By Arab News
By Joyce Karam
In what has become a tit-for-tat between Washington and Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has ordered Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization to start planning the development of nuclear-powered ships in response to the new sanctions bill enacted by the US Congress this month.
Rouhani’s announcement would require Iran to increase the enrichment of uranium to start developing systems for nuclear-powered marine vessels.
A senior US administration official told Arab News that “such an announcement does not run counter to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA),” and that the deal “allows more oversight and monitoring of Iran’s program.”
However, experts see in Rouhani’s move a worrisome development that could jeopardize the agreement itself, or be used to gain leverage in its implementation.
Violation or leverage?
The move by Rouhani followed the unanimous vote by Congress on Dec. 1 to extend the Iran Sanctions Act, which Tehran warned would be “a blatant violation” of the deal if it is signed into law by US President Barack Obama or his successor Donald Trump after Jan. 20.
A senior US administration official told Arab News that Washington is aware of Rouhani’s announcement on nuclear warships, and that he “explicitly referenced that any such work would be done within the framework of Iran’s international commitments.”
The official added that the US government “will assess (whether it meets the standards of the deal) on the basis of their actions.”
He also referenced the JCPOA as a tool that provides more monitoring of Iran’s program, and “we expect the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) to closely monitor any actions Iran takes pursuant to this announcement.”
Ken Sofer, a senior policy adviser at the Center for American Progress, told Arab News that Rouhani’s move could be a play for leverage in the implementation of the nuclear deal.
“It’s possible Rouhani and Trump are simply signaling to one another in an attempt to gain greater leverage through the implementation process of the nuclear agreement,” Sofer said.
However, the announcement itself is alarming to nuclear experts.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is not surprised by Rouhani’s move. He told Arab News: “I had predicted this last year that Iran would use the excuse of having a nuclear-powered fleet to justify the enrichment of uranium to around 60 percent.” The sanctions expert added: “This in fact is permitted by the JCPOA after 15 years, which demonstrates yet again how fatally flawed the nuclear deal is.”
Regional security concerns
Even with the US government trying to play down Rouhani’s move as a non-violation of the JCPOA, Durbowitz hinted at the alarming geopolitical ramifications that the development of the nuclear-fueled warships could produce.
“This is very dangerous for regional security,” he said, and could prompt “Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Turkey to move in the direction of matching Iranian capability by building their own nuclear capacity,” something that the goal of the JCPOA was to avert.
Sofer also warned of the destabilizing effects of such a military development on the nuclear agreement itself. He said there “are powerful political forces in both the US and Iran that will use destabilizing tactics like Iran’s new nuclear research as an excuse to break the agreement.”
While he said the fall of the deal will “depend in large part on how the rest of the P5+1 views these moves, and who they see as at fault for breaking the agreement,” Sofer portrayed the sanctions move and Rouhani’s response as indicative of the “higher likelihood of the nuclear deal signed in 2015 falling apart.”
Durbowitz agreed that the deal is “at risk now because most Americans have not realized that developing nuclear-fueled warships would be permitted.” Now that this is becoming clearer, he said: “It will increase the need to negotiate a follow-on agreement that addresses this and other fundamental flaws.”
However, renegotiating a second deal is not a feasible option, said Sofer, because of the unlikelihood “that the parties will be willing to come together to renegotiate one if this fails.” Many hardliners in Iran “are rooting for the deal to fail,” he said, and it is “unclear whether Trump thinks he can renegotiate a better deal, is simply trying to gain leverage, or is actively trying to break the deal and blame it on Iran.”