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Trump expected to keep Iran nuclear waivers in place — for now

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President Donald Trump is likely to keep a crucial part of the Iran nuclear deal alive — against the advice of some of the most ardent hawks in his administration.

Multiple reports say the president is planning to renew five waivers allowing Tehran to work with foreign countries on building a civilian nuclear program. That’s a big deal, as cooperating with countries in Europe as well as Russia and China helps Iran create nuclear infrastructure for purposes other than building bombs. Indeed, countries can use nuclear power for creating energy or for medical advancements, among other things.

But without foreign assistance, Iran might not have the capacity to alter its Arak reactor, Fordow enrichment center, and other nuclear sites for non-military purposes.

The US-granted waivers, which in this case would last for 90 days, allow for those existing relationships to persist despite Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Iran nuclear deal last year. If those measures aren’t in place, Iran could break from its nuclear accord obligations and possibly make materials for use in nuclear weapons at those sites.

The president reportedly came to his decision after a heated debate inside the administration.

On one side were National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — fierce critics of the Iranian regime — who argued that Trump shouldn’t renew the waivers so that his “maximum pressure” campaign to force Tehran to sign a more restrictive nuclear deal would have even greater effect. Fifty lawmakers, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (TX), Tom Cotton (AR), and Marco Rubio (FL), also pushed Trump in that direction in a letter sent to him this month.

But others, mainly Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, said the US would have to sanction the Iran-helping countries if Trump didn’t extend the waivers before their Thursday expiration date. Mnuchin reportedly requested that his department have more time to study the ramifications of not extending the waivers.

Trump, for now, seems to have sided with Mnuchin’s camp — much to the chagrin of the Bolton-and-Pompeo-led hawks. It’s unclear exactly why the Treasury chief’s argument ultimately persuaded the president, but it did enough that an official announcement will be made later this week.

The State Department refused to comment on these developments. The White House and Treasury Department didn’t respond to immediate requests for comment.

“This is a holding action, nothing more”

Tensions with Iran remain high. Over the past month, Iran has shot down a US military drone and seized as well as bombed oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway that much of the world’s energy passes through. The US responded in kind by bringing down an Iranian drone above those waters and organizing an international effort to patrol the strait so tankers can safely travel in it.

And not extending the waivers at this moment could have turned a bad situation even worse, some experts say. It would’ve angered not only the Iranian regime but also Russia, China, and European nations, sparking animosity without much added benefit for the US.

The waivers “have no economic value,” Richard Nephew, an Iran expert at Columbia University, told me. “Their only utility is in helping to ensure Iran’s nuclear program is less of a weapons threat.”

“The only way this is a loss for the hawks [in the Trump administration] is if they want that program to be more of a weapons threat,” Nephew added. “So if they see it as such, it is a bit of an admission that they would like a good crisis.”

That may partly explain why Trump has issued waivers before. The last time he did so was in May, though he didn’t renew two of them that separately allowed Oman and Russia to work on projects in Iran. The US didn’t sanction either country after both nations ceased their work to avoid facing possible sanctions — an argument used by the Bolton-and-Pompeo-led camp to let the current waivers expire this week.

Other critics of the waiver renewal decision say it may weaken any support Trump still has for bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. “It’s difficult to see how extending waivers can win over European support for the American position,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told me. “If anything, extending all remaining waivers risks signaling that more than a year in, Washington may just not be that into maximum pressure.”

Trump may be coming around to that point of view, though, as some say this will be the last time the president authorizes waivers. “I have no doubt that these will be canceled eventually,” Nephew, who helped broker the Iran nuclear deal, told me. “This is a holding action, nothing more.”

He may be right. “We still have the goal of ending these waivers,” an unnamed senior administration official told the Washington Post on Tuesday. “These waivers can be revoked at any time, as developments with Iran warrant. But because of the Treasury Department’s legitimate concerns, we’ve decided to extend them for now.”

Which means that Trump may have successfully stopped US-Iran tensions from growing for now — but he may not do so again in three months’ time.

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