What did Obama mean by ‘end their nuclear program’?


Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin notes that President Obama took a very tough rhetorical line on Iran’s nuclear program at last night’s debate. (He suggests that it was part of an effort to woo Jews and a sign of Obama’s worries about the Jewish vote.)

Regarding negotiating a deal with Iran, Obama said:

And we hope that their leadership takes the right decision, but the deal we’ll accept is they end their nuclear program. It’s very straightforward.

Tobin reads this literally as suggesting that the president is ruling out any sort of deal under which Iran can continue to enrich uranium or maintain a nuclear program. Indeed, that would seem to be the plain meaning of this statement.

But is that what the president meant?


It seems possible that the president was referring more narrowly to a weapons-oriented program. In which case he may not have intended to foreclose the possibility of a deal in which Iran would be able to continue enrichment or maintain some nuclear activities.

On the Iranian nuclear issue, it is easy to read too much into a small shift in wording or an inadvertent omission. (Earlier in the campaign, Romney omitted the word "capability" during a TV interview, seeming to forget his own red line and causing a mini-kerfuffle.)

Indeed, shortly after making the statement cited by Tobin, Obama noted the terms of any such deal in slightly greater detail:

There is a deal to be had, and that is that they abide by the rules that have already been established; they convince the international community they are not pursuing a nuclear program; there are inspections that are very intrusive. But over time, what they can do is regain credibility. In the meantime, though, we’re not going to let up the pressure until we have clear evidence that that takes place.

When the president refers to "intrusive" inspections, is he suggesting that these would be used to guarantee that Iran has no nuclear program (as Tobin’s understanding would seem to demand), or is he suggesting that they would keep any nuclear program in check to make sure that it was not diverted to less than peaceful ends?

Tobin, for his part, sees big implications in the president’s statement that the Iranians must "end their nuclear program":

He is now committed to a position that is incompatible with Iran having any sort of nuclear program. His statement also makes the Iran talks that some senior officials in his administration thought were a done deal impossible. If the president is to keep his vow to prevent Iran from going nuclear, it is clear that he is now more or less forced to accept Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position on “red lines,” since the terms of the negotiations that the Europeans have pushed in the P5+1 talks have now been ruled unacceptable.

UPDATE: Tobin responded to this post on Commentary’s blog. He and others have pointed out to me that Obama repeatedly said during the debate that Iran needs to "end" or "give up" its "nuclear program," which does indeed seem significant and more than an inadvertent omission of a word. See my new post on the issue here.

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