The Biden administration renewed a series of sanctions waivers that permit Iran and Russia to cooperate on nuclear work at Iranian enrichment sites, according to a non-public notification sent to Congress and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken authorized the waivers on Jan. 31, but Congress was not notified of the decision until late on Feb. 3, after the Free Beacon began making inquiries about the exemptions. Senior congressional sources said the Biden administration is trying to sweep the sanctions waivers under the rug amid renewed concerns about Iran and Russia's military alliance.
The waivers—a vestige of the 2015 nuclear deal that the Biden administration is trying to salvage—provide billions in profit for Russian-state controlled firms, such as the Rosatom nuclear company, for work at Iran's Fordow nuclear plant, a contested military site suspected of housing Tehran's nuclear weapons program. At this site, Iran is enriching uranium, the key component in a nuclear weapon, to purity levels that international observers worry put them within reach of a bomb. By permitting cooperation, critics charge that the Biden administration is allowing Tehran to develop its nuclear program while enriching Russia through business with state-controlled organizations.
"These waivers send a message to both Tehran and Moscow that Washington still wants to move forward with a Russia-enabled Iran nuclear deal where [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and the mullahs both make billions," said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank and former White House National Security Council director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction. "It's a real stab in the back to Ukraine and a win for Rosatom."
The renewal of these waivers comes as Congress works to crack down on the Iran-Russia axis, particularly as Tehran provides Moscow with drones for its ongoing war in Ukraine. The State Department did not answer Free Beacon requests for comment about the waivers dating back to Jan. 31, when they were first signed.
A spokesman for Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), who is circulating legislation that will bar the Biden administration from continuing to renew the waivers, told the Free Beacon the Biden administration is boosting Russia in order to negotiate a new nuclear deal.
"These waivers highlight what everybody already knows, though the State Department publicly denies it when they speak to the American public," the spokesman said. "The Biden administration is pathologically obsessed with reentering a nuclear deal with Iran. They're so obsessed they're implementing parts of the last catastrophic deal, even without a new agreement. They're so obsessed that they're willing to boost Russia and the Russian-Iranian alliance that is attacking the Ukrainian military and civilians."
In addition to legalizing nuclear work at Fordow, the waivers enable Russia to profit from its role as the primary custodian of Iran's enriched uranium. Iran has been shipping a portion of this nuclear material to Russia in exchange for natural uranium that is less likely to be used in a weapons project. This deal has angered Iran hawks, as it puts Russia in a position to arm Iran with heavily enriched uranium at any point of Russia's choosing.
Another waiver allows Iran to pay Russia to provide it with limited amounts of enriched uranium, which is used to power a Tehran-based research reactor. The policy basis for the waiver is questionable, according to sources who spoke to the Free Beacon, since Iran is already enriching to near-weapons levels on its own.
Russia can also continue performing work at the Bushehr nuclear power plant, another contested site. The Biden administration decided this time around, however, to restore certain sanctions on Russia's construction of two new Iranian nuclear power plants, likely to limit controversy over facilitating Iranian-Russian cooperation. The Free Beacon first reported in March 2022 that Russia stands to gain around $10 billion from the construction of these sites.
"Narrowing the waiver this way meets important nonproliferation and nuclear safety interests of the United States and the international community while not accommodating activities related to the construction of new reactor units at Bushehr that would expand Iran's nuclear program and further deepen cooperation between Iran and Russia at a time that Iran is providing lethal aid to Russia for use in its illegal invasion of Ukraine," the State Department wrote in its written notification to Congress.
Gabriel Noronha, a senior Iran adviser at the State Department during the Trump administration, said public pressure on the Biden administration likely forced it to crack down on a limited portions of Russia's nuclear work in Iran.
"Let's face it—the Biden administration only ended their support of the $10 billion Russian-Iranian nuclear deal because of the ongoing public and congressional pressure after the Free Beacon's exposé," Noronha said, referring to the March 2022 report. "It's still deeply troubling that the Biden administration continued to support the project for nearly a year after Russia invaded Ukraine—all in hopes of getting back to the old Iran deal. They gave Russia and Iran a year-long get-out-of-sanctions-free pass and got absolutely nothing in return."