White House

Europeans warn Trump that nuclear sanctions could force Iran’s hand

Trump decertifies Iran nuclear deal

President Trump announced that he is decertifying the Iran Nuclear Deal during a press conference on Friday, Oct. 13.
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President Trump announced that he is decertifying the Iran Nuclear Deal during a press conference on Friday, Oct. 13.

European officials warned the White House in recent days that Iran might walk from its nuclear deal with world powers unless President Donald Trump extends sanctions waivers on nuclear cooperation, sources familiar with the talks told McClatchy this week.

Those sanctions, if allowed to go into effect, would target a central tenet of the 2015 agreement that allows Tehran to continue certain nuclear-related activities at publicly declared sites, in limited quantities and under international supervision.

A senior administration official described “tense” meetings at the White House with European Union, French and British diplomats, who expressed alarm over the potential for renewed U.S. nuclear sanctions after waivers expire on May 4.

The sanctions would target entities working with Iran on nuclear-related projects and thus expose every nation still party to the deal – Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the E.U. – to a new round of U.S. penalties, complicating their ability to uphold basic commitments under the agreement.

“Our position was more to alert the administration on the risks of such a decision,” a European diplomat told McClatchy.

Trump last year withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement, but Iran and the five other signatories continue to abide by it.

U.S. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear work were lifted under the terms of the international accord. While most of those sanctions – on major Iranian exports, their access to the U.S. dollar, foreign banking and financial services and on foreign companies engaging in business with Tehran – have snapped back into place since Trump’s withdrawal, his administration has issued a series of short-term waivers on particularly sensitive matters, including Iranian oil exports to close partners and on nuclear cooperation.

A debate among Trump’s top foreign policy advisers over whether to extend oil sanctions waivers to U.S. allies such as India and South Korea, which purchase large amounts of Iranian oil, has been widely reported. But internal disagreement over the nuclear sanctions reflects an even greater divide, according to one U.S. official, over whether to intentionally collapse the agreement under the pressure of sanctions or keep it alive for eventual renegotiation.

State Department leadership, including Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, supports extending the waivers as a goodwill gesture to the Europeans. But National Security Advisor John Bolton opposes an extension, claiming it would lend legitimacy to continued Iranian nuclear activity and to an agreement dismissed as fatally flawed by the president, two sources familiar with the deliberations said.

Aware of the interagency divide, European officials have recently met with officials across the U.S. government to make their case.

The nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, permits Iran to continue operations at critical nuclear sites under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The JCPOA also directs world powers to help Iran reconfigure its nuclear infrastructure, and to provide Tehran with dual-use equipment for its nuclear work through a procurement channel – a mechanism that allows the international community to track the comings and goings of Iranian nuclear parts, according to its architects.

China, for example, committed to helping Iran transform its heavy water reactor at Arak, once capable of producing weapons-grade uranium, into an innocuous device. The U.K. currently chairs the Arak Working Group overseeing that effort. And all five parties in the deal are meant to work with Iran on converting their bunkered nuclear facility at Fordow into a research and medical isotope production center.

Those projects have stalled, Iranian officials say, over fears of a U.S. sanctions snapback.

Participants are “reducing the speed of cooperation despite their commitment,” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, told state-run media earlier this year.

Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that a snapback of U.S. nuclear sanctions – first passed by Executive Order in 2003 and compounded by a harsh round of sanctions legislated in the 2012 and 2013 national defense authorization acts – would render U.S. technologies used by the Europeans in their nuclear work with Iran inaccessible, and their financing of joint nuclear projects “extremely difficult.”

“This is an important thing to the Iranians,” Clawson said. “But it’s an important thing to the Americans, too. If you smash the deal apart by prohibiting all nuclear cooperation, such as targeting Russia for repatriating Iran’s spent fuel, how does that serve the U.S. interest? It makes it easier for Iran to build a nuclear weapon.”

In November, when the State Department first confirmed it would waive nuclear-related sanctions, a spokeswoman described the move as a temporary measure “conditional on the cooperation of the various stakeholders.”

“We are not issuing waivers for any new civil nuclear projects,” the State Department spokeswoman said at that time. “We are only permitting the continuation for a temporary period of certain ongoing projects that impede Iran’s ability to reconstitute its weapons program and that lock in the nuclear status quo until we can secure a stronger deal that fully and firmly addresses all of our concerns.”

State Department officials believe this argument still holds. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo technically has the ability to sign additional waivers without clearance from the president, but White House officials concerned with the strategy might elevate the decision to Trump, who has yet to be briefed on the matter.

Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.