US extends waivers for countries doing civil nuclear work with Iran

The State Department announced late Wednesday it would extend waivers for countries in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to continue their participation in civil nuclear projects with Tehran.

“The action today will help preserve oversight of Iran’s civil nuclear program, reduce proliferation risks, constrain Iran’s ability to shorten its ‘breakout time’ to a nuclear weapon, and prevent the regime from reconstituting sites for proliferation-sensitive purposes,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. The announcement came the same day that the US announced sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

National security adviser John Bolton said in an interview on Fox Business Wednesday that the waiver renewal would be for 90 days.

“I think the idea here is we are watching those nuclear activities very, very closely,” Bolton said.

Two administration officials said Tuesday that the waivers were expected to be renewed, and one of the officials said that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin argued the waivers should be extended during a recent White House meeting on the issue. The Washington Post first reported that the waivers extension was expected.

Under the waivers, the countries party to the 2015 deal will continue to conduct research and do non-proliferation work without facing US sanctions.

Earlier this month, Sigal Mandelker, under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, made the case that the Trump administration’s current “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran is working. Administration officials have argued the US sanctions push will force Iran to change its behavior.

A rebuffed offer

“Without a doubt, the sanctions are working,” Mandelker said at the Aspen security forum. She pointed to Iranian oil exports being at their lowest levels ever and Iranian proxies publicly appealing for donations.

At the beginning of May, the State Department extended the waivers for 90 days instead of 180. It also revoked two waivers that allowed Iran to ship its excess heavy water for storage and swap its enriched uranium for natural uranium.

The move will likely come as welcome news to European allies, who have sought to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) amid escalating tensions and as Iran has reduced its compliance to the landmark nuclear deal.

The US has said it would negotiate with Iran “without preconditions” — a claim that the Iranians have rebuffed. In an interview last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he would travel to Tehran if necessary. The spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry dismissed the suggestion as disingenuous psychological warfare.

“We didn’t see any sincerity any seriousness in that,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Monday in an interview with Press TV, Iran’s international English language television network. “They are not trying to have a serious agreement, and this is in line with psychological warfare that Mr. Pompeo and some of other US officials” conduct.

On Monday, President Donald Trump tweeted that people should “just remember, the Iranians never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!”

The historically inaccurate observation appeared to be pulled from a 2017 opinion article about the Iran nuclear deal written by National Security Adviser John Bolton — and drew swift pushback.

Zarif responded on Tuesday with his own tweet including a screenshot from the Bolton article, highlighting the phrase, “Iran has never won a war, and never lost a negotiation.”

Above it, Zarif wrote that “for millennia, Iranians have outlasted every aggressor.” He continued: “The US has spent $7 trillion & rivers of blood in our region, in its biggest failure since Vietnam.”

“@realDonaldTrump: reject #B_Team’s fake history & its thirst for #ForeverWar,” Zarif tweeted in a reference to Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the crown princes of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

“Diplomacy=prudence; never weakness,” Zarif concluded in the tweet.

The US issued the waiver decision as the White House continues efforts to build a maritime security force to patrol the Persian Gulf.

On Monday, Pompeo said the effort to build a maritime force to protect international shipping in the Gulf was taking more time than the US would like — in part, a reflection of early British and ongoing German resistance to the plan, in favor of a European security effort.

“We’re going to build out a maritime security plan,” Pompeo said at the Economic Club in Washington. “It will take more time than we wish it would take, but I’m very confident that the world understands its importance, that America is prepared to be a significant part of that, but we need countries from all across the world to assist us in protecting commercial transit.”

The US, UK and other allies will meet in Bahrain on Wednesday to continue talks about how best to protect Gulf shipping, a British Ministry of Defense spokesman said after a meeting at the US Central Command military headquarters in Tampa, Florida, last Thursday.

While the UK had expressed interest in working with the French on a European led maritime security effort, the new Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said the UK is interested in working with the US on its security initiative. Raab said he had spoken with Pompeo after his appointment as Foreign Secretary on July 24 about freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iranian officials are making much the same arguments about freedom of navigation in the Gulf, pointing out that it is central to their economy as well.

This story has been updated.