The Trump administration will renew several key waivers that allow Iran to keep operating a limited civilian nuclear program, a move that heads off a clash with European allies and Tehran over the fate of a 2015 deal that Trump abandoned last year.
The U.S. is extending five waivers the administration had previously granted allowing nations that remain in the deal to engage in nonproliferation activities and nuclear research at three sites — Fordow, Bushehr and Arak — without facing sanctions, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford said Friday. Instead of granting the waivers for 180 days, the administration will shorten their term to 90 days.
Two other waivers, allowing Iran to ship surplus heavy water to Oman and to ship out any enriched uranium that exceeds a 300 kilogram limit in exchange for natural, or “yellowcake” uranium, will be revoked. The second of those revocations may be especially important because it would mean Iran will have a much harder time disposing of any uranium it enriches — thus forcing it to choose between violating its nuclear obligations or stopping all enrichment, as the U.S. wants.
“We are tightening restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program as part of our pressure campaign,” Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, said in an interview. “Iran cannot have any path to a nuclear weapon.”
The Friday decision likely will be welcomed by European allies including France, Germany and the U.K., which had lobbied the White House to keep the waivers first allowed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 accord that President Donald Trump withdrew from a year ago.
They and other proponents had argued that the exemptions were instrumental in reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation from Iran and gave the International Atomic Energy Agency daily access to the sites.
One waiver that was extended applies to the facility in Bushehr, on the Persian Gulf, where Russia provides enriched uranium to power the reactor and removes spent fuel rods. Revoking that would have allowed Iran to say it deserved the right to enrich uranium. The move would have also made it impossible for China to work with Iran to redesign its reactor at Arak.
“Our leadership is not comfortable with any mechanism that allows uranium enrichment,” Ford said. “We don’t want to give Iran a supposed excuse to continue to enrich.”
The State Department said Friday’s move maintains oversight of Iran’s nuclear program and “constrains Iran’s ability to shorten its ‘breakout time’ to a nuclear weapon,” according to department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo is still insisting that Iran meet 12 demands the U.S. has laid out, including that it stop enriching uranium and end what the U.S. calls its “malign activity” in the Middle East.
The decision follows a fierce internal debate that’s now become familiar with the Trump administration, between Pompeo’s staff and National Security Adviser John Bolton’s team. Administration hawks, along with hardline allies on Capitol Hill, had argued that nearly all the waivers should be revoked.
Critics of the waivers had found little wrong with the Bushehr one but were particularly angry with the one covering Fordow. They point to information that came out after Israel exposed Iran’s nuclear archive last year. That data showed Iran had built Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, solely to make weapons-grade uranium.
Arms control proponents skeptical of the administration’s hard-line approach had argued that revoking the waivers would have been more significant than the administration’s earlier moves to cut off Iranian oil revenue or designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group.
That’s because the nuclear waivers are at the very heart of the Iran nuclear deal, and denying them would make it all but impossible for Iran to keep abiding by its terms. It also would have raised the possibility of sanctions against Russia, China and the U.K., which all play roles in Iran’s limited nuclear program.
“Revoking these waivers, you’re basically almost preventing the other JCPOA parties from providing the peaceful nuclear technical assistance that is the basis of Iran’s nuclear commitments,” said Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at the Congressional Research Service.
Bolton had been joined by hawkish Republican senators including Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who had argued that Iran wants the reactors going so it can keep its nuclear-weapons program on ice and not abandon it completely.
On Thursday, Cruz successfully delayed a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jeffrey Eberhardt, the nominee to be Trump’s special representative for nonproliferation, as part of a broader bid to press the administration to revoke the waivers.