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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking Trump’s Iran Address

In an address to the nation a day after an Iranian attack on military bases housing U.S. soldiers in Iraq, President Donald Trump made some dubious, misleading and inaccurate claims:

  • Trump distorted the facts when he claimed the Iran nuclear deal that he withdrew from “expires shortly anyway.” The deal, which was implemented in 2016, limits enriched uranium for 15 years, and requires monitoring of Iranian facilities in some cases for as long as 25 years.
  • The president continued to mischaracterize and inflate the amount of money made available to Iran as part of the Iran nuclear agreement — money which Trump then dubiously said was used to pay for missiles fired at U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
  • Trump claimed that “many” hypersonic missiles are “under construction.” American efforts on hypersonic weapons have moved past just the research phase, but the U.S. is still in the development stage.
  • Trump said the U.S. is “now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world,” when it became the leader in production of petroleum in 2013 and natural gas in 2009. He also said “we do not need Middle East oil,” when Persian Gulf countries accounted for 19% of U.S. oil imports in 2018.

Trump addressed the nation on Jan. 8 — a day after Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at two military bases in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The military bases house U.S. and coalition military forces, but the president said no Americans were killed.

During the remarks, the president criticized the Iran nuclear agreement that was negotiated by the Obama administration and supported by the international community.

Iran’s Nuclear Deal

The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — and Germany reached an agreement with Iran in July 2015 on a plan designed to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program would be used only for peaceful purposes. In exchange, the U.S., European Union and United Nations agreed to lift sanctions on Iran.

That plan — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — was implemented Jan. 16, 2016.

But the deal has been in jeopardy since 2018, when Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement and began imposing sanctions on Iran. Since then, “Iran has breached JCPOA limits on uranium enrichment, research and development on advanced centrifuges, and stockpile size,” as explained by the nonpartisan Arms Control Association.

In response to the U.S. drone attack on Jan. 2 that killed Iranian’s top military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran went even further, announcing it would not comply with the JCPOA’s limits on uranium enrichment.

In his Jan. 8 remarks on Iran, Trump downplayed the significance of the JCPOA.

Trump, Jan. 8: The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.

Trump distorts the facts. The nuclear agreement, which took effect four years ago, imposes restrictions on enriched uranium for 15 years, and requires monitoring and inspections of Iranian facilities for at least 15 years.

“No single element blocks Iran’s pathway to nuclear weapons, but taken together, the nuclear restrictions and monitoring form a comprehensive system that will put nuclear weapons out of Iran’s reach for at least 15 years,” the nonpartisan Arms Control Association said in an August 2015 analysis of the agreement. “Many of the JCPOA provisions also extend beyond 15 years. Monitoring of centrifuge production facilities continues for 20 years, and monitoring of uranium mines and mills continues for 25 years. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors will have enhanced access indefinitely.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said something similar in a 2018 report.

CRS, July 20, 2018: For 15 years, the IAEA will monitor the stored Iranian centrifuges and related infrastructure. During this time, Iran will also permit the IAEA “daily access” to “relevant buildings” at the Natanz facilities. For 20 years, Tehran will allow the agency to verify Iran’s inventory of certain centrifuge components and the manufacturing facilities for such components. Additionally, Iran is to allow the IAEA to monitor the country’s uranium mills for 25 years and to monitor Iran’s plant for producing heavy water.

The nuclear deal also lengthened the breakout time — which is how long it would take Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon — from roughly two or three months to at least one year for at least 10 years, according to the CRS report. A lengthier breakout time gives the U.S. and international community more time to react, if IAEA inspectors detect Iranian efforts to produce nuclear weapons. 

“In addition to the restrictions on activities related to fissile material production, the JCPOA indefinitely prohibits Iranian ‘activities which could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device,’ including research and diagnostic activities,” the CRS report said.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said Trump is simply “wrong.”

