A Done Deal?
Iran Makes Move for Nuclear Propellers

Ayatollah Khameinei recently warned Congress that any attempt to extend sanctions on Iran would be considered a violation of the nuclear deal. The Supreme Leader apparently meant it, as Iran is now threatening a breach of its own. Reuters:

Iran ordered its scientists on Tuesday to start developing systems for nuclear-powered marine vessels in response to what it calls a U.S. violation of its landmark 2015 atomic deal with world powers.

Nuclear experts however said that President Hassan Rouhani’s move, if carried out, would probably require Iran to enrich uranium to a fissile purity above the maximum level set by the nuclear deal to allay fears of Tehran building an atomic bomb. […]

“On the basis of international experience, were Iran to go ahead with such a (nuclear propulsion) project, it would have to increase its enrichment level,” said Mark Hibbs, nuclear expert and senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“That’s the point, because Iran would be looking for a non-weapons rationale to provocatively increase its enrichment level in the case that the deal with the powers comes unstuck.” 

Is this the end of the Iran deal as we know it? It is too soon to say, but Iran’s latest move is a particularly brazen gesture that even the Obama Administration, which has preferred to minimize violations of the deal, will find hard to ignore. Obama has previously given the Iranians the benefit of the doubt, saying they were violating the “spirit” of the deal, not the “letter.” Such a charitable interpretation seems to be ruling in this instance as well; the White House is already denying that today’s announcement, “in and of itself,” would violate the accord.

The Obama Administration’s attempts to save face on the agreement look increasingly strained, while Iran pushes the envelope to see what it can get away with. This dynamic showcases the deal’s inherent weaknesses. Lacking both the approval of Congress and formal treaty status, Obama’s Iran deal is a remarkably fragile agreement, vulnerable to the whims of his successor. Obama knows this, which is why he feels compelled to put a happy face on the deal’s accomplishments, insisting that it is working and ignoring when it is not.

There has been much handwringing in the press about whether the Iran nuclear deal will be dismantled once Donald Trump gets in office. But the deal appears to be unraveling under Obama, not Trump, and as a reaction to a congressional vote that had widespread bipartisan support. This only underscores how tenuous Obama’s achievement was, and what shaky foundations it rests upon.

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