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Donald Trump, fresh off winning four states in the March 15 primaries, rattled off a series of domestic and foreign policy "disasters" that he’ll fix, from businesses leaving the United States to terrorist threats to poorly negotiated deals.
"One of the broadcasters was saying, ‘Is there anger?’ " Trump said. "I’m supposed to say, ‘No there’s not, we love the way things are working. We love the deal you made with Iran. We give them $150 billion, we get nothing. We love all the deals. The trade deals are wonderful.’ "
Okay, $150 billion in exchange for nada does sound like a pretty terrible deal — but is that actually what was agreed upon?
According to all the experts we talked with, Trump’s claim is inaccurate.
"The best I can say is that he got the name of the country right. Almost nothing else in there is right," said Michael Malloy, an expert on economic sanctions at the University of the Pacific.
No hundred-billion giveaways
Trump’s statement makes it sound like we’re cutting Iran a $150 billion check. In reality, the money is already Iran’s to begin with, just frozen under the many economic sanctions levied against the country.
Restrictions on Iranian assets — such as the $1.9 billion the National Iranian Oil Company was restricted from collecting from Shell for delivering crude supplies — began to thaw this year. Per the Iran deal, nuclear inspectors verified in January that Tehran was doing enough to curb its nuclear program, prompting the United States and other countries to lift the sanctions.
Just how much money was being held up?
Experts say $150 billion is the high end of estimates or, as Malloy put it, "what it could possibly be in the broadest imagination." Most peg the the total value of Iranian assets at around $100 billion, but Iran probably still won’t be able to access all of it.
The deal only releases assets frozen because of Iran’s nuclear program. Assets blocked because of other sanctions (on terrorism, human rights, and missile technology) won’t change as a result of the agreement.
Also, Iran won’t suddenly have all the assets at its disposal because some of it is tied up in debts. For example, about $20 billion is obligated to China, which worked around the sanctions to finance infrastructure projects in Iran.
The actual amount available to Iran is about $60 billion, estimates Garbis Iradian, chief economist at the Institute of International Finance. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew pinned it at $56 billion, while Iranian officials say $35 billion, according to Richard Nephew, an expert on economic sanctions at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
In return, no bomb
While the United States doesn’t get a cash bonus for lifting sanctions, Trump’s claim that we got "nothing" in return misses the point of the deal: blocking Iran from building a nuclear bomb.
"We got major restrictions and intrusive transparency on Iran's nuclear program. Beyond being not ‘nothing,’ this is the entire reason why we put the sanctions on in the first place," Nephew said. "Reasonable people may disagree whether we got enough for the sanctions relief, but it wasn't nothing."
"There’s a long list (of things we got), such that even the Israeli intelligence community has concluded that, for the duration of the deal, Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon," said George Perkovich, an expert on nuclear strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Under the deal, Iran agreed to lose 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium and give up 14,000 of its 20,000 centrifuges, which are needed to enrich uranium. It also agreed to curb production of plutonium (the other element that can be used to build a bomb) and dismantle its one plutonium reactor.
To make sure Iran holds up its end of the bargain, the deal also permitted international inspectors to "implement continuous monitoring." (What that means and whether it’s enough are up for debate.) In other words, said Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Jim Walsh, we got Iran to nip its nuclear ambitions in the bud before the cash was released.
Experts also pointed out that there’s also a host of diplomatic advantages gained from the deal, such as the goodwill of the five other countries involved in the deal and potentially more cooperation from Iran in the Middle East.
For example, the deal has "reduced the chances of a war between Iran and Israel," and Iran "could eventually de-escalate tensions with Saudi Arabia and contribute to a political settlement of the crisis in Syria," said Iradian.
"In the big game, that counts for something," said Malloy.
Trump said under the Iran nuclear deal, "we give them $150 billion, we get nothing."
Trump is referring to the amount of previously frozen Iranian assets the deal releases. To be clear, this is money that already belongs to Iran so we’re not "giving" them anything. The $150 billion is a high estimate, and most experts say the real figure is closer to $100 billion, while Iran is probably only able to access a fraction of that.
In exchange for lifting the sanctions, the United States and its allies get to block Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in the near future. One can argue whether we got enough, but we didn’t get "nothing."
We rate Trump’s claim False.
ABC, "Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Delivers Victory Speech in Florida," March 15, 2016
PolitiFact, "Donald Trump: Iran gets to keep $150 billion even if U.S. rejects nuclear deal," Aug. 16, 2015
New York Times, "Democrats Hand Victory to Obama on Iran Nuclear Deal," Sept. 10, 2015
International Atomic Energy Agency," IAEA Director General’s Statement on Iran," Jan. 16, 2016
PolitiFact, "PolitiFact Sheet: 6 things to know about the Iran nuclear deal," Sept. 8, 2015
Interview, Michael Malloy, law professor at McGeorge School of Law, March 16, 2016
Reuters, "Shell repays Iran 1.77 billion euros debt for oil deliveries," March 7, 2016
White House, "Implementation Day," Jan. 16, 2016
Email interview with Nader Habibi, professor of economics of the Middle East at Brandeis University, March 16, 2016
The Conversation, "Iran’s frozen funds: how much is really there and how will they be used?" Aug. 11, 2016
The Huffington Post, "China To Fund Iran Development Projects With $20 Billion In Sanction-Barred Oil Money: Report," Nov. 2, 2013
Email interview, Garbis Iradian, chief economist at the Institute of International Finance, March 16, 2016
C-SPAN, "Iran Nuclear Agreement," July 23, 2015
Email interview, Richard Nephew, program director at the Center on Global Energy Policy, March 16, 2016
Email interview, George Perkovich, vice president at Carnegie Endowment, March 16, 2016
NPR, "Ex-Mossad Chief Supports Iran Nuclear Deal," July 31, 2015
PolitiFact, "Deal puts Iran's nuclear program under lock, key and camera 24/7, says Rep. Don Beyer," July 16, 2015
Email interview, Jim Walsh, research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program, March 16, 2016
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