In an Oval Office meeting last week, Trump sided with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who argued that the administration should again renew sanctions waivers related to five separate parts of Iran’s nuclear program. Mnuchin prevailed over the objections of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, according to six administration officials. Pompeo, who is the lead official on the issue, will nevertheless support Trump’s decision when it is announced later this week.
Mnuchin, these six officials said, argued to Trump that if the sanctions were not again waived as required by law by Aug. 1, the United States would have to sanction Russian, Chinese and European firms that are involved in projects inside Iran that were established as part of the 2015 nuclear deal. The Treasury Department asked for more time to navigate the collateral effects of these sanctions.
“We still have the goal of ending these waivers,” a senior administration official told me. “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.”
These projects include modifying a heavy-water reactor in Arak and converting an enrichment center at Fordow as well as fuel exchanges at the Bushehr nuclear reactor facility and the Tehran Research Reactor.
The State Department, which is the lead government agency on the issue, last renewed the waivers in May even as it declined to renew two other nuclear-related sanctions waivers. The soon-to-be-announced waiver extensions will give those projects another 90 days of immunity. In April, the Trump administration canceled all waivers for all imports of Iranian oil, a move that has contributed to a crippling of the Iranian economy. The National Security Council, the State Department and the Treasury Department all declined to comment on the record about internal deliberations.
Earlier this month, Trump seemed to indicate that the nuclear waivers would not be extended, when he reacted on Twitter to news that Iran had exceeded the uranium enrichment levels agreed under the nuclear deal. “Sanctions will soon be increased, substantially!” he tweeted.
Inside the administration, some officials who work on nonproliferation issues argued the projects give the United States and the international community crucial insight into Iran’s nuclear program, and reduced Iran’s ability to proliferate.
“There’s always been a tension inside the administration between those who want to preserve elements of the [Iran nuclear deal] as a framework for negotiations and those who see it as a fatally flawed agreement that provides Iran patient pathways to atomic bombs,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Our policy objective is to maximize maximum pressure. These nuclear waivers never made sense, and they definitely don’t make sense in the context of a maximum pressure campaign.”
Fifty U.S. lawmakers made that exact point in a July 17 letter to Trump led by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). The lawmakers urged him to cancel the Iran nuclear sanctions waivers once and for all and said the waivers legitimize Iran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure and sustain projects that were established by the Obama-era nuclear deal.
“Mr. President, your maximum pressure campaign on Iran is working,” the lawmakers wrote. “To continue your successful strategy, we must renew all U.S. and international sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.”
Of course, that all depends on what one means by “working.” For Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), the goal of ending waivers is to ramp up “maximum pressure” until Iran “permanently abandons its nuclear ambitions & stops sponsoring terrorism.” For Pompeo, the goal is to convince Iran to take 12 steps to becoming a “normal country.”
For Trump, the goal of the “maximum pressure” campaign is to compel the Iranian regime to come back to the table and agree to a better deal than the one President Barack Obama was able to negotiate. None of those things are likely to happen soon. But under any of those theories, “maximum pressure” could be undermined by this decision.
Daryl Kimball, president of the Arms Control Association, said that since Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy is not going to work anyway, the projects themselves should be saved for their intrinsic value.
“It’s in the U.S. national and international security interest to extend these waivers to allow these projects, which were designed to make Iran’s nuclear programs more proliferation-resistant,” he said.
Some officials insist that the nuclear waivers do not dilute the “maximum pressure” campaign much. “We are permitting restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to continue while we cripple Iran’s economy,” one official said.
But for most officials, lawmakers and diplomats, the issue is whether the Trump administration and Trump himself are really committed to the unilateralist, aggressive, full-break-from-Obama Iran policy they are always touting. This move could be interpreted as a signal they are not.
“It’s going to be seen as tacit approval that Iran has a right to have a nuclear enrichment program, which we do not accept,” one official said. “That’s not the policy.”