The Trump administration is ending sanctions waivers that allow Russian, Chinese and European companies to do work at sensitive Iranian nuclear sites, following an internal battle between Iran hawks and a more aggressive group of hard-liners inside the U.S. government, according to U.S. officials and documents obtained by The Washington Post.
Nonproliferation experts say the waivers, issued after President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, reduce Tehran’s incentive to enrich uranium at higher levels and provide a valuable window into the country’s atomic program. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a group of lawmakers led by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas pushed to exert even more pressure on Tehran and eliminate the vestiges of the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy objective.
Pompeo will “end the sanctions waiver covering JCPOA-related nuclear projects in Iran,” said an internal State Department memo, using an acronym for the Iran deal.
The decision applies to the waivers on work involving the modification of Iran’s Arak heavy water research reactor, the provision of enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor and the transfer of spent and scrap research reactor fuel out of Iran. The move provides a 60-day period to wind down activities covered by the waiver.
The Trump administration will extend a separate waiver covering international support to the Bushehr nuclear power plant, an effort that preceded the Iran deal, for 90 days to “help ensure the safety of operations at the plant,” the memo says.
It remains unclear if Russian and Chinese companies will cease their involvement in the projects following the decision and if the moves will prompt Iran to take further steps to advance its nuclear program.
Under the deal, which Trump withdrew from in 2018, Iran is prohibited from producing 20 percent enriched uranium for 15 years. But the deal guarantees that Iran will be able to import the 20 percent enriched uranium required for the operation of the Tehran Research Reactor.
“Ending waivers that allow Tehran to import fuel for the reactor hands Iran a justification to resume enriching uranium to 20 percent, a level that is below weapons grade, but poses a more significant proliferation risk than Iran’s current enrichment of less than 5 percent,” said Kelsey Davenport, director of Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association.
“The Trump administration is shooting itself in the foot with this move,” she said.
The nuclear deal also required modifications to the Arak reactor to block Iran’s pathway to nuclear weapons using plutonium. Companies involved in that modification effort will no longer be protected by the sanctions waiver.
“Iran could react to this by saying they’ll restart construction on the old design, which would be very much counter to our interests,” said Richard Nephew, a former State Department official who worked on the deal.
Trump administration officials believe such a move would take years and require money and expertise that Iran doesn’t currently have, said people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a hypothetical. They also believe Iran would be taking a significant risk if it went down that path.
Treasury and State Department officials declined to comment.
Pompeo fought to end the waivers in March but lost an interagency dispute to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who argued that the Trump administration was already under fire for its sanctions on Iran amid the burgeoning coronavirus outbreak. That resulted in the extension of the waivers for another 60 days.
This week’s decision to preserve the waiver for the Bushehr plant for 90 days sets up a final waiver battle inside the Tromp administration as the presidential election campaign heats up.
“The next decision point is at the start of the post-convention presidential election push,” said Jarrett Blanc, a former State Department official who was in charge of Iran deal implementation. “That greatly raises the chances of Pompeo staking out the most hawkish position possible.”