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The White House's Netanyahu-trolling cartoon is pretty misleading

The White House tweeted out a cartoon on Wednesday afternoon, defending the Iran nuclear framework agreement, that was unmistakably designed to mock Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It's pretty good trolling — but as an explanation of the Iran nuclear issue, it's somewhat misleading.

The image in question is a drawing of a cartoon bomb. The basic point is to illustrate that, under the terms of the proposed deal, Iran would have to give up a lot of the enriched uranium and centrifuges it could use to develop a nuclear bomb — which leaves Iran much further from a bomb than it would be in the absence of the deal. And that basic point is true.

Netanyahu bomb cartoon

The drawing is an unmistakable reference to a cartoon bomb Netanyahu famously used during a 2012 UN speech, a prop used to illustrate just how close he believed Iran was to a bomb. Netanyahu is one of the framework deal's most outspoken critics, and the White House is clearly poking fun at his bomb drawing, which was widely mocked at the time.

netanyahu iran bomb diagram

Netanyahu holds a bomb drawing at the UN in 2012. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

The jab at Netanyahu reflects the general state of US-Israel relations under Netanyahu and Obama — that is to say, openly antagonistic. And the White House is probably right that this framework is the best of all feasible alternatives for limiting Iran's nuclear progress without war.

But the diagram confuses the issue, and ends up being more misleading than informative. Iran will still maintain a real nuclear infrastructure under the terms of the deal. For example, the framework grants them about 6,000 centrifuges, the devices used to enrich uranium. They can't enrich uranium to anywhere near weapons-grade, but they can enrich it. The diagram seems to outright say that Iran will be zero percent of the way to a bomb under the deal's terms. It's hard to put a specific percentage on it, but it's certainly more than zero.

Much of the confusion here stems from Netanayahu's original bomb chart. As Kingston Reif, the Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Agency, explained via email, Netanyahu's diagram is designed to represent progress towards a bomb. But it measures that in a very narrow way.

"The 70% line in the cartoon referred to Iran's accumulation of enough less than 5% enriched uranium (UF6) for one bomb. The 90% line referred to enough 20% enriched uranium for one bomb," he writes. But because it's harder to go from 5 percent to 20 than from 20 percent to 90, Reif explains, "up to 5% enriched uranium is actually about 70% of the way to weapon grade. Up to 20% enriched uranium is about 90% of the way."

This all makes Netanyahu's measure confusing and imprecise, not to mention awfully narrow as a metric for measuring Iran's nuclear progress. That's true of the White House cartoon as well; since the White House has tried to needle Netanyahu by using his same metric, they've ended up with a cartoon that's similarly misleading.

The framework deal, Reif explains, "would require the elimination of Iran's 20% enriched uranium and cap the low enriched uranium at 300 kgs of 3.5%. This means Bibi [Netanyahu's] one bomb would be drained most of the way, but not all the way."

But the White House cartoon appears to mark Iran as zero percent of the way to a bomb. According to Reif, the correct number should be a fair bit higher: "At a minimum about 1200 kg of [low enriched uranium] is required for one bomb, so that means Bibi's bomb wouldn't be totally empty, but it would be close to empty. Roughly 1/4 of the 70% section of the bomb would be filled in."

This all comes down to a question of how you define Iran's progress toward a bomb. The White House cartoon doesn't say, other than to imply that it's the same metric as Netanyahu used. To be fair to the White House, there are other, more accurate ways to measure how close Iran is to a bomb than Netanyahu's. Some of them yield something closer to, but not quite, zero percent progress under the deal. The graphic itself doesn't make clear which standard is being used, which confuses the issue further.

A White House official defended the graphic on the grounds that the deal would put Iran "dramatically down" towards zero, which is what they were intending to represent. That's true on some metrics, but the place that the line was drawn on the bomb wasn't accurate if you use Netanyahu's original standard, and the drawing clearly implies zero percent progress.

Moreover, none of this nuance about different modes of measurement come across in a diagram. If you take either of the most natural readings of the diagram — measurement of how close Iran is to a bomb relative to a country with no nuclear program, or a direct application of the standard Netanyahu laid out in his 2012 UN speech — the diagram isn't particularly helpful.

Correction: This post initially stated that Netanyahu's cartoon bomb used uranium enrichment levels as a metric for the country's progress toward a bomb. While the diagram did use a technical metric as a benchmark for overall nuclear progress, that metric was the progress of enrichment toward having enough material for a bomb, rather than the specific enrichment level.