US to extend Iran nuclear sanctions waivers – report

Washington Post quotes official saying Trump administration remains committed to eventually ending waivers allowing work on Iranian civil nuclear program

A view of the heavy-water production plant in the central Iranian town of Arak, August 26, 2006. (AP/ ISNA, Arash Khamoushi)
A view of the heavy-water production plant in the central Iranian town of Arak, August 26, 2006. (AP/ ISNA, Arash Khamoushi)

The Trump administration will reportedly announce the renewal of sanctions waivers this week allowing foreign firms to work on Iran’s civil nuclear program.

According to a Washington Post report Tuesday, US President Donald Trump backed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s recommendation at a White House meeting last week to extend the waivers despite objections from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Under the terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Russia, China and several European nations help to maintain several Iranian nuclear sites and are engaged in converting equipment there for exclusively civilian use.

Among the facilities to be included in the waiver extensions are the Bushehr nuclear power plant, the Fordo enrichment facility and the Arak nuclear complex.

In this photo from July 24, 2019, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin walks away from the microphones after speaking to members of the media at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Citing six administration officials, the Post said Mnuchin argued the US would have to sanction the firms involved in those projects if the waivers are not renewed by the August 1 deadline and asked for more time to study the potential impact of such sanctions.

A senior administration official quoted by the paper said that despite the extensions, the goal is to end the waivers.

“These waivers can be revoked at any time, as developments with Iran warrant. But because of the Treasury Department’s legitimate concerns, we’ve decided to extend them for now,” the official said.

Trump withdrew last year from the deal that Iran signed with the US, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China in 2015. The agreement lifted punishing economic sanctions in exchange for limits on the Iranian nuclear program. Critics in the United States believed it didn’t do enough to thwart Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons and enabled Iran to rebuild its economy and continue funding militants throughout the Middle East.

Trump, who called it “the worst deal in history,” began reinstating sanctions, which have hobbled an already weak Iranian economy.

Iran responded by blowing through limits on its low-enriched uranium stockpiles and announcing plans to enrich uranium beyond levels permitted under the deal. Iran has taken increasingly provocative actions against ships in the Gulf, including the seizure of a British vessel, and the downing of a US drone.

Deal critics, including Republican senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, say the waivers should be revoked because they give Iran access to technology that could be used for weapons. In particular, they have targeted a waiver that allows conversion work at the once-secret Fordo site.

Deal supporters say the waivers give international experts a valuable window into Iran’s atomic program that might otherwise not exist. They also say some of the work, particularly on nuclear isotopes that can be used in medicine at the Tehran reactor, is humanitarian in nature.

A satellite image from September 15, 2017, of the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (Google Earth)

Trump has been publicly coy about his plans. He said this past week that “it could go either way very easily. Very easily. And I’m OK either way it goes.

US officials denied the expected extension of the waivers marked an easing of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran.

“We are permitting restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to continue while we cripple Iran’s economy,” an official told the Post.

Another official pushed back against any perception that extending the waivers was an implicit approval of an Iranian right to enrich uranium.

US President Donald Trump speaks to the press before departing from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on July 30, 2019. (Alastair Pike/AFP)

“That’s not the policy,” the official said.

The August 1 deadline comes as Iran pressures the European parties to the deal to offset the sanctions Trump reinstated after pulling out.

Iran’s recent moves — which it defends as permissible after the US withdrawal — are seen as a way to force the others to openly confront the sanctions.

Experts warn that a higher enrichment level and a growing uranium stockpile narrow the one-year window that Iran would need to have enough material to make an atomic bomb, something Iran denies it wants but that the deal prevented.

So far, Iran’s exceeding of the agreement’s stockpile and uranium enrichment ceilings have been seen as violations likely to prompt the European signatories to invoke a dispute resolution mechanism. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched at a level of 90%.

Both of Iran’s actions were verified by the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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