Trump to disappoint Iran hawks with more nuclear waivers

After building up its maximum pressure campaign on Iran, the Trump administration is poised deliver a disappointment to hawks who want tougher action against Tehran.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to reissue waivers this week allowing continued international work on nuclear projects inside Iran, according to two sources familiar with the deliberations. Some lawmakers have been pressing the administration to eliminate the waivers since Iran announced earlier this month that it had breached the limits on uranium enrichment set by the nuclear deal.

Ending the waivers would increase pressure on Tehran, which is already smarting from economic sanctions imposed by the administration, and advocates have argued it is a measure of the president’s commitment to the maximum pressure policy. But eliminating them would also further inflame tensions between the U.S. and Iran — as well as with European nations — and potentially risk a military confrontation between the two countries.

“The revocation of select civil nuclear cooperation waivers is an important measure of both the administration’s nuclear policy and its dedication to the max pressure campaign against Iran,” said Behnam ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “It makes little sense to reward Iran with all these waivers as it engages in activities that are clear violations of the JCPOA.”

The likely move when the next deadline hits on Thursday follows a heated debate among senior administration officials and lawmakers supportive of much of the administration’s foreign policy, with National Security Adviser John Bolton and his allies on the Hill arguing to end the waivers and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin the chief proponent of extending them for another round.

The president himself has vacillated on the issue. In one Oval Office meeting in recent weeks, Trump instructed senior administration officials to eliminate the waivers, according to a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the discussion. In a subsequent meeting, he backed Mnuchin, who argued for extending the waivers, over Pompeo.

The debate itself is reflective of the administration’s mixed signals about its policy toward Iran, which has often toggled between hardline rhetoric and diplomatic overtures. In recent weeks, for example, the president allowed his isolationist ally, Sen. Rand Paul, to meet with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he would be willing to travel to Tehran. At the same time, Trump sent a different and more foreboding message on Monday, tweeting, “Just remember, the Iranians never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!”

Pompeo, for his part, appears to be putting his faith in the administration’s ban on Iranian oil imports to effect change, telling the conservative talk radio host Ben Shapiro last week that the administration hopes that a precipitous decline in oil revenues will force Iran back to the negotiating table.

“Our hope is that Iran will just see that the cost is too high, that the Iranian people will tell their leadership that they have to change their behavior, and that the Iranian leadership will see that the risk to what they care about most, which is staying in power, is real, and they will come to the table,” Pompeo said.

A State Department spokesman said the department had nothing to announce at this time.

The nuclear waivers are one of the last remaining vestiges of the 2015 nuclear pact, which encouraged international cooperation to advance Iran’s civil nuclear program. They have allowed a number of nations to work on projects at nuclear facilities throughout Iran.

While proponents of the nuclear deal have argued that the international nuclear projects they facilitate allow for greater visibility into Iranian nuclear activities, critics have argued they have legitimized some of Iran’s illicit activities. They have harped on the work being done at the Fordow and Arak plants, pointing to documents in the Israeli-exposed Iran nuclear archive indicating that the Fordow plant was built specifically to make nuclear weapons and never had a civilian dimension. When Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s nuclear chief, announced that Iran surreptitiously imported a second set of parts for the Arak reactor, critics called on the administration to suspend the waiver for projects there as well.

The State Department announced in May that it would renew the waivers for 90 days — rather than for 180 days as it had done previously — saying in a statement that the projects they facilitate “constrain Iran's nuclear activities” and “help maintain the nuclear status quo in Iran.”

Earlier this month, a trio of hawkish Republican senators, Marco Rubio of Florida, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ted Cruz of Texas, penned a letter urging the president to do away with the waivers in the wake of Iran’s announcement that it had blown past the uranium enrichment levels established by the deal.

“The Iranians have now changed the nuclear status quo and are trying to create a new normal of minor violations that will enable their creep toward a nuclear weapon. We urge you to end these waivers,” they wrote.

A group of 50 GOP House members led by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) echoed the three senators in a separate letter.

Yet even some who have pushed to end the waivers acknowledge that doing so poses a real risk of military escalation. “The administration fears that if it cancels the waivers and invokes snapback, it risks escalating the military confrontation,” said Michael Doran, who penned an essay in June arguing for ending the waivers, which was circulated widely in the administration.

But, Doran said, “The question is this: Is it better for the US to start a negotiation when Iran's nuclear program is legitimate in the eyes of international law and enjoying international partnerships with Europe, Russia and China? Or is it better to start when the program is illegitimate and has no partners? The latter is obviously preferable.”