President Trump, responding during a White House address on Wednesday to the missile strikes by Iran, assailed the nuclear agreement reached by his predecessor and praised American military might. The 10-minute address contained numerous inaccuracies and claims that lacked evidence. Here’s a fact check.
What Mr. Trump Said
“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.”
This is misleading. The agreement reached by Iran, the United States and a number of other nations to constrain Tehran’s nuclear program did not directly provide American money to Iran, but it did release about $100 billion in previously frozen Iranian assets. Much of the amount was tied up by debt obligations, for example, $20 billion to China for financing projects in Iran. Estimates for the actual amount available to Iran range from $35 billion to $65 billion.
A separate $1.7 billion transfer of cash to Iran was to settle a decades-long dispute and was agreed to in negotiations that happened parallel to the nuclear deal. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran’s shah had paid $400 million for American military goods but, after he was overthrown, the equipment was never delivered. The clerics who seized control demanded the money back, but the United States refused. The additional $1.3 billion is interest accumulated over 35 years.
Iran and other parties to the nuclear accord signed an interim agreement in 2013, but the formal agreement was not reached until 2015. The White House did not respond when asked for evidence of increased Iranian “hostilities.”
It is worth noting that before Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear agreement in 2018, his administration repeatedly certified that Iran was in compliance.
Afterward, as his so-called maximum-pressure campaign on Iran continued, tensions between the United States and Iran “escalated significantly,” according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. Mr. Trump’s claim blaming the nuclear accord for Iranian aggression rather than his withdrawal from it is “almost an inverted reality,” said Jim Walsh, a research associate at M.I.T.’s Security Studies Program and an expert on nuclear issues and the Middle East.
He said that attacks by the four groups supported by Iran and designated by some governments as terrorist organizations — Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command — actually declined after the nuclear deal.
Attacks carried out by these groups decreased from more than 80 in 2014 to six in 2017, before increasing to more than 40 in 2018, according to the Global Terrorism Database maintained by the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. And while Iran has been a violent and destabilizing force across the region, Mr. Trump’s assertion that Tehran had “created hell” lacked context in some cases.
Iranian aid to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in that country’s civil war and Tehran’s backing of Houthi rebels in Yemen both predate the signing of the nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
“There’s nothing that Iran was doing after J.C.P.O.A. that it wasn’t doing before,” said Vali R. Nasr, a professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University and a State Department official in the Obama administration.
Calling Iran’s backing of the Houthi rebels against the Saudi Arabia-aligned government in Yemen terrorism is “devaluing the word to the point where it’s meaningless,” said Anthony Cordesman, an expert on military affairs and the Middle East at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
As for Iran’s activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Cordesman said, “they were more aggressive there because they were working to attack ISIS — as we were.”
What Mr. Trump said
“The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.”
This lacks evidence. The White House did not respond when asked to substantiate this claim, and experts noted there was no proof that Iranian assets unfrozen by the deal paid for the missiles.
“There’s a certain fungibility here,” Mr. Walsh said. If the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, “took a dollar on the street, did that fund the missile attack?” he added. “That’s not very useful from an analytical perspective. Nor is the case that giving them money caused them to attack the U.S.”
“We have no indication,” Mr. Cordesman said, “whether these missiles are funded by the money from the J.C.P.O.A.”
The director of national intelligence’s annual report on worldwide threats in 2019 did note that Iran continued to develop and improve military capabilities including ballistic missiles, but it did not tie those efforts to the nuclear deal. Furthermore, the annual reports warned of the same efforts in 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and before.
Critics of the Iran deal, including Mr. Trump, have long argued that it was inadequate because it did not address Iran’s ability to develop ballistic missiles. Those restrictions have instead been established by the United Nations Security Council resolutions.
The diplomatic accord was an arms deal with a very narrow aim of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, “not a nonaggression pact, not a form of a friendship treaty,” Mr. Nasr of Johns Hopkins said. “Whether there could have been more in the deal, of course. But piling in expectations is disingenuous.”
What Mr. Trump Said
“The very defective J.C.P.O.A. expires shortly anyway and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.”
This is exaggerated. The major provisions limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities last a decade or longer. And the agreement increased the “breakout” period — the time it would take Iran to produce enough fuel for one weapon — to at least a year from an estimated two to three months. If the deal had been left in place and fully adhered to, Iran would not have been able to achieve nuclear breakout until 2030.
The agreement also prohibits Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons permanently. “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons,” the first paragraph of the deal reads.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a vocal critic of the deal, said it “largely expires after only 15 years.”
Under the deal’s terms, Iran agreed not to use more than 5,060 centrifuges to enrich uranium — and not to pursue research and development on centrifuges — for 10 years. Limits on enrichment levels, facilities and stockpiles last for 15 years, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.
Under the terms of the accord, Iran also agreed to convert a deep underground enrichment facility into a “technology center” that cannot contain nuclear material and where the number of centrifuges is limited for 15 years. Several provisions on plutonium, including forbidding the construction of new heavy water reactors, last for 15 years.
Inspectors are to monitor centrifuges and related infrastructure for 15 years, verify inventory for 20 years and monitor uranium mines for 25 years.
What Mr. Trump Said
“We are now the No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world. We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.”
This is misleading. The United States has been the largest producer of oil and gas in the world since 2013, a trend that began under the Obama administration thanks in large part to advances in shale drilling techniques.
The Energy Information Administration projected in January 2019 that the United States will produce more energy than it imports this year, the first time since 1950. But that is not the same thing as not importing oil from the Middle East at all. In 2018, the United States imported more than 1.5 million barrels a day from the Persian Gulf.
What Was Said
“The American military has been completely rebuilt under my administration at a cost of $2.5 trillion.”
This is exaggerated. The $2.5 trillion figure refers to the total defense budgets of the past four fiscal years: $606 billion the 2017 fiscal year (which began before Mr. Trump took office), $671 billion in 2018, $685 billion in 2019 and $718 billion in 2020. But the amount spent on procurement — buying and upgrading equipment — was about $562 billion over that period.
Mr. Trump’s use of the phrase “completely rebuilt” is somewhat subjective. Though the Trump administration has invested in operational readiness over the past few years, there are signs that the military continues to face substantial challenges in addressing an array of threats from around the world.
For example, the military earned a middling grade of “marginal” from the conservative Heritage Foundation’s annual index of strength, based on factors like shortages in personnel and aging equipment. The think tank noted that American forces are probably capable of meeting the demands of a single major regional conflict but “would be very hard-pressed to do more and certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two nearly simultaneous major regional contingencies.”
What Was Said
“Three months ago, after destroying 100 percent of ISIS and its territorial caliphate, we killed the savage leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi, who was responsible for so much death.”
This is exaggerated. The Islamic State lost its final territories in March 2019, ending the physical “caliphate,” but the terrorist group has not been destroyed. The recent confrontation with Iran has halted the United States’ campaign against ISIS.
Just this week, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the fight against the group was continuing.
Mr. Trump alluded to the organization’s endurance in his speech when he said: “ISIS is a natural enemy of Iran. The destruction of ISIS is good for Iran. And we should work together on this and other shared priorities.”
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