The Trump administration has again approved a series of sanctions waivers on Iran that permit the Islamic Republic to engage in sensitive nuclear work, including at a clandestine military location that has housed the country’s weapons program, according to multiple sources involved in the issue.
The sanctions waivers have already been approved by the State Department, according to multiple U.S. officials and congressional sources who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon. The Trump administration faced backlash earlier this year when it bucked congressional pressure to approve the waivers, a move that led Iran hawks on Capitol Hill to accuse the administration of approving a pathway for Tehran to continue some of its most contested nuclear research.
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The waivers permit countries such as China and Russia to continue performing work at Iranian nuclear facilities, some of which have drawn concerns from the international community for potentially helping Iran gain the know-how to build a functional nuclear weapon. European companies involved in Iran’s nuclear program also will be given a pass. The nuclear waivers were initially waived for a period of several months earlier this year, and have now come up again for a required extension, which the administration will grant.
Leading GOP members of Congress have criticized the administration’s decision, telling the Free Beacon that President Donald Trump is undermining his own maximum pressure campaign on Tehran by allowing his State Department to keep signing off on the controversial waivers.
"Yes, we issued the waiver and understand the differing views and sensitivities involved," one U.S. official familiar with the matter told the Free Beacon. "The secretary takes his responsibility on this matter very seriously and will be happy to discuss his views with any congressman or senator who calls."
While the administration took a hit from its GOP allies in Congress for issuing waivers earlier this year, the decision this week to renew them has hinted at a full-scale rebellion on the issue, with leading lawmakers accusing the administration of abandoning its hardline approach to Iran.
The Free Beacon has reported multiple times in the past months on a tense inter-agency battle over the waivers, with more hardline elements pushing for them to be discarded. Other elements of the administration have argued in their favor, viewing them as a pathway to salvage diplomacy with Iran and negotiate a new agreement.
"This is disappointing and another lost opportunity to tear up the catastrophic Obama-Iran nuclear deal once and for all," Senators Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said in a joint statement on the matter. "President Trump should immediately order his administration to stop issuing civil nuclear waivers."
"These waivers allow Iran to build up its nuclear program, including at their Fordow nuclear bunker, which they dug out of the side of a mountain to build nuclear weapons," the senators said. "Iran is now openly violating the nuclear deal and stockpiling dangerous nuclear material. There is no justification for letting them continue to build up their program. We intend to work with our congressional colleagues to advance legislation to reverse this misguided decision."
Cruz and Graham are working on legislation that would prohibit any further waivers related to the Iran deal, sources said.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), another hardline voice in Congress, tweeted his opposition to the waivers being renewed.
"The Iranian regime must not be rewarded for its continued nuclear provocations. The administration should decline to extend Iran’s nuclear waivers this week," Cotton tweeted earlier this week. "Eliminate these vestiges of Obama’s JCPOA."
Multiple veteran congressional aides who work on the Iran issue told the Free Beacon that the Trump administration’s own statements on these waivers are reminiscent of the rhetoric issued by the Obama administration when it was negotiating the landmark deal and making concessions to the Islamic Republic.
They maintain the administration is not only undermining its own public position on the matter, but laying the groundwork for the U.S. to potentially reenter the nuclear agreement.
The sanctions waivers on nuclear matters and Iran's production of crude oil were initially designed as part of the Obama administration's efforts to provide Iran with sanctions relief and jumpstart its ailing economy. Multiple sources who spoke to the Free Beacon described an effort by "Obama holdovers, Never Trumpers, and the Deep State at the State Department" to undermine the administration's hardline approach and keep core elements of the nuclear agreement on life support.
The State Department did not respond to multiple requests for comments on the state of the waiver and the nuclear permissions they will include.