Biden Admin Lets Sanctions Waiver for Iran-Russia Nuclear Work Expire—But Won't Commit to Enforcing Those Sanctions

Vladimir Putin, Ali Khamenei / Wikimedia Commons
April 12, 2024

The Biden administration has allowed a series of sanctions waivers that permit Iran and Russia to engage in joint nuclear work to lapse but won't commit to enforcing those sanctions, sowing confusion about U.S. policy at a time when both countries are building out Tehran's atomic infrastructure.

The waivers, which were last renewed in August 2023, expired at the beginning of 2024. They provided upwards of $10 billion in profit for Russian-state controlled firms, such as the Rosatom energy company, for work at Iran's various nuclear plants, including contested military sites suspected of housing the country's atomic weapons program.

Yet the Biden administration will not commit to enforcing those sanctions now that the waivers have expired. A State Department spokesman would not say why the waivers were allowed to expire and told the Washington Free Beacon that officials are still "reviewing the waiver as part of the regular review process" and that a public comment will only be given "once a decision is made as part of that review." The response is fueling questions on Capitol Hill as Iran advances plans to invest at least $50 billion in its Russian-made nuclear plants.

Congressional Republicans have been pressing the Biden State Department for years to nix the waivers and enforce sanctions blocking that cooperation. The Biden administration repeatedly renewed the waivers before allowing them to expire earlier this year. Republicans suspect the lapse in a renewal notice is a sign that the United States is turning a blind eye to Russia-Iran nuclear cooperation and not enforcing sanctions. Questions surrounding the sanctions waivers have been mounting on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, sources told the Free Beacon, with some lawmakers demanding an immediate briefing from the State Department.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), who spearheaded legislation last year to bar the Biden administration from renewing the sanctions waivers, said confusion around the issue indicates the administration is ignoring the highly profitable Russian-Iranian alliance.

"I pushed the Trump administration for years to end these waivers, which they did. Joe Biden and Biden officials renewed them as part of their appeasement of Iran, allowing Russia to build up Iran's nuclear program and for [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and the Ayatollah to solidify a nuclear alliance," Cruz told the Free Beacon. "Now that catastrophic, irreversible damage has been done, the administration is just ignoring the whole issue and hoping it goes away. Their choice now is to renew the waivers, and allow Russian-Iranian cooperation to continue[,] or keep them expired, and then people will ask about their years of appeasement."

Amid confusion on the U.S. side, Russia and Iran have built out Tehran's nuclear infrastructure. Earlier this month, Iran announced plans to expand its Russian-made nuclear plant known as Bushehr, as well as a $50 billion investment in other facilities. Iranian officials said construction will pick up pace in May, raising further questions about whether the Biden administration intends to renew the waivers, sanction this activity, or allow the activity to occur even without the waivers in place.

Andrea Stricker, the deputy director of Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank's Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program, said that without action by the United States, Russia stands to make billions from its nuclear work with Iran, providing it with the cash needed to continue waging its war on Ukraine.

"Russia is likely helping Iran build new reactor units at Bushehr and perhaps elsewhere. The Biden administration must sanction the entity responsible: Russia's state-run Rosatom Corporation," Stricker said. "For far too long, the administration has sidestepped targeting this key Kremlin revenue stream. The administration said more than a year ago that Russia building new reactors would be sanctionable activity. They must follow through."

Since the Iran-backed Hamas terror group launched its war on Israel last October, Tehran has been enriching uranium to levels approaching weapons-grade fuel, drawing warnings from international watchdog groups.

The Obama administration issued waivers permitting Iran and Russia, as well as China and European countries, to build out parts of Tehran's nuclear program as part of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The Trump administration scrapped the waivers in 2019 and 2020 after withdrawing from the deal. But President Joe Biden restored the waivers as part of his own diplomacy surrounding a revamped version of the deal.

The waivers were renewed in the aftermath of Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which saw Iran and Russia become military partners. Eventually, the Biden administration scaled back some of the waivers, with the administration telling Congress in a notification last year that a more narrow allowance would lessen "cooperation between Iran and Russia at a time that Iran is providing lethal aid to Russia for use in its illegal invasion of Ukraine."

In February of this year, Iran broke ground on four new nuclear power plants. While the country did not say who will assist with these projects, Stricker and other experts suspect that Russia or China could play a role.

In December 2023, Iran also began work on a new nuclear reactor in the city of Darkhovin, a move that the International Atomic Energy Agency said violates Tehran's obligations under the nuclear safeguard pact.

report last year also said that Tehran and Moscow reached an agreement that would see Russia return enriched uranium to the Islamic Republic.

A senior GOP congressional aide who works on the matter but was not authorized to speak on record said the administration "can't be open about their position on Iran's nuclear program because it contradicts their public positions."