Trump Admin Again Grants Iran Pass to Conduct Nuclear Work, Angering GOP Hawks

Administration reissues sanctions waivers at center of interagency Iran fight

An Iranian woman walks past a poster of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini / Getty Images
January 30, 2020

The Trump administration has again renewed key sanctions waivers permitting Iran to conduct sensitive nuclear work, generating anger among GOP hawks who have long called for the administration to quit giving Tehran a pass on its pursuit of an atomic weapon.

Multiple lawmakers and former administration officials, including one recently departed National Security Council member who worked on Iran issues, told the Washington Free Beacon that senior officials in the administration continue to undermine President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran.

At issue are sanctions exceptions that the State Department has now issued several times in recent years to the consternation of Iran hawks. The waivers permit foreign nations and businesses to partner with Iran on its nuclear work, including efforts to enrich uranium, the key component in a weapon. They also allow Iran to continue sensitive civil nuclear research at contested sites, including a covert military bunker that once housed the country's atomic weapons program.

The nuclear waivers have been a key point of disagreement, both inside and outside the administration. Some of Trump's most vocal backers are now breaking ranks with the administration to express opposition to the decision.

Debate over the nuclear waivers has percolated inside the administration and Congress for months. Multiple sources who spoke to the Free Beacon accused a cadre of officials in both the State and Treasury Departments of seeking to ensure that vital components of the abandoned nuclear deal remain in place against Trump's orders.

"You cannot underestimate the influence of the 'Deep State' on issues like the nuclear waivers and snapback," said Richard Goldberg, who served as the White House NSC's top Iran proliferation official until January. "Any time there's something controversial, something that upends conventional wisdom, something that would actually kill Obama's Iran Deal, there's a bureaucratic movement to save the deal."

"This decision keeps the Iran Deal on life support, undermines the president's negotiating position, and makes it harder for him to achieve his goals," said Goldberg in some of his first public comments on an issue he confronted head on during his time in the White House. "You can't negotiate a new deal until you blow up the old one; keeping these [Iran Deal] waivers puts the president in a weaker position."

The State Department did not respond to multiple Free Beacon requests for comment.

Leading GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill expressed confusion and frustration over the administration's decision to continue issuing the waivers. They told the Free Beacon they would take steps to force cancellation of the waivers.

"Sanctioning Iran's Atomic Energy Organization isn't effective if we keep their program on life support through waivers for international assistance," Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) said. "The waivers ought to have been scrapped. Don't reward the ayatollahs for their nuclear blackmail."

Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Tex.), a chief opponent of the waivers, "believes that the waivers should have been canceled months ago, and in fact should have never been granted. He will continue to work with his colleagues in the Senate and the House to ensure that they are revoked," according to a spokesman for his office.

In the House, Republicans including Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), Jim Banks (Ind.), and Mike Gallagher (Wis.) issued calls for the administration to immediately cancel the waivers.

"This decision perpetuates Obama's disastrous nuclear deal and sustains Iran's nuclear infrastructure, even as Tehran continues on its path of escalation," Cheney told the Free Beacon. "I urge the president to fully implement his successful maximum pressure campaign against Iran and revoke these waivers once and for all."

Banks, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Iran's continued attacks on U.S. forces and outposts in the Middle East should be reason enough to stop gifting the regime nuclear waivers.

"After Iran's conspicuous attack on American troops earlier this month, what possible reason could still exist for the State Department to be renewing these waivers and continue allowing Iran to develop nuclear capabilities?" Banks asked. "The world has witnessed Iran's maleficence—time to end these waivers and continue the maximum pressure campaign."

"It's clear that every day we keep these waivers in place is a day we allow an increasingly weak Iranian regime to draw closer to realizing its nuclear ambitions. Maximum pressure should mean maximum pressure," Gallagher, also a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told the Free Beacon. "It's time to end the waivers."