Another signature piece of President Barack Obama's legacy may be evaporating before his eyes, even before President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office.
The hard-fought deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons was placed in jeopardy Dec. 13 when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered his country's scientists to begin work on nuclear-powered maritime vessels, Reuters reported.
To do so would require Iran to enrich uranium to an extent beyond the threshold established by the 2015 agreement, which also specified that Iran could operate only one enrichment facility.
Rouhani's order comes after U.S. lawmakers voted Dec. 1 to extend the president's authority to impose sanctions on the Islamic country. The vote was largely symbolic, according to The New York Times, and was intended to make sure Iran kept up its end of the bargain by reminding Iranian leaders that sanctions could be levied again as quickly as they were lifted.
“This sanctions regime is how we hold Iran accountable, strengthen our security and deter Iranian hostility towards our allies, especially the state of Israel,” Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, told The Times after the vote. “Diplomacy is always our preferred course of action, but it does not work in a vacuum. It only works if it is backed up with credible deterrence.”
The Iranian government immediately called the vote a violation of the nuclear agreement, and the Dec. 13 announcement to develop nuclear-powered boats and submarines was a direct result of Congress' vote, analysts said.
Iran had already been developing its first nuclear-power submarine and had announced that development in 2012, Reuters reported. The Iranian government offered few details about the new vessels, except Rouhani's description of a "nuclear propeller to be used in marine transportation" that would power them.
Under the nuclear agreement between the two countries, Iran was permitted to enrich uranium up to 3.67 percent purity, a cap intended to prevent the country from weaponizing its program. That's a range that covers most light water reactors which are used to generate power, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Developing nuclear technology that could power military vessels would require enrichment beyond the 3.67 percent cap, nuclear experts said, meaning Rouhani's announcement is an acknowledgment that Iran intends to violate the nuclear agreement.
In that sense, announcing the naval program was more about enrichment levels -- and the signal to Washington -- than about the vessels themselves, nuclear expert Mark Hibbs told Reuters.
"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 Hibbs, a 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."
The propulsion technology to power military boats and submarines would typically require uranium enriched to about 20 percent purity, Hibbs said.
The announcement by Iran comes after Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the loudest critics of the nuclear agreement with Iran, told "60 Minutes" he was confident Trump would scrap the deal. Netanyahu and Obama famously did not see eye-to-eye on many subjects, and a nuclear Iran has been foremost among them.
During the interview, Netanyahu said he'd already begun thinking about alternative ways to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons if the 2015 accord was broken -- and said he was confident Trump would be on board.
"I know Donald Trump," Netanyahu told the news program. "And I think his attitude, his support for Israel is clear. He feels very warmly about the Jewish state, about the Jewish people. There's no question about that."