Political News

Trump admin mulls more sanctions that could threaten safeguards on Iran's nuclear program

Posted April 23, 2019 12:11 p.m. EDT

— President Donald Trump and his advisers are considering revoking sanctions waivers that have allowed several countries to collaborate with Iran on civil nuclear projects, including those intended to restrict Iran's nuclear production capabilities, two sources familiar with the matter said.

Trump administration officials have held several meetings in recent weeks to discuss eliminating some or all of the nuclear sanctions waivers, but a decision has not yet been reached, an administration official and source familiar with the discussions told CNN. National security adviser John Bolton, a longtime Iran hawk, has been among those pushing for the US to take this next step and eliminate the waivers, the sources said.

The idea has received pushback from some within the administration including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to a former administration official. The discussions have also prompted concerns among career State and Treasury Department officials who worry that revoking the waivers will eliminate important safeguards on Iran's nuclear program.

The step would be just the latest in the administration's moves to undermine the nuclear deal with Iran and ramp up the US pressure campaign on Iran. On Monday, the US announced it would reimpose sanctions on countries who purchase oil from Iran, eliminating waivers that were set to expire on May 2.

Revoking the waivers could unravel a key part of the Iran nuclear deal, a signature achievement of the Obama Presidency, which Iran has continued to comply with despite the US's withdrawal from the pact last year.

A National Security Council spokesman declined to comment.

The Trump administration granted waivers allowing "nonproliferation projects at Arak, Bushehr, and Fordow," three Iranian nuclear sites, to continue in November 2018 at the same time it announced it would reinstate all sanctions waived as part of the 2015 nuclear deal. The State Department made clear it was issuing the waiver to allow "certain ongoing projects that impede Iran's ability to reconstitute its weapons program and that lock in the nuclear status quo" to move forward.

The waivers currently allow modifications that ensure Iran's Arak reactor produces less plutonium and the conversion of the Fordow nuclear site into a research facility.

Experts argue move would be dangerous

Several nuclear experts have warned that eliminating the sanctions waivers that allow countries like Russia and China to help Iran modify its nuclear facilities would be a provocative move and could prompt Iran to leave the agreement.

While Iran has remained in compliance with the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA, amid Trump's decision to pull the US from the deal and ramp up sanctions, revoking the nuclear cooperation sanctions waivers could force other member countries out of compliance with the agreement. And if those countries renege on their commitments to help Iran with civilian use of its nuclear sites, experts worry that Iran could abandon the deal altogether.

Kelsey Davenport, the director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, argued it would be a "dangerous and irresponsible decision not to renew the waivers."

"Failing to renew the waivers would be a huge own goal for the United States. It's in US national security interests to ensure that Iranian nuclear facilities cannot be quickly reconverted for nuclear weapons purposes," Davenport said. "If the United States stops the remaining states party to the agreement from fulfilling those projects, it puts them in violation for the deal which just gives Iran future justification for abandoning the agreement."

But proponents of revoking the nuclear sanctions waivers argue the US should continue to make clear that preserving the status quo is not sufficient -- and revoking the waivers would send an unmistakable signal about the administration's views of the JCPOA.

Move would undermine nuclear deal

Applauding Trump on Monday for revoking the oil sanctions waivers, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas renewed his call for Trump to "take the long overdue step of ending civil-nuclear waivers, which allow the Iranians to continue nuclear-related work in places like the Fordow centrifuge bunker, which they secretly dug under a mountain so they could build nuclear weapons with additional protection from an aerial attack."

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, argued the administration should "full stop" take steps to review and revoke several of the nuclear waivers.

"One cannot have a maximum pressure policy on Iran while simultaneously permitting international nuclear cooperation with Iran," Ben Taleblu said. "It signals that we don't have the capability or the intention to marry our rhetoric with reality, it means that we don't want max pressure to be actually max pressure."

Increasing the pressure on Iran is the motivating factor for proponents of eliminating the sanctions waivers. And proponents appear unconcerned about the prospect of the deal imploding.

Eric Brewer, who served as director for counterproliferation at the National Security Council in the Trump administration, believes the motive of those arguing for the nuclear waivers to be eliminated is clear.

"The motive seems to be to try and induce Iranian withdrawal from the deal," Brewer said, "and make it as hard as possible for a future administration to get back in."