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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Netanyahu Takes Kerry Out of Context

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s highly anticipated speech to Congress contained a curious statement. He claimed Secretary of State John Kerry “confirmed last week that Iran could legitimately possess” 190,000 centrifuges enriching uranium by the end of a long-term nuclear agreement that the U.S. is negotiating with Iran. That, Netanyahu warned, could put Iran “weeks away” from an “arsenal of nuclear weapons.”

But that’s not what Kerry said.

In House testimony on Feb. 25, Kerry was asked about reports that the U.S. is seeking a deal that would reduce Iran’s centrifuges from 19,000 to between 6,000 and 7,000. Kerry responded by saying a “peaceful program” can have a lot of centrifuges, and the purpose of the negotiations is to make sure Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful.

“[I]f you have a civilian power plant that’s producing power legitimately and not a threat to proliferation, you could have as many as 190,000 or more centrifuges,” Kerry told the committee.

Netanyahu addressed Congress at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner at a time when the U.S. is leading negotiations on a new nuclear agreement with Iran. The U.S. and five other countries in November 2013 reached an accord with Iran called the Joint Plan of Action, or JPA, that was designed to temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear program to give negotiators time to work out a long-term agreement on an inspection and verification plan that would allow Iran to maintain a peaceful nuclear program and prevent it from building nuclear weapons. In exchange, the U.S. and its allies have agreed to ease sanctions imposed on Iran’s assets.

The U.S. and Iran have been operating under a March 31 deadline for a long-term pact, and Israel has been highly critical of details of the plan that have emerged so far.

In his speech, Netanyahu warned that Iran could not be trusted and its “quest for nuclear weapons” threatened his country’s survival.

At one point, the Israeli prime minister spoke about Iran’s centrifuges, which are the machines used to enrich uranium. Iran currently has “9,400 operating centrifuges and another 10,000 that are installed but not in operation,” as reported by the Los Angeles Times. The existing JPA allows Iran only to replace failed centrifuges, and the U.S. has been negotiating a reduction. During negotiations, the target number of proposed centrifuges has changed from 1,300 to 4,000 and most recently to 6,500 or more.

Netanyahu recalled that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in 2014 that Iran needed 190,000 centrifuges. But in doing so Netanyahu misrepresented what Kerry had said about Iran’s centrifuges.

Netanyahu, March 3: Iran’s supreme leader says that openly. He says, Iran plans to have 190,000 centrifuges, not 6,000 [discussed in negotiations] or even the 19,000 that Iran has today, but 10 times that amount — 190,000 centrifuges enriching uranium. With this massive capacity, Iran could make the fuel for an entire nuclear arsenal and this in a matter of weeks, once it makes that decision. My longtime friend, John Kerry, secretary of state, confirmed last week that Iran could legitimately possess that massive centrifuge capacity when the deal expires. Now I want you to think about that. The foremost sponsor of global terrorism could be weeks away from having enough enriched uranium for an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons and this with full international legitimacy.

Kerry did not confirm “that Iran could legitimately possess” 190,000 centrifuges.

At a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida asked Kerry about reports that the deal being negotiated would allow Iran to have 6,000 or 7,000 centrifuges. Deutch asked “why Iran would need that many since currently there is one reactor.”

Kerry, Feb. 25: [T]he purpose of the negotiations we’re in now with Iran is to ensure that their nuclear program is exclusively for civilian purposes. That’s the key here. They can have a civilian peaceful program. So when you get into the number of centrifuges and this and that, if — if you have a civilian power plant that’s producing power legitimately and not a threat to proliferation, you could have as many as 190,000 or more centrifuges. And there are millions of centrifuges involved, ultimately, power plants that are producing power. So the key here is, is this a peaceful program, and are the measures in place capable of making sure you know it’s peaceful? That’s the standard we’re trying to apply.

Kerry wasn’t saying that “Iran could legitimately possess” 190,000 centrifuges. He was saying that “a civilian power plant that’s producing power legitimately” could have 190,000 or more centrifuges.

In fact, when Khamenei said Iran needed 190,000 centrifuges, Kerry at that time said that even 19,000 was too many.

“We have made it crystal clear that the 19,000 that are currently part of their program is too many, and that we need to deal with the question of enrichment,” Kerry told reporters at a July 15, 2014, press availability. “And so all I will say to you is that we will continue to press.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told us in an email that Kerry’s reference to 190,000 centrifuges at the House hearing wasn’t about Iran or the number of centrifuges that it could possess “under or after a deal.”

“Secretary Kerry was not speaking to what Iran could or would have under or after a deal — he wasn’t talking specifically about Iran at all,” Harf said. “He was arguing that ensuring the nuclear program is peaceful through measures like transparency and monitoring can be as important [as] the number of centrifuges, which can get quite high even in countries that peacefully enrich uranium only to produce electrical power.”

— Eugene Kiely