The State Department has quietly permitted Tehran to continue conducting sensitive nuclear work, including at a secretive military site that once housed the Islamic Republic's weapons program, despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's demand that all such work cease last year.
These waivers, which have allowed Iran to legally continue its lucrative oil trade and nuclear research, are viewed as undermining President Donald Trump's efforts to strangle the Iranian regime and topple its economy. While the White House has pressed forward with numerous efforts on this front, the State Department has taken a softer approach by continuing to issue waivers that insiders view as part of a larger effort by some administration officials to keep the landmark nuclear deal on life support throughout Trump's presidency.
The White House and State Department have repeatedly been at odds over just how far to go in penalizing Iran, causing friction within the administration among Iran hawks who see an opportunity to possibly collapse the hardline ruling regime, according to multiple U.S. officials who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon.
The Free Beacon has reported multiple times during the past months on efforts by some State Department officials to continue issuing oil waivers to a range of countries that purchase Iranian crude. However, the issue of these separate but similar nuclear waivers is stirring yet another battle not only within the administration, but among Iran hawks on Capitol Hill who want the White House to follow through on its promise to fully sanction Tehran.
The competing policy goals are generating confusion on Capitol Hill, where some of the administration's most vocal backers are going on the record to condemn what they view as the State Department's efforts to give Iran a pass on its most contested nuclear research work.
One Republican congressional official involved in the fight told the Free Beacon that for the past week, letters and other initiatives criticizing the administration's nuclear-related waivers have been circulating in both the House and Senate among Iran hawks.
U.S. officials who spoke to the Free Beacon about the matter further confirmed that Secretary of State Pompeo, the sole official responsible for issuing and cancelling waivers, has not yet made a decision. This has only fueled greater concern among administration insiders and those on the Hill who fear Pompeo will cave to pro-Iran-deal forces in his agency.
Just a day after the White House took the unprecedented step of designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, as a foreign terrorist organization, lawmakers who spoke to the Free Beacon urged the administration to cancel all existing waivers, both for the oil trade and nuclear work.
"President Trump's designation of the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is an important step towards an intellectually honest Iran policy," said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R. Wis.), a member of the powerful House Armed Services Committee. "I hope the administration will build on this logic and terminate sanctions waivers for work on Iranian nuclear sites. The U.S. position should be unequivocally clear: Iran must dismantle its nuclear infrastructure."
A spokesman for Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), also a vocal opponent of the Iranian regime, told the Free Beacon that both the oil waivers and the nuclear waiver must come to an end.
"Sen. Cruz has always opposed building up Iran's nuclear program, which is what these waivers do, as long as there are unresolved questions about Iran's past nuclear weapons work," he said.
"Everything we've learned since the Obama Iran deal was first implemented has deepened his concerns," the spokesperson said, referring to a recent Israeli spy mission to obtain Iran's secret nuclear files. "Most recently the Nuclear Archive showed that Iran had a nuclear weapons program that went much farther than anyone knew. It's time to end these waivers, at least until Iran comes clean. Enough's enough."
The nuclear waivers have enabled global powers to work with Iran in building up its nuclear program and were originally envisioned by the Obama administration's nuclear deal. The waivers enable work to take place even at sensitive nuclear sites, such as the Fordow facility, an Iranian nuclear site built into the side of a mountain that is nearly impossible to destroy by air. Experts told the Free Beacon that the nuclear archive recently seized by Israel shows that Fordow was part of a larger plan by the regime to create nuclear weapons.
The State Department did not respond to Free Beacon requests for comment on the matter.
Multiple sources placed the blame for what they view as the disjointed policy squarely on the State Department's shoulders. They described a political tug-of-war taking place between longtime government officials who want to save the nuclear deal and those Trump-appointed officials who view it as their responsibility to carry forward Trump’s policy goals vis-à-vis Iran.
"The inertia to save the JCPOA [the acronym used to refer to the nuclear deal] is strong within the State Department, and this is the last underpinning of the deal that the people who oppose the president’s policy are clinging to," said one veteran foreign policy insider familiar with frustrations brewing at the White House over the matter.
Trump's national security advisor, John Bolton, for instance, is said to be pushing a maximum pressure campaign that is not being received with as much fervor by officials in the State Department.
The debate is part of a larger policy gap on Iran that has implications for the future of the nuclear deal itself. If the administration is pressured into issuing another round of waivers, it will send a sign that Tehran remains open for business and that the nuclear deal still has legs, despite Trump walking away from it last year.
One senior congressional aide involved in the Iran debate warned that the State Department may have its way with regards to the nuclear waivers.
"It looks like they're looking to cave on forcing Iran to dismantle its nuclear program. It's Obama all over again," the source said, speaking on background. "People up here are worried because they've been willing to talk and argue about oil waivers but they refuse to say anything about letting Iran keep its centrifuge bunkers open for business."
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow and Iranian security expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Free Beacon that disparate messages surrounding the administration's Iran policy will only fuel global uncertainty.
"For those who are proponents or supporters of max pressure, moves that keep the JCPOA on life support while seeking to grow a wide-range of penalties against the regime in Iran will read as an inconsistency," he said. "While the norms of nuclear safety and non-proliferation are to be respected and promoted, it is Iran, not Washington, which has grossly and serially transgressed those norms."
Washington, he added, "should not be in the business of perpetuating or entertaining the fiction surrounding the rationale for some of Iran’s nuclear sites."
U.S. officials "should carefully review what nuclear waivers are a necessity to offset any Iranian rationale for enrichment or contribute to nuclear safety, versus any waiver that ends up legitimizing activity or facilities which should have been prohibited or shut-down a while ago, such as the underground plant at Fordow," Ben Taleblu said.