U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton says the White House wants sanctions on Iran's oil sector to put a strain on Iran's economy, but it does not want to harm "friends and allies" that depend on the oil.
"We want to achieve maximum pressure, but we don't want to harm friends and allies either," Bolton told the Hamilton Society in Washington on October 31, signalling a possible softening of the White House's demand that all countries reduce their Iranian oil imports to "zero."
The United States is preparing to reimpose sanctions on Iran's oil industry on November 5 after withdrawing from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers. But Washington also has been considering waivers from the sanctions requested by allies such as India and Turkey.
India, which is Iran's second-largest customer for oil, has said it cannot immediately replace its Iranian imports and is seeking a waiver, while Turkey has also sought an exemption from the U.S. Treasury Department.
This week, South Korea also asked U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for "maximum flexibility" on its request for a waiver to prevent companies there from being hit by the sanctions.
Other countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, also depend on some imports from Iran.
Bolton said the administration understands that a number of countries "may not be able to go all the way, all the way to zero immediately."
Bolton's hint that Washington is preparing to grant some sanctions waivers came as a surprise, as he has been the most outspoken proponent of the toughest possible sanctions on Iran.
Bolton insisted, however, that even if some exceptions were granted, Iran is already feeling pain from the U.S. sanctions, particularly with the collapse of its currency, the rial, this year.
"I think it's important that we not relax in the effort" to keep putting pressure on Tehran, he said.
Hours before he spoke, Iranian President Hassan Rohani warned Iranians they could face more economic hardship in the months ahead as the U.S. imposes a new round of sanctions.
In a presidential memorandum late on October 31, Trump said he determined there was sufficient supply of petroleum and petroleum products in the global market to cushion the impact of a cut in purchases of Iranian oil.
The determination is needed under U.S. law for Washington to impose sanctions on foreign countries that fail to significantly reduce their purchases of Iranian oil and petroleum products.
The law was originally passed during Barack Obama's administration at part of its effort to pressure Iran to curtail its nuclear program by forcing its major oil customers to reduce their purchases.
But the Obama White House later lifted the sanctions when it agreed to Iran's 2015 nuclear deal, which granted sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on Iran's nuclear activities.