“The JCPOA created important uranium and uranium enrichment-related barriers that prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons for more than 15 years, and some other limitations last longer and some indefinitely,” Kimball told us in an email. “But with the impulsive decision to by Trump to withdraw from the agreement and violate U.S. commitments under the deal, he has prompted Iran to remove these barriers far sooner.”

Iranian Assets

Trump continued to mischaracterize and inflate the amount of money Iran was able to access when sanctions were lifted as part of the Iran nuclear agreement — money which Trump dubiously said was used to pay for missiles fired at U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Trump, Jan. 8: Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013, and they were given $150 billion, not to mention $1.8 billion in cash. Instead of saying “thank you” to the United States, they chanted “death to America.”… Then, Iran went on a terror spree, funded by the money from the deal, and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.

There are several things wrong with Trump’s statement. For starters, the international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons’ program, as we mentioned earlier, was signed in 2015 — not 2013.  And, despite Trump’s numerous claims to the contrary, Iran also was not “given $150 billion” in the deal.

As we explained once again last year, the deal did unfreeze some of Iran’s assets that were held largely in foreign, not U.S., banks.

“That was Iran’s money held in escrow,” Elizabeth Rosenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, told us via email. “Iran was not so much given money but allowed access to its own money that had been held, according to sanctions, in escrow in countries to which Iran had been selling oil during the period of intensive sanctions from 2012-2015.”

Also, $150 billion is a high-end estimate of the total that was freed up after some sanctions were lifted.

U.S. Treasury Department estimates put the figure at about $50 billion in “usable liquid assets,” according to 2015 testimony from Adam Szubin, acting under secretary of treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence. Another $50 billion to $70 billion in assets would be inaccessible to Iran because they “are either obligated in illiquid projects (such as over 50 projects with China) that cannot be monetized quickly, if at all, or are composed of outstanding loans to Iranian entities that cannot repay them,” Szubin said.

The “$1.8 billion in cash” Trump referred to is unrelated to the JCPOA. It was a settlement reached by the Obama administration to resolve a dispute that dates to 1979, when Iran paid the U.S. $400 million for military equipment it never received. The U.S. refused to provide the equipment after the Shah of Iran was overthrown during the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

The agreement reached in 2016 ended a claim that Iran had filed against the U.S. in an international tribunal in The Hague. Together with interest, the U.S. agreed to pay a total of $1.7 billion to Iran. An initial installment of $400 million was paid in cash on the same day in January 2016, that Iran released U.S. prisoners. That led to charges that Obama had paid a ransom, though the Obama administration insisted it was not.

As for Trump’s claim that, “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration,” experts told us that’s impossible to say.

“The Iranian missiles used in the retaliatory attack on U.S. forces based in Iraq were indigenously produced missiles, probably Fateh-110s and Fateh-313s, and it is impossible to determine whether those missiles were or were not produced before 2015 [when the JCPOA was signed], but Iran did possess a large number of these missiles before 2015,” Kimball, of the Arms Control Association, told us via email.

In his testimony back in 2015, Szubin said the Obama administration was “mindful that at least some of the funds Iran receives from relief could find their way to malign purposes,” but he said “the vast majority will be used to tackle a mountain of debts and domestic needs that at over a half trillion dollars are more than ten times as large as the funds it can freely use.”

The JCPOA also “does not specifically contain ballistic missile restraints,” as CRS stated in an Oct. 8, 2019 report. In remarks at the United Nations in December, 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “it is clear that the Iranian regime’s ballistic missile activity has grown since the nuclear deal.”

Whether the money Iran freed up as a result of the JCPOA could have been used for the missiles, as Trump alleged, is “difficult to say” because “money is fungible,” said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

“However, we can clearly state that the project to develop precision guidance was started way before the JCPOA and the missiles we saw were initially developed before the JCPOA,” Hinz told us via email. “Also, this was a project that was given the highest priority by the Supreme Leader and missiles are the core pillar of Iranian national defense.” Hinz said he had “strong doubts as such it is affected too much by budget fluctuations.”

