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US ends last sanctions waivers on Iran’s civilian nuclear program

A view from the Busher Nuclear Power Plant in Iran. (IAEA Imagebank/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The United States will end sanctions waivers that allow Russian, Chinese, and European firms to carry out civilian nuclear cooperation with Iran, effectively scrapping the last remnants of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on May 27 that Iran’s continued “nuclear brinkmanship” by breaching some of its nuclear commitments did not justify renewing the waivers.

“The regime’s nuclear extortion will lead to increased pressure on Iran and further isolate the regime from the international community,” he said.

Nonproliferation experts say that the waivers give international experts a valuable eye into Tehran’s nuclear activities and that its scientific research is for legitimate civilian purposes, such as medicine.

The U.S. move may also further ratchet up tensions with other signatories to the Iran nuclear deal who have tried to salvage it — Russia, China, France, Germany, and Britain — at a time when Washington is seeking their cooperation to extend a UN arms embargo on Iran.

U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. In response, Iran has breached several provisions of the JCPOA at the fringes, saying that it can reverse them if other parties to the deal come back into compliance.

“Ending the waivers puts the remaining parties to the deal in a tough spot — proceeding with the projects risks U.S. sanctions, but halting work puts them in violation of their obligations under the nuclear deal and gives Iran further justification to violate the accord or withdraw from it all together,” Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, told RFE/RL.

The end of the “civilian-nuclear cooperation” waivers applies to international work at Iran’s Arak heavy-water research reactor, the provision of enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor, and the transfer abroad of spent and scrap reactor fuel. Companies involved at these facilities now have a 60-day wind-down period to cease operations or face sanctions.

The Trump administration also provided a 90-day extension for the waiver covering international activity at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant to ensure safety of operations.

The international civilian cooperation parts of the JCPOA were designed to make Iran’s nuclear program more transparent and less capable of producing weapons.

Iran hawks in Congress and the Trump administration say the civilian nuclear waivers allow Iran access to technology that could be used for nuclear weapons. But in extending the waivers in the past, the Trump administration implicitly recognized the nonproliferation benefits of the civilian projects.

Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, told reporters the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy has constrained Iran.

“Iran’s leaders are facing a decision: either negotiate with us or manage economic collapse,” he said.

But critics of the Trump administration say that its policy of “maximum pressure” has failed to convince Iran to negotiate a “better deal.” Instead, the strategy is to completely eliminate the nuclear accord, making it harder for other signatories or a future president to save the JCPOA.

“It is clear that this is a political decision by an administration bent on killing the nuclear deal, irrespective of the consequences,” Davenport said. “Trump’s action shows a blatant disregard for the security concerns of U.S. allies and partners and further undermines U.S. credibility.”