Pressure is mounting on the State Department to nix a series of sanctions waivers that have permitted Iran to continue some of its most controversial nuclear weapons research, including at a secretive military bunker known to have housed the Islamic Republic's bomb program, according to multiple U.S. officials working on the matter.
For months, the Trump administration has been locked in an inter-agency battle over the future of these waivers, with some deeply entrenched officials at the State Department arguing in favor of continuing to provide Tehran with the nuclear loophole, as the Washington Free Beacon has reported.
Congressional critics of the landmark nuclear agreement have worked behind the scenes to convince the State Department and Secretary Mike Pompeo to revoke these waivers, particularly in light of Iran's recent efforts to enrich uranium, the key component in a weapon, to levels necessary to fuel a bomb.
While the White House and State Department are said to be leaning towards ending the nuclear waivers, other elements of the administration are still arguing in their favor, setting up a showdown between these factions, according to multiple sources familiar with the fight.
Republican Iran hawks view the debate as key to the future of the nuclear deal itself. While President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal last year, the waivers remain in place and have helped pave the way for Iran to cheat on the accord by continuing nuclear research. With Iran blatantly violating restrictions on the amount of uranium it can enrich in-country, it appears the State Department has shifted to a more hardline approach in line with the White House and National Security Adviser John Bolton, sources confirmed.
"Mike Pompeo's not stupid," said one source familiar with the secretary's thinking, who would speak only on background about ongoing deliberations. "He knows the president wants to kill these waivers and he knows the Deep State is trying to keep them alive to save the deal."
"In the end, Pompeo is going to be where the president is and it's a simple equation: ‘Iran nuclear equals bad,'" the source said. "For a while, some folks were able to persuade Pompeo to keep the waivers going on the argument that revoking them might cause Iran to violate the nuclear deal. Guess what—they did it anyway with the waivers. So why keep taking arrows from Capitol Hill for a Deep State cause?"
The State Department declined to formally comment on the status of the waivers.
A second U.S. official who also works on the matter told the Free Beacon that while many senior State Department officials have adjusted their thinking on the waiver issue in the past several months, some are still advocating keeping them in place in a bid to preserve core elements of the deal.
"There are still some people in the administration who are pushing to renew the waivers, but the White House and the State Department are committed to ending them, especially now that the evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program is undeniable and the Iranians are in open violation of the deal," said the official, who also would speak only on background about the debate.
The shift in thinking at top levels of the State Department is said to have been fueled by recent revelations Iran never stopped performing nuclear weapons work at an underground bunker known as Fordow. Nuclear experts disclosed earlier this week that, in direct violation of the accord, Iran failed to dismantle the nuclear infrastructure it houses at the facility.
"Everything required to enrich uranium to weapons grade could be quickly reconstituted," concluded the report by the Institute for Science and International Security.
On Capitol Hill, leading critics of the nuclear deal are becoming more vocal in publicly pressuring the Trump administration to nix the nuclear waivers.
"It's long overdue for the U.S. not only to end civil nuclear waivers that give the Iranian regime cover to advance its nuclear program, but also to trigger the sanctions snapback mechanism in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 for restoring international restrictions against Iran's uranium enrichment, plutonium-related heavy water work, and ballistic missile development," Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the Free Beacon.
"The regime in Tehran has repeatedly proven it cannot be trusted to possess nuclear capabilities, given that it hid from international inspectors its secret ‘Atomic Archive' for preserving its nuclear weapons research and development for eventual use, and is now escalating its uranium enrichment program beyond the flawed nuclear deal's modest and reversible limits," Rubio said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) told the Free Beacon it is unacceptable for the administration to let Iran perform work at Fordow at a time when the hardline regime is actively attacking American forces in the region.
"Sen. Cruz has been unequivocal that the United States needs to end the civil-nuclear waivers for Iran, which allow the Ayatollahs to build up their nuclear program including at Fordow, the enrichment bunker they dug into the side of a mountain so they could build nuclear weapons," a Cruz spokesman told the Free Beacon. "This week's disturbing developments, including the ISIS report and the IAEA findings, confirm the need for canceling those waivers. It's long past time to shred the Iran deal."
Top GOP House lawmakers expressed similar sentiments.
"The terror regime in Tehran continues to issue nuclear threats, undermine freedom of navigation, and pose a danger to the U.S. and our allies. President Obama's disastrous nuclear deal did nothing to stop Iran's belligerence and paved the way for the Iranians to obtain a nuclear weapon," Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told the Free Beacon. "The Trump Administration should continue its successful maximum pressure campaign and end ‘civil nuclear' waivers."
Michael Doran, a former senior director of the White House National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, said that recent revelations about Fordow's functionality are likely to drive a future decision on the waivers.
"The waivers, generally speaking, are problematic, but some are more troubling than others," Doran explained. "For example, the recent revelations that Iran has never re-purposed the Fordow facility in keeping with its JCPOA obligations are especially significant, because, first, Fordow's sole rationale for existence is the production of nuclear weapons, and, second, Iran's cheating at that site pre-dates Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal."
"The cheating can't be explained away by JCPOA apologists as part of a desire for ‘civil' nuclear power or as a retaliation against Trump," Doran said. "It is undeniably part of Iran's relentless pursuit of a nuclear bomb. How, then, can the U.S. justify a waiver for international work at Fordow?"