Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not commit to ending a series of waivers issued by the Trump administration that have permitted Iran to engage in some its most contested nuclear work, including at a secretive military site that once housed the Islamic Republic's nuclear weapons program.
In an exchange with Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), Pompeo declined to commit to canceling the disputed waivers, which have sparked an inter-administration battle, as first reported by the Washington Free Beacon.
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The issue of these waivers—which have been granted to Iran so that it can continue its lucrative oil trade, as well as nuclear research work—has generated a growing rift between Iran hawks on Capitol Hill and within the administration and Pompeo's State Department. Sources have identified those in the State Department as the reason several policies that have kept the landmark Iran nuclear deal on life support have continued, despite President Donald Trump's decision to walk away from the pact.
Cruz and other Iran policy hawks have gone on record in recent weeks, including in interviews with the Free Beacon, to demand that Pompeo stop issuing both the oil and nuclear waivers. Multiple sources inside and outside the administration have described to the Free Beacon a widening fight between those U.S. officials who aim to keep the nuclear deal alive and those who see an opportunity to tighten the noose on Tehran and potentially collapse its hardline ruling regime.
At stake is the future of the nuclear deal itself, sources say. If the waivers do not come to an end in the coming months, the Islamic Republic will be handed a pass to continue nuclear work at sites such as Fordow, a military bunker housed on the side of a mountain that has played host to Iran's nuclear weapons program.
The exchange between Cruz and Pompeo is the most public airing of this debate to date. The secretary of state appeared uncomfortable as he dodged giving direct answers to the senator's questions about these waivers.
Cruz called out elements of the State Department that he said are actively working to subvert Trump's so-called "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran.
"You and I worked together as there was an interagency debate within the administration about whether the president should pull out of the Iran Nuclear Deal," Cruz said. "I think the president made unquestioningly the right decision. As you know, there were significant voices within the State Department that resisted that step, and that I believe continue to resist that step. I want to talk to you about two different aspects of implementing that decision to pull out of the Iran deal, namely the nuclear waivers and the oil waivers."
"On the nuclear waivers, as you know, we have waivers that allow Iran to continue with supposedly, non-military nuclear research," Cruz continued. "If you look to the extraordinary results that the Israeli raid seized from Iran, that debunked what we were told by the Obama administration and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and made clear that there were entire parts of Iran's civilian nuclear program that were built in order to create nuclear weapons, and that it was little more than a sham."
"I want to ask your view on should we continue to grant nuclear waivers?" Cruz asked. "As I understand, they're up for renewal next month. Should we continue to grant nuclear waivers given the rather significant evidence that doing so could further Iran acquiring nuclear weapons?"
Pompeo declined to provide a firm answer.
"I think it's hard to challenge the fact that we have been tough with respect to sanctions on Iran, with respect to particular waiver decisions—both these and the crude oil ones, I don't have any announcements to make today," he said. "We need to make sure that they wind through the process appropriately.
On the matter of the nuclear waivers, which permit Iran to continue civilian nuclear work despite its past efforts to use this research as part of a weapons program, Pompeo said it is "complicated."
"Make no mistake about it; we will stare closely at this," he said. "On the nonproliferation waivers, I'd love to talk to you in a classified setting about it—it's complicated. But suffice it to say President Trump—I can assure the American people; I can assure the world—President Trump will continue to ratchet up the pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran such that their behavior will change."
Cruz went on to describe the oil waivers as a sweetheart gift to Iran's ailing economy.
"Well, there will be a critical decision point next month also concerning the oil waivers," he said. "It's been publicly reported that there is currently interagency dispute between the State Department and the Energy Department about whether to grant those waivers again. Right now, Iran is producing roughly 1.2 million barrels of oil a day that's generating billions of dollars that is funding the Ayatollah and—I believe—endangering our security."
"What are your views on whether allowing Iran to continue to produce 1.2 million barrels of oil a day and sell it on the world market?" Cruz asked. "Is that in our national interest?"
Pompeo told Cruz the State Department is working to zero out Iranian oil exports.
"I think we've been clear about our objective of getting Iran to zero just as quickly as we possibly can. And we will continue to do that," he said.
"Well let me urge you and urge the Department unequivocally not to grant the nuclear wavers and not to grant the oil waivers," Cruz responded. "I think maximum pressure should mean maximum pressure. You have been a strong voice for that and let me encourage you to continue that strong position defending our national security."
One senior congressional official, speaking to the Free Beacon only on background, said there is no good reason for the State Department to continue issuing the oil and nuclear waivers.
"This actually isn't that complicated," the official said. "An Iranian nuclear weapon would be bad, Iran uses its civilian nuclear program to pursue nuclear weapons, so the State Department should block that program. Doing what the president says is good, the president said to stop implementing the nuclear deal, so the State Department should stop implementing these projects that are part of the deal. Gratuitously pissing off key allies on the Hill is bad, all of their friends up here are against the waivers, and so they shouldn't extend them."