Leading Republican senators are uniting against what they describe as a bid by some elements of the Trump administration to keep the Iran nuclear deal on life support via a package of waivers exempting Tehran and its allies from new sanctions spearheaded by President Donald Trump, according to multiple conversations with top congressional officials both on and off the record.
A debate has been raging inside the Trump administration for months over how far it will go to sanction the Iranian regime. While President Donald Trump has promised a "maximum pressure" campaign to choke off Tehran's resources, the State and Treasury Departments have advocated in favor of waivers permitting Iran to continue sensitive nuclear work as well as its lucrative oil trade.
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The debate has split certain elements of the Trump administration and will come to a head in the coming weeks as a series of sanctions waivers permitting eight countries to continue purchasing Iranian crude oil is set to expire in May.
Already, some elements of the administration are pushing to issue another round of sanctions waivers, prompting outrage on Capitol Hill where multiple officials stand ready to fight that potential decision.
At stake is the future of the Iranian nuclear deal itself, which has been on life support since Trump abandoned the agreement in pursuit of tough new sanctions. While the United States has withdrawn from the agreement, there remain elements of the Trump administration who view it as sacrosanct and are hoping to outlast the president. There is support for this position among many European allies who have been searching for ways to skirt U.S. sanctions and continue doing business with Iran.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), a vocal opponent of the deal, told the Washington Free Beacon he is aware of elements within the Trump administration who are working behind the president's back to save the nuclear deal.
"A nuclear Iran is the most pressing near-term threat to American national security and to the survival of our Middle East allies," Cruz said. "Every waiver for Iran either allows them to work toward their nuclear goal, or pays for terrorists to attack us, or both."
"The president understands that basic fact but it appears that not everyone in the administration is totally on board. Maximum pressure should mean maximum pressure," Cruz said. "Enough's enough."
The fight over new oil waivers, which the Free Beacon has reported on multiple times in recent months, is fracturing certain elements of the administration, particularly in the State Department, which has the power to issue sanctions waivers.
It remains unclear which direction Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is leaning. State Department officials took nearly a week to respond to Free Beacon requests for comment on the matter and would not provide a definitive answer.
"For now Secretary Pompeo has not made a decision," said one U.S. official familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak on record. "He is in listening mode."
Pompeo is set for yet another trip to the Middle East for top-level meetings in Israel, where sanctions waivers are expected to be a topic of conversation among Israeli officials who want to see Iran's economy fully cut off.
"Our policy goal remains to get all countries to stop purchasing Iranian crude as quickly as possible," a State Department official told the Free Beacon. "We continue to discuss our Iran-related sanctions with our partners to ensure continued compliance. Any decisions related to sanctions waivers are at the discretion of the secretary of state."
The White House National Security Council appears to be more forward leaning than the State Department on the matter.
One senior Trump administration official, speaking only on background, told the Free Beacon that there is no good reason to issue more oil waivers. The marketplace, the senior official said, is more than prepared to absorb the full removal of Iranian crude.
"The U.S. is approaching the May decision point on the renewal of eight countries with waivers," the senior official said. "The administration's goal, as has been repeatedly made clear, is to get to zero exceptions and the oil market appears well positioned to deal with the removal of Iranian barrels."
Leading GOP lawmakers are now taking the unusual step of demanding the Trump administration stop issuing oil waivers when the current batch expires in May. They view the decision as critical to the administration's stated goal of "maximum pressure" on Tehran.
"I urge President Trump to end all waivers for U.S. sanctions laws against foreign purchasers of Iranian oil," Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) told the Free Beacon. "Given that international oil markets appear to have more than enough surplus capacity to offset losses of Iranian oil, it's time for the U.S. to take this step and truly maximize pressure against the terror-sponsoring and nuclear weapons-seeking regime in Tehran."
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) told the Free Beacon that the cash windfalls Iran receives from its lucrative oil trade go to fund its global terror operations, which have targeted U.S. forces in the region, as well as allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
"The Iranian regime uses its petrodollars to fund terrorism and sow chaos throughout the region," Cotton said. "Going forward, the proper amount of oil exports from Iran is zero."
Iran hawks on Capitol Hill are said to have been further riled by a Monday Free Beacon report on Iran's construction of two new nuclear plants, which could provide Tehran with a plutonium pathway to the bomb. This type of nuclear work was permitted by the nuclear deal, and is still believed to be legal due to another series of waivers issued by the State Department allowing Iran to continue performing nuclear research, including at a site that once housed its nuclear weapons program. These waivers have become a second flashpoint in the inter-agency battle over the administration's Iran policy.
There also is support for a hardline sanctions policy among Republican members in the House.
"The oil waiver issue gets to the heart of the matter: whether or not the United States should be engaged in a maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian regime," Rep. Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.) told the Free Beacon. "I strongly believe we should. This is why last Congress, I introduced legislation along with Senator Cruz to effectively cut Iran off from the global financial system. We need to continue to use all the tools at our disposal to eliminate this regime's funding."
Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.) also supports putting maximum pressure on the Iranian regime and not granting any further sanctions waivers for Iran to sell oil.
U.S. should not grant any more waivers for Iran to sell oil. Iran uses sales to fund terrorism, missiles and nukes. "U.S. Officials Say the Oil Market Can Withstand No Iranian Exports This Year." https://t.co/eQFMn5ZFGr
— Liz Cheney (@Liz_Cheney) March 16, 2019
One senior GOP congressional official, speaking only on background, told the Free Beacon that it is well past time for the administration to take its Iran policy seriously. This means no more waivers and no more wiggle room for Tehran to line its pockets.
"If our policy objective is to ‘go to zero,' our policymakers should go to zero," the source said. "There's no excuse not to when global oil markets have more than enough spare capacity to offset the loss of all Iranian oil supply."
One veteran Iran policy hand familiar with the battle between Congress and the State Department blamed officials at the State Department for working to undermine Trump's policy toward Iran.
"There's an old as dirt expression in Washington D.C., which is that Democrats organize and Republicans atomize," said the source, who would only speak on background. "What it means is that it's impossible to unify any significant group of congressional Republicans around any significant issue. Yet somehow the pro-waivers team at the State Department has managed to do it."