Hypersonic Missiles

In touting the strength of the American military, Trump name-checked one of the buzziest weapons of late: hypersonic missiles.

“Under construction are many hypersonic missiles,” the president said, adding, “The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it.”

It’s not entirely clear what Trump means by “under construction,” which could refer to prototype creation or to full-blown production of deployable weapons. The White House did not respond to our request for clarification.

Iain Boyd, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder with expertise in hypersonics, said the Department of Defense has several ongoing programs to build hypersonic weapons.

“It’s certainly way beyond just doing research on those systems,” he said of American progress. “But it’s not like there’s a factory where there is a production line, and they’re just rolling off.”

A Congressional Research Service report updated in September 2019 also stated that the U.S. is “unlikely” to field an operational hypersonic weapons system before 2022. A table summarizing U.S. hypersonic programs indicates the projects are still in design review, flight or launch testing phases — and will be at least through 2020.

Hypersonic missiles are a kind of weapons holy grail for several nations because they promise to be incredibly fast — and with current anti-missile defense systems, potentially impossible to defend against. 

The word “hypersonic” refers to speeds above Mach 5, or five times faster than the speed of sound. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, which pop up into space and then fall back down along an arched, parabolic path, reach hypersonic speeds upon atmospheric re-entry. But because they follow known arcs, they are predictable. The term hypersonic weapon, then, is usually reserved for hypersonic-speed weapons that can still maneuver at high speed, making them difficult to stop with existing anti-missile technology.

Boyd said there are two basic types of hypersonic weapon designs. One involves launching a glider on a rocket, and having the glider come back down. The second, which would likely be what Trump had in mind when he said “hypersonic missile,” Boyd said, would be more akin to a cruise missile, with an engine to push it along at a constant speed and altitude for a while. Boyd said the glider design is further along. Whichever country gets there first, he said, it will likely be with a glider, adding that the U.S. is working on both designs.

Indeed, despite news reports and claims from Russia and China about their hypersonic successes, Boyd said it’s not necessarily clear who is winning the hypersonic weapons arms race. “Nobody has, I don’t think, what we would call a ‘fielded capability,’ where there’s something sitting in a bunker somewhere and you can press a button and fire one of these things,” he said. “And until somebody does have that, then it’s not really clear who’s ahead.”

Russian and Chinese efforts on hypersonic weapons, however, have spurred more intense American interest in the technology, as well as in developing hypersonic weapon defense.

U.S. Energy Boasts

Trump again credited himself for energy accomplishments that were previously predicted, or that began during the previous administration.

Trump, Jan. 8: Over the last three years, under my leadership, our economy is stronger than ever before and America has achieved energy independence. These historic accomplishments changed our strategic priorities. These are accomplishments that nobody thought were possible. And options in the Middle East became available. We are now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world. We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.

We don’t know how Trump is measuring energy independence, but the Energy Information Administration’s most recent monthly review from December shows that, as of the first nine months of 2019, the U.S. exported slightly more energy than it imported, and it produced a tad more energy than it consumed.

However, it’s not true that no one thought that was possible. Prior to Trump taking office in January 2017, the EIA projected that U.S. total energy exports would exceed imports by at least 2026, and the agency projected that U.S. total energy production would exceed consumption by the same year. So the EIA did expect it would happen.

Trump’s claim that the U.S. is the “number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world” isn’t exactly new information, either. The EIA said the U.S. became the worldwide leader in crude oil production in 2018, but, as we have written before, it also said that U.S. became the international leader in production of petroleum products, including crude oil, in 2013, and the global leader in natural gas production in 2009.

As for Trump’s claim that “we do not need Middle East oil,” the U.S. is importing less oil from Persian Gulf countries (Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) than in previous years. But in 2018, the most recent annual EIA data available, the U.S. still relied on those countries for about 19% of its crude oil imports and nearly 16% of all its petroleum imports.