talk ever" on Iran's nuclear program. After the meeting, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Iran had shown a "level of seriousness and substance that we have not seen before." The confidential Iranian proposal to the group will be further discussed in November 2013.

Obama said during the campaign that Iran would not get a nuclear weapon under his watch, meaning that we cannot effectively rate his promise until 2016. For now, we rate it In the Works.

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Remarks at a presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., Oct. 22, 2012, via New York Times

U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearing on "Reversing Iran's Nuclear Program," Oct. 3, 2013

U.N. News Centre, "Iran's new President proposes immediate 'time-bound' talks on nuclear issues," Sept. 24, 2013

Statement by H.E. Dr. Hassan Rouhani President of the Islamic Republic of Iran on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement at the High Level Meeting of the General Assembly on Nuclear Disarmament, Sept. 26, 2013

BBC News, "Iran nuclear checks most detailed ever - Ashton," Oct. 16, 2013

Reuters, "Obama, Iran's Rouhani hold historic phone call," Sept. 28, 2013

Euro News, "Netanyahu: 'Rohani is a wolf in sheep's clothing' as Israel slams Iran at the UN," Oct. 1, 2013

USA Today, "Kerry: 'Diplomatic malpractice' not to engage Iran," Oct. 3, 2013

New York Times, "Iran's New President Preaches Tolerance in First U.N. Appearance," Sept. 24, 2013

New York Times, "Rouhani, Blunt and Charming, Pitches a Moderate Iran," Sept. 26, 2013

ABC News, "This Week," Sept. 15, 2013

Washington Post, "White House: Iran's nuclear presentation has 'level of seriousness, substance' unseen before," Oct. 16, 2013

PolitiFact, "Under economic sanctions, "now Iran is suffering 30 percent inflation, 20 percent unemployment," Sept. 22, 2013 (Mostly True)

PolitiFact, "Paul Ryan says the Obama administration 'watered down sanctions' against Iran," Oct. 15, 2012 (Mostly False)

PolitiFact, "Mitt Romney says Barack Obama 'could have gotten crippling sanctions against Iran. He did not,'" Feb. 23, 2012 (Mostly False)