As Iran continues to ramp up its most contested nuclear work in violation of the landmark nuclear accord, Republican hawks in Congress are preparing a final push to destroy the deal and reimpose a set of biting sanctions that the Trump administration has balked on implementing in recent months, according to multiple officials familiar with the effort.
International nuclear inspectors overseeing Iran's nuclear work recently disclosed the Islamic Republic has kept true to its threats of restarting key portions of its nuclear program that could be used to build a weapon. This includes blowing past caps on the amount of enriched uranium—the key component in a bomb—Iran can store in country, as well as heavy water, a plutonium byproduct that also could fuel a weapon.
Iran also has breached provisions of the nuclear accord that were meant to limit the installation of advanced centrifuges, a mechanical device that can speedily enrich uranium to levels needed for a bomb.
Iranian officials have maintained these moves are part of an effort to force European countries still party to the deal to help Tehran skirt U.S. economic sanctions, which have shattered the Islamic Republic's economy.
With Iran amping up its cash demands in what U.S. officials see as an international blackmail campaign, GOP hawks in Congress see an opportunity to convince the Trump administration to follow through on promises to nix a set of sanctions waivers that have enabled Iran to legally continue secretive nuclear work at a range of sites, including one that previously housed the country's weapons program.
The issue of these nuclear waivers has been percolating for some time, with the State Department and other elements of the Trump administration arguing against revocation. The inter-agency fight has split certain elements of the Trump administration, with some camps advocating a hardline approach and others lobbying for restraint. The debate has been ongoing for months and has generated frustration among congressional hawks, who would like to see the administration follow through on its promises of "maximum pressure" on Tehran.
These hardline elements in the administration and Congress view the debate as critical to the future of the deal itself. While the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the deal, it has continued to uphold portions of it, including those meant to legitimize Iran's nuclear program. Critics say this policy has kept the nuclear deal on life support and set the stage for the next president to reenter the accord, a position top former Obama administration officials and their allies have been pushing to friendly media outlets.
Republican Iran hawks in Congress are growing tired of the fight, sources said, and see the latest reports on Iran's increased nuclear work as an opportunity to deal a death blow to the hardline regime.
The latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, which oversees Iran's compliance with the deal, indicates that Iran has made good on its vows to ramp up its contested nuclear work. The findings jibe with comments by top Iranian leaders, who have maintained in recent weeks that the country will continue to violate international nuclear prohibitions until it is given greater cash windfalls, as promised under the Obama administration's accord.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), a vocal critic of the administration's decision to continue granting Iran nuclear waivers (a position that recently prompted a clash with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), said the IAEA's recent findings warrant a new salvo of sanctions.
"Today's report by the International Atomic Energy Agency confirms what I have long said: Iran is cheating on the catastrophic Obama Iran nuclear deal," Cruz said in a statement viewed by many insiders as a shot across the bow. "In addition to secretly storing blueprints for nuclear weapons and refusing to turn over materials related to their nuclear weapons program, now they have pushed the envelope so far on centrifuges that the cheating can no longer be denied."
"The nuclear deal was designed to allow cheating, with the expectation that the Ayatollahs would blackmail the parties into ignoring their behavior. I have long said the nuclear deal should be ripped to shreds, and I applaud President Trump for all of the steps his administration has taken to that end," Cruz said. "Now it is time to take the next step and invoke the multilateral snapback in United Nations Security Council resolution 2231, which the Obama administration rushed to pass in order to lock in the nuclear deal before Congress had a chance to weigh in."
When asked by the Washington Free Beacon about the ongoing Iran debate, a spokesperson for Cruz said the senator will continue to push the administration to uphold its pressure campaign on Tehran.
"Sen. Cruz has said for years that the Obama Iran nuclear deal needs to be torn to shreds because it was built to let Iran cheat, and the Obama administration locked in a U.N. Security Council resolution before Congress had a chance to weigh in," the spokesperson told the Free Beacon. "Now there's no doubt that Iran has indeed been using the deal to cheat, and that UNSC resolution 2231 was a catastrophic mistake. It's time to go to the United Nations, invoke the snapback built UNSC resolution 2231, and finally end the benefits that Iran gets from the deal."
Senior congressional sources working on the issue say the IAEA's latest findings are fueling Iran hawks like Cruz to publicly pressure the Trump administration and its State Department to nix the nuclear waivers that, until now, have created a loophole by which Iran can continue its nuke work.
"The Iranians have been saying that they're not ready to back out of the Iran deal yet, which means there's no way to spin this violation except as evidence that Iran was using the deal to buy time while they worked on advanced centrifuges," said one senior congressional official, echoing the feelings of many working on the issue. "It should end the debate inside the Trump administration over whether to let Iran keep working on centrifuges through civil-nuclear waivers."
Michael Doran, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the White House National Security Council, said the debate is reaching a tipping point as Iran escalates its nuclear work.
"Although President Trump renounced the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran, a year later the United States is still respecting provisions of the deal by issuing waivers that permit what is euphemistically referred to as Iran's ‘civil nuclear program,'" said Doran, who closely tracked the debate as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. "Some inside and the administration—and Senator Cruz outside it—are asking whether it makes sense for the United States to support the maintenance of facilities such as, for example, the Fordow enrichment plant."
"The nuclear archive which the Israelis secreted from Iran shows conclusively that the sole purpose of Fordow, a fortified underground facility, was to support a nuclear weapons program," Doran explained. "The Iranians, however, formally declared that they never had such a program. The archive therefore proves that they are in violation of the NPT and the JCPOA. On the basis of that fact, those who wish to revoke all the waivers on Iran's nuclear program, are also asking if it wouldn't be wise for President Trump to deploy the unilateral ‘snapback' mechanism, which allows the United States to shred the nuclear deal on the basis of the Iranian violations."