The United States has announced it 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, a move dismissed by Tehran as "desperate."
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.
In response, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said on May 28 that the United States had made the move in a bid "to distract public opinion from its continued defeats at the hands of Iran."
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.
"Ending waivers for nuclear cooperation with Iran...has effectively no impact on Iran's continued work" on what the Islamic republic insists is a purely civilian nuclear energy program, the spokesman of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Behruz Kamalvandi, added in a statement published on the agency's website.
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.
However, Kamalvandi said ending the waivers would not impact Iran's continued work on the Arak reactor and "other equipment" by Iranian experts.
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.”
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters that “Washington's actions are becoming more and more dangerous and unpredictable."
She cited the U.S. move to end sanctions waivers for countries that remain in the Iran nuclear accord, as well as its decision to walk away from a key military treaty with Moscow.
The United States announced last week it was withdrawing from the Open Skies agreement, which permits unarmed aerial surveillance flights over dozens of participating countries, because of violations by Russia – an accusation Moscow denies.