Fresh U.S. Divide on Iran Emerges Over Expiring Nuclear Waivers

(Bloomberg) -- A fresh divide is emerging between some Trump administration officials and hard-line opponents of Iran in the Senate over how far to go in the White House’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic.

In a letter to President Donald Trump this week, a group of Republican senators demanded that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo stop letting Iran continue its limited civilian nuclear research program.

Fresh U.S. Divide on Iran Emerges Over Expiring Nuclear Waivers

At issue are three waivers the Trump administration granted after it withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal last year. They allow Iran to work with nations that remain in the deal at three sites -- Fordow, Bushehr and Arak -- to ensure it doesn’t seek to enrich uranium to high levels. It’s part of an effort to limit the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.

In their April 9 letter to Trump, six Republican senators including Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Marco Rubio of Florida argued that the administration shouldn’t extend the waivers when they expire in early May.

“There is extensive evidence Iran channeled its nuclear weapons program through civil nuclear projects after 2003,” the senators wrote in the letter seen by Bloomberg News. They urged the president to “finally end all U.S. implementation” of the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Bolton Versus Pompeo

The nuclear exceptions are up for renewal even as the administration must weigh extending waivers that allow a select group of governments to keep buying Iranian oil without facing sanctions.

Fresh U.S. Divide on Iran Emerges Over Expiring Nuclear Waivers

Some within the administration, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, have argued those waivers also should be revoked. On the other side is Pompeo -- normally seen as among the toughest Trump aides on Iran -- whose State Department advisers have argued that the exceptions fit broader U.S. interests including keeping oil markets stable.

The fight over both sets of waivers has exposed a rare division between hard-line and harder-line opponents of Tehran. This week the Trump administration designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite branch of Iran’s military, as a foreign terrorist organization.

But that move didn’t quell growing irritation among some of Trump’s allies that the president has continued to let Iran get limited benefits from the Obama-era nuclear agreement.

With the 2020 U.S. presidential election approaching, advocates of an even tougher approach are pushing for a complete collapse of the deal that allies including the U.K., Germany and France have struggled to keep alive.

Fresh U.S. Divide on Iran Emerges Over Expiring Nuclear Waivers

Cruz pressed Pompeo on the issue at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, telling him that extending the waivers “could further Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.”

“‘Maximum pressure’ should be ‘maximum pressure,”’ Cruz said.

Pompeo demurred, saying the decision hadn’t been made yet. He left open the possibility that the waivers could be extended.

“I’d love to talk to you in a classified setting about it -- it’s complicated,” Pompeo said. On Cruz’s contention that t people in the State Department continue to resist Trump’s desire to kill the nuclear deal, Pompeo said, “We’ve got 90,000 employees, probably that many opinions.”

‘End All’

Two people familiar with the administration’s thinking, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said they expect the nuclear waivers to be renewed. One of the people said Republican senators are still weighing how hard to fight Trump and Pompeo on the matter, including whether to hold up administration nominees unless the waivers are scrapped.

A spokesman for Cruz wouldn’t rule out the possibility.

“The Trump administration should end all implementation of the deal, including the nuclear and oil waivers the State Department has been issuing, and Senator Cruz will use all options available to him to push the administration to do so,” Billy Gribbin said.

Views on extending the nuclear waivers vary among experts on Iran’s nuclear program. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, argues that the waiver governing the Bushehr nuclear complex on the Persian Gulf should be extended because it allows Iran to buy uranium to power its reactor rather than enriching it on its own.

Weapons-Grade Uranium

But Albright says the Fordow waiver is more complicated because of information that came out after Israel exposed Iran’s nuclear archive last year. That data showed Iran had built Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, solely to make weapons-grade uranium, he said.

“The U.S. position should be that Fordow be shut down,” Albright said in an interview. “It was part of nuclear weapons program and it’s being preserved for a nuclear weapons program.”

Former Obama administration officials who helped craft the Iran deal said revoking the nuclear waivers would do the opposite of what the administration seeks by only adding to risk that Iran could build a nuclear weapon.

“It’s insane from a nonproliferation perspective,” said Jarrett Blanc, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation. “Deciding to throw that away because you need the next drumbeat of antagonism toward Iran is nuts.”

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