White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest Addresses Iran's Announcement to Pursue Naval Nuclear Propulsion

December 13, 2016

Q    Iran today ordered its scientists to start developing nuclear-powered marine vessels for what it said as a response to a U.S. violation of the atomic deal.  So I was wondering, how much of a concern is this, this kind of maybe tit for tat, the idea that Iran is now saying that it’s responding to actions taken by Congress by building these nuclear-powered vessels?  Is there a concern that this is going to be an ongoing thing and that there’s going to be kind of back and forth now?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I would agree with your assessment that the timing of this announcement to coincide with the President’s signing of the Iran Sanctions Act is not likely a coincidence, but we’ve been clear even through much of the congressional debate in Congress about the Iran Sanctions Act that the President would not sign into law a piece of legislation that undermined the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The extension of the Iran Sanctions Act does not undermine the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And we’ve -- that’s been our position from the beginning.  We’ve explained that quite clearly in public and we’ve explained that in private to the Iranians.

At the same time, the announcement from the Iranians today does not run counter to the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  We continue to be able to watch closely Iran’s nuclear program, starting in the uranium mills and throughout the nuclear supply chain.  That is an unprecedented insight into any country’s nuclear program, and allows us to verify their ongoing compliance with that program.  And our expectation is that as they undertake these kinds of research-and-development efforts, that they will do so consistent with their international obligations.

And we have the ability, because of the cooperation with the Iranians under the agreement, to verify their ongoing compliance with the agreement.

   But does this kind of -- going forward, should this be something of a warning to Congress or to the next administration that there could be repercussions for pursuing more sanctions, or anything like that?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I wouldn’t be particularly concerned about that.  There are a range of Iranian activities that are a source of concern to the international community and to President Obama outside the scope of the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  The reason that we pursued that international agreement is because Iran’s ability to get access to and potentially use a nuclear weapon was the number-one concern of the United States and the international community with regard to Iran.

So we’ve taken that top concern off the table without firing a single shot.  And this is something that even the harshest critics of the deal acknowledge has been accomplished.  It didn’t eliminate all of our concerns with Iran, but it did eliminate our number-one concern about Iran, and that’s ultimately the point.

There are other concerns that we have about Iran’s behavior that include their support for terrorist organizations and other destabilizing elements in the Middle East, like Hezbollah.  We are concerned about the way that Iran continues to menace Israel, and we continue to be concerned about the Iranian regime’s lack of respect for basic universal human rights.  And we have a variety of ways of countering all of that activity -- some of that involves additional financial sanctions.  Some of that involves close cooperation with our partners in the region. 

But the number-one objective of the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons was to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And that objective has been achieved.  And because of our ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear program, we can verify the ongoing success of that effort.  And it certainly is something that makes the world a safer place.  It enhances the national security of our closest ally in the Middle East, Israel.  It enhances the national security of our NATO partners in -- NATO allies in Europe.  And it enhances the national security of the American people, and it will be an important part of President Obama’s foreign policy legacy.