Well, that didn’t take long. On Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered the development of nuclear-powered propulsion systems for Iranian ships, pushing the limits of the Iran deal that went into effect in January.
Rouhani’s decision is supposedly in response to Congress passing legislation that gives the president the power to sanction Iran for the next ten years. The act, which had bipartisan support, lets the president penalize Iran for any terrorism or human rights infractions, as well as for violating the nuclear deal.
But Iran says the legislation violates the deal. The Islamic Republic is feigning surprise that the United States doesn’t completely trust them to uphold their end of the bargain. But anyone who’s been paying attention knows this was always Iran’s intention. So, the question is: will President Obama shift the blame and write this off as Donald Trump’s fault?
The White House says that Iran’s move in no way violates the nuclear deal. To say otherwise would be to admit that their flimsy deal was over before it began—although not before it legitimized Iran in the international community and helped steer it back toward hegemony in the Middle East. But technically the Obama administration is right. Iran could, in theory, construct nuclear-powered vessels that use a uranium grade below the 3.67 percent maximum to which the deal restricts them.
However, according to proliferation expert George Moore, this would cost an exorbitant amount of money, making it highly impractical. The more likely scenario is that they will enrich uranium above the allowable level in violation of the nuclear deal, under the pretext that Congress violated it first.
The Iran Deal Was About Buying Time
If Obama were to remain in office, or had Hillary Clinton won the election, the next administration would have responded to Iran’s bold move with an explanation about how the uranium is not being used for weapons purposes and is purely an engineering decision—that it’s part of Iran’s development and the regime bringing prosperity to its people. Since it’s not for military use, goes the argument, it doesn’t violate the spirit of the deal.
But the Democrats lost the election. Trump and the Republicans won’t be nearly so tolerant of a belligerent Iran. And Rouhani knows it. Iran’s leaders are aware that once Trump is in office, the Iran deal is most likely going to be altered or dismantled. So, why not thumb their noses at the United States, making clear that they are beholden to no country or administration? They’d rather violate the deal before Trump has the chance to put them back in the penalty box.
Iran was always going to find a false pretense for expanding its nuclear program. They planned all along to use the deal to buy time to develop nuclear weapons and gain ground economically. Then, eventually, they would blame the United States for breaking the terms of the agreement in order to free themselves to do so openly. Trump’s win caused them to move their timetable up, but it didn’t alter their overall plan.
Obama Spins This as Trump’s Fault
The only people who might be surprised by Iran’s actions are Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, their fiction writer-turned-national security expert Ben Rhodes, and their “compadres” at Vox and The New York Times. But even this strains credulity.
The only thing that’s truly somewhat surprising is Iran’s decision to do all this before Obama’s term is over. Many thought the Ayatollah would wait until Trump took office to make this move. For Obama, despite what he might say, this is surely a disappointment. To have his signature foreign policy achievement fail while he’s still in office tarnishes his legacy.
But Obama may yet be able to blame this on Trump. He will argue that, despite this being done under Obama’s watch, Iran is reacting out of fear of the incoming Trump administration. Because the enrichment levels of the development aren’t yet known, Obama can claim that everything is going along swimmingly. If Iran chooses to enrich above the allowed level during Trump’s presidency, well, that’s on Trump.
In an effort to fully cover his rear end, on Wednesday Obama declined to sign the legislation, thereby allowing it to become law on Thursday without his signature. While he maintains that the law doesn’t violate the terms of the nuclear deal, Obama also made it clear that he doesn’t think the legislation is necessary.
Regardless of how Obama spins this, the Iran deal was poorly conceived from the start. It was always destined to implode, whether Republicans took power or not. Because Obama hasn’t led with bipartisan support from Congress, the Iran deal, much like his executive orders, is just another example of how the Obama legacy will evaporate after he leaves office. While he might try to place the blame on Trump and other Republicans, there’s only one person who’s really responsible. Talk about being on the wrong side of history.