The Biden administration quietly waived sanctions on Iran to allow the hardline regime to sell electricity to Iraq, according to a non-public notification obtained by the Washington Free Beacon that was provided to Congress just as nuclear talks between the United States and Tehran resumed this week.
The timing of the waiver notification—which was signed Nov. 19 but not transmitted to Congress until Nov. 29, the day nuclear negotiations resumed—has prompted accusations the Biden administration is offering concessions to Tehran to generate goodwill as talks aimed at securing a revamped version of the 2015 nuclear deal restart following a months-long standoff.
During the several-month pause, Tehran increased its nuclear program, including the enrichment of uranium and installation of advanced nuclear centrifuges. One senior congressional source familiar with the matter said the delay in transmitting the waiver to Congress indicates the administration is sensitive to the optics of waving sanctions just as negotiations resume.
Richard Goldberg, the former director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction on Trump's White House National Security Council, told the Washington Free Beacon that the latest electricity waiver amounts to a "dressed-up Chanukah present to" Iran.
"This is just another unfortunate example of projecting weakness and deference at a time when the U.S. needs to build leverage and project strength," said Goldberg, who is now a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. "If the waiver was going to be renewed for Iraq relations, it should have been messaged and announced well before arrival in Vienna. It just screams desperation."
Iran insists the United States unwind all economic sanctions that were imposed by the Trump administration, a demand the Biden administration says it is willing to make good on. The E3—Germany, the United Kingdom, and France—said on Friday, however, that Iran's demands are "not serious," according to reports. "Iran is backtracking on almost all of the difficult compromises reached in months of tough negotiations and is demanding substantial changes to the text," E3 diplomats were quoted as saying in Axios.
The sanctions waiver gives Iran another 120 days to sell electricity to Iraq without facing penalties, an arrangement that has generated income for the hardline regime. The Trump administration had limited the waiver's time frame in an effort to wind down these sales, but the Biden administration renewed it for the maximum period of 120 days.
The State Department says it attempted to "deliver the classified portion on Tuesday and Wednesday, November 23 and 24, but due to the closure of congressional offices in connection to the Thanksgiving holiday were not able to identify appropriate recipients." Due to this delay, Congress did not receive the information until Monday.
The State Department maintains in the waiver that Iranian electricity sales to Iraq remain "in the national security interest of the United States." Iraq's failure to reduce its reliance on Iranian electricity necessitated the United States to waive sanctions to enable these sales, according to the waiver.
"In light of the considerations detailed in the classified annex to this report, the secretary determined this waiver is in the national security interest of the United States, and vital to the national security of the United States, with respect to Iraq, and certifies that this jurisdiction faced exceptional circumstances preventing it from significantly reducing its purchases of petroleum and petroleum products from Iran," according to the waiver, which is signed by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. "Iraq continues to be a critical partner in the region, and its continued concrete political and economic cooperation is expected as a result of this waiver."
A State Department spokesman, speaking only on background, confirmed the waiver was issued and said that it is meant to help ensure Iraq can generate energy. The spokesman would not comment on the timing of the waiver, or if it was part of an effort to ease nuclear negotiations with Iran.
"The secretary has renewed the sanctions waiver for Iraq to engage in financial transactions related to the import of electricity from Iran," the spokesman said. "The waiver ensures that Iraq is able to meet its short-term energy needs while it takes steps to reduce its dependence on Iranian energy imports." The waiver was granted "at the secretary [of state's] discretion."
As the first week of talks come to a close, Iran and the United States appear to be at an impasse.
Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Twitter on Friday that "a good deal is within reach if the West shows goodwill." This includes the removal of all sanctions and other measures aimed at keeping Iran from completing construction on a functional nuclear weapon.
Iran is enriching uranium, the key component in an atomic bomb, to levels surpassing 20 percent purity, which is barred under the current terms of the nuclear accord. Reports this week indicate that Iran is taking steps to enrich uranium to 90 percent purity, which is weapons-grade fuel.
United Against Nuclear Iran, a watchdog group, said on Friday that Tehran is committing nuclear extortion as the West entertains its demands at the negotiating table in Vienna.
"The Biden administration has asserted that the U.S. will not allow Iran to use this round of talks as cover to accelerate its nuclear program. Iran is showing, however, that it needs no pretext to continue on its path to a nuclear weapons capability. It is speeding in that direction today," UANI CEO Mark D. Wallace, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement. "The leaders of the international community choose not to see what is plainly evident. The JCPOA—in recognizing Iran’s right to enrich uranium—provided the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism with the option to resort to the nuclear extortion it is carrying out now."