The Trump administration State Department is working to suppress new sanctions on Iran's propaganda network that were promised to be implemented by the White House in response to a wave of protests that have gripped the Islamic Republic for weeks, according to multiple sources who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon about the matter.
The White House vowed in the opening days of Iran's countrywide protests against the ruling government that it would take steps to level sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, or IRIB, a satellite service that disseminates propaganda across Iran and routinely censors content.
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While Iranian protesters and opponents of the country's hardline government welcomed the White House's decision, the State Department is believed to be working against the effort in order to uphold a little-known deal with Iran that was struck during the Obama administration.
The apparent reversal has raised questions in Congress about the nature of the agreement between the Obama administration and Iran that prevents new sanctions on the IRIB. It also has sparked criticism from regional experts who view the move as part of a bid by the State Department to continue appeasing the Iranian ruling regime at a time when dissidents are pleading for help from the United States.
The Obama administration struck a deal in 2013 with Iran that waived existing sanctions on the IRIB as part of an agreement reached under the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, or ITSO.
Since that agreement, the United States has waived sanctions every 180 days on the IRIB, despite evidence it continues to censor content and jam broadcasts the hardline ruling regime finds unacceptable, sources said.
The little-known ITSO agreement with Iran is receiving new scrutiny as lawmakers try to determine how the Obama administration reached this deal and why many in Congress were never briefed on the matter.
"At such an important inflection point in Iranian history as brave Iranians are protesting an illegitimate tyranny, it defies logic that the State Department could be waiving sanctions to assist the Iranian regime," Rep. Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees told the Free Beacon.
DeSantis is exploring avenues to obtain further information about the 2013 agreement and the context in which it was struck.
"Congress needs to get more information about this specific waiver and why waiving such sanctions is necessary at this moment given that the protesters are calling for more sanctions against the regime," DeSantis said.
The White House signaled earlier this month, as the protests in Iran erupted, that it would no longer waive sanctions on the IRIB to boost the demonstrators and cut off the Islamic Republic's chief propaganda organ.
However, the State Department favors continuing the waivers in order to uphold the Obama-era deal with Iran, according to multiple sources.
A State Department official acknowledged the existence of the deal, but would not provide the Free Beacon with details of the agreement, information on how it was struck, and whether Congress had a say in the matter.
This has raised even more questions with lawmakers and experts tracking the situation.
"The administration periodically renews the relevant sanctions waivers to allow international satellite companies to provide satellite broadcast service to IRIB in accordance with an understanding reached with the Iranian government under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (ITSO) in 2013, where Iran committed to ensure that harmful interference does not emanate from its territory," a State Department official, speaking on background, told the Free Beacon.
This waiver must be renewed every 180 days, the official said.
It also remains unclear if the deal with Iran was struck under the auspices of the landmark nuclear agreement or the negotiations that led to it.
A Treasury Department official directed questions about the IRIB sanctions to the State Department, but told the Free Beacon the entity is still subject to some sanctions by the United States
"Treasury can confirm that IRIB is still designated pursuant to Executive Order 13628 and remains on our SDN [Specially Designated Nationals] List," the official said, pointing to a 2013 announcement of actions against the broadcaster. "IRIB is subject to secondary sanctions for activity outside the scope of the State Department-issued waiver."
Saeed Ghasseminejad, an Iran expert who tracks sanctions with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, expressed concern the Trump State Department is operating as if the Obama administration was still in power.
"The Iranian protesters specifically asked the Trump administration to ban the IRIB," Ghasseminejad said. "Issuing a waiver for an entity whose job is to broadcast lies and promote violence against the protesters and pro-democracy movement in Iran and to prepare the ground for their arrest, torture, and execution is a slap in the protesters' face."
Former Secretary of State "John Kerry is gone and the United States has a new Iran policy but Foggy Bottom still follows the Obama era policy of appeasement," he said.
Sources familiar with internal discussions over the IRIB issue told the Free Beacon that State Department officials have supported waiving sanctions on the Iranian broadcasting agency in order to uphold the 2013 agreement.
Officials claim there is no evidence Iran is jamming broadcasts and censoring content, despite repeated claims of such activity by Iranian protesters in the country, sources said.
However, there is mounting evidence that Iran continues to jam certain broadcasts and commit human rights abuses, according to experts.
Mahmood Enayat, director of the Small Media Foundation, an organization that advocates for the free flow of information in Iran, said satellite broadcasts are routinely jammed by the Iranian regime.
"Iran has certainly stopped orbital jamming but it has been continuing with terrestrial jamming, making it impossible for millions of Iranians to watch satellite TV channels broadcast from outside Iran, including VOA and BBC" said Enayat, who recently published a report on the matter.
Some insiders familiar with the agreement, which has not been mentioned in federal records since 2015, view it as another secret deal with Iran that was hidden from the American public, much like a series of secret side deals reached between the Obama administration and Iran as part of the nuclear deal.
One senior congressional official tracking the situation told the Free Beacon that lawmakers would try to scrap any previously unearthed secret agreements with Iran.
"As Iranians are protesting in the streets, our State Department is really considering waiving sanctions against the regime's mouth piece?" the source asked. "We should be exerting maximum pressure on the regime and its backers, not letting them off the hook."
"If this decision to take it easy on the regime's broadcasting arm is pursuant to some secret side deal reached under the Obama administration, it's time to expose this arrangement and terminate it, not abide by it," added the source, who was not authorized to speak on record. "The State Department needs to get on the same page as the White House and start rolling out coherent Iran policy to push back against the regime."