Trump Administration Examines Path to Waive Iranian Oil Sanctions

Critics: Trump admin backsliding on maximum pressure campaign against Iran

A man holds in his hand Euro banknotes at a petrol station on September 25, 2018 in Lille, north of France. - Brent oil rebounded close to a four-year peak above 82 dollars per barrel, on worries over stretched global supplies due to US sanctions on Iran. (Photo by Philippe HUGUEN / AFP) (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)
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October 9, 2018

The Trump administration is open to allowing some countries to continue importing Iranian oil, despite promises to tighten the screws on Tehran and any country that continues doing business with the Islamic Republic, according to U.S. officials who confirmed to the Washington Free Beacon that some nations may get a temporary pass from a cadre of new sanctions set to be imposed next month.

The latest concessions come amid a widening battle in the Trump administration over the severity of new sanctions set to be imposed on Iran early next month. While top officials in the Trump administration, including President Trump himself, have vowed to crack down on global business dealings with Iran, some officials have been working to lessen the severity of these sanctions through waivers and other concessions that would help Iran's ailing economy.

Trump administration officials told the Free Beacon in June they are "not granting waivers" to some countries importing Iranian oil, but walked that statement back late Monday when a U.S. official disclosed it is now actively working to grant "individual countries" waivers from the new oil sanctions.

This new stance is triggering criticism from some Iran hawks and comes amid disparate statements about the administration's willingness to grant other concessions, such as preserving Iran's access to international financial markets, as the Free Beacon first reported on Monday.

A U.S. government official confirmed late Monday the administration is engaged in a process to selectively grant waivers to certain countries still importing Iranian oil.

"The United States is in the midst of an internal process to consider SRE waivers for individual countries," the official confirmed. "We continue to discuss our Iran policy with our counterparts around the world and the implications of our re-imposition of sanctions previously lifted or waived under the JCPOA."

The administration is still committed to pressuring the globe to cease Iranian oil imports, the official said.

"Our goal remains to get to zero oil imports from Iran as quickly as possible, ideally by November 4," when the full spectrum of sanctions are re-imposed on Iran. "We are prepared to work with countries that are reducing their imports on a case-by-case basis."

The current stance differs drastically from the administration's position just four months ago, when Trump was pressuring his administration to fully enforce U.S. sanctions on Iran.

"We view this [oil] as one of our top national security priorities," a senior administration official told the Free Beacon at the time. "I think the predisposition would be no, we're not granting waivers."

As the administration fights an internal battle over just how far to go with its new sanctions, Iran hawks on Capitol Hill are growing concerned.

"In recent weeks, administration officials have stopped briefing about 'maximum pressure,' which is what President Trump instructed them to impose," a senior GOP congressional staffer familiar with the issue told the Free Beacon.

"Instead they're talking about 'sufficient pressure,' which is their language for allowing banks to keep Iran connected to the global financial system, including through SWIFT or with oil waivers," the source said, referring to new efforts by officials in the Treasury Department and European allies to keep Iran connected to the premier international banking system.

"These officials are planning to announce that it's OK to give banks waivers because re-imposed sanctions on businesses are sufficient," the source explained. "That might be their opinion. It's certainly not the opinion of President Trump, it's not what he told them to do, and it's not how Congress is going to proceed moving forward."

SWIFT leaders were in Washington, D.C., last week holding meetings with Trump administration officials to ensure that Iran retains its access to the international banking system. The administration is said to have softened its stance of nixing Iran from SWIFT as European allies mount a pressure campaign.

Some veteran Iran watchers cautioned against criticizing the administration for its decision to consider oil waivers, telling the Free Beacon it is very difficult for nations to cut their imports to zero in the matter of months.

"I don't think anyone believed it was technically possible to go to zero in six months if we wanted to replace Iranian oil barrel for barrel from other suppliers, ensuring the price of oil doesn't spike and ensuring that the brunt of our sanctions pressure falls on Iran rather than our allies," said Richard Goldberg, a former senior Senate staffer who helped write the original Iran sanctions legislation.

"That said, a maximum pressure campaign is a no spin zone; the numbers will reveal whether countries are trying to go to zero or just doing the bare minimum to win waivers," said Goldberg, now a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "State's been pushing very hard on this, they deserve a lot of credit for their efforts, so let's see what they come up with before criticizing. I only wish we'd see the same level of effort from Treasury on disconnecting Iranian banks from SWIFT."