Trump administration to renew Iran sanctions waivers amid worries over US nuclear supply

EXCLUSIVE: Concerns over the United States’ nuclear supply have prompted the State Department to renew sanctions waivers for companies working on Iran’s civilian nuclear program, according to senior U.S. officials.

Failing to extend these waivers otherwise would expose a Russian nuclear company to American sanctions. Rosatom, a Russian state nuclear company, helps Iran operate its civilian nuclear program – but it also sells American power and medical companies a significant portion of their nuclear material.

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Sanctioning Rosatom could disrupt those supplies or raise prices in the U.S., senior officials said.

The Trump administration will announce Thursday that it will renew those waivers for 60 days as officials say they’re seriously examining ways to eliminate them without risking the U.S. nuclear supply.

“We're taking a very hard look at whether we can eliminate those remaining four without having any collateral consequences," said Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran.

President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are strongly pushing to eliminate the waivers as the “last vestige” of the Iran nuclear deal, said the officials.

Rosatom supplies 20 percent of the enriched uranium the U.S. uses in its nuclear power reactors, according to The Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry’s trade association.

Congressional Republicans opposed to the waiver extension maintained that Rosatom would comply if the administration revoked the waivers.

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Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., called on the administration “to rescind the remaining waivers in light of Iranian officials' definitive statements abandoning the deal,” especially as Iran is now openly violating the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement.

“Enough is enough," they said.

A GOP foreign policy aide said the nuclear supply concern is “a fiction.” Opponents point to one of the four Iranian nuclear projects, at Arak, which has no Russian presence.

Administration officials have also argued the waivers allow the U.S. to monitor four Iranian nuclear projects, three of which have a Russian presence. At the Arak facility, officials have argued the monitoring prevents Iran from reverting to a previous design, which was well-suited to weapons-grade plutonium production.

“It is essential to find a way to avoid or limit any industry blowback, especially for the U.S,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “This may mean finding an appropriate sanctions carve-out. However, the clock cannot run on this quest for a carve-out in perpetuity.”

The U.S. is also sanctioning Ali Akbar Salehi, the chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.

The developments come amid historic tensions between the U.S. and Iran, following a U.S. drone strike that took out their top general, amid the fallout from an Iran-linked attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and warnings about future attacks.

Despite a strict sanctions campaign against Iran, the State Department will also announce Thursday that it has helped coordinate the first sale of cancer drugs to Iran through a new humanitarian channel, according to senior State Department officials.

A European pharmaceutical company sold the cancer medicine through an intermediary in Switzerland, and more transactions are forthcoming, the officials said. 

The United States has written exemptions for humanitarian aid into its sanctions against Iran. Because of potential American sanctions penalties, companies have been reluctant to sell in Iran.

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Iranian officials allege that American sanctions are creating a humanitarian crisis in their country. U.S. officials counter that Iran should stop spending its money on militias.