The Trump administration faced a self-imposed Tuesday deadline to decide whether to extend waivers allowing other world powers to work with Iran on civilian nuclear projects without facing U.S. sanctions.
Speaking at an Oct. 16 Senate hearing, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, said the Iran nuclear waivers renewed by the State Department for 90 days on July 30 expire on Oct. 29. He said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have to make a decision by then on canceling the five waivers or renewing any of them for an additional period.
The five waivers enable European powers, Russia and China to deploy personnel to four Iranian nuclear sites to work with their Iranian counterparts in ensuring that the sites do not engage in activities that could be diverted to making nuclear weapons. Washington and its allies long have accused Iran of seeking a nuclear weapons capability, while Tehran has said its nuclear program is civilian and peaceful.
Iran agreed to cooperate with international experts to bar potential weapons-related activities at the four nuclear sites in return for international sanctions relief as part of a 2015 deal with world powers.
U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from that deal last year and unilaterally reimposed U.S. sanctions on Iran. He said the 2015 deal was not tough enough on Iran and launched a "maximum pressure" campaign to force Tehran to give up perceived nuclear weapons ambitions and other malign activities.
But, Trump repeatedly has extended the waivers for the civilian projects at the four Iranian nuclear sites, shielding other world powers from U.S. sanctions as they implement the civilian cooperation aspects of the 2015 deal, which those powers want to maintain. The State Department detailed the five waivers in a May fact sheet.
Three of the U.S. waivers are for international cooperation with Iran's Tehran Research Reactor and its electricity-producing Bushehr nuclear power plant. The other two are for international projects to prevent Iran's Fordow fuel enrichment plant from enriching weapons-grade uranium, and to prevent its Arak heavy water reactor from producing a key ingredient for weapons-grade plutonium.
In a Twitter video posted Monday, British Ambassador to Iran Rob Macaire said a team of British nuclear technology experts recently visited the Arak reactor and made "good progress" with Iranians in the civilian cooperation mission. The project initially involved U.S. and Chinese experts, but Britain replaced the U.S. contingent after Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
"This project shows how hard we are trying to make sure the JCPOA remains active after the U.S. withdrawal," Macaire said in Farsi, referring to an acronym for the 2015 deal. "We talked about how we could finish the project as quickly as possible. There are many challenges, but we are committed to fulfill our commitments under the JCPOA, even when (Britain) leaves the European Union."
When the Trump administration last extended the waivers for the Arak reactor and the other projects on July 30, it sent a notification to Congress via the State Department.
A day later, the Associated Press reported that it obtained a copy of the notification, in which the State Department asserted that extending the waivers would "continue to serve both our Iran strategy and broader non-proliferation goals by constraining Tehran's nuclear capabilities for as long as possible, while we work toward a new deal that addresses the totality of Iran's malign behavior.''
It was not clear when the Trump administration would notify Congress or the public of its next decision about the waivers.
"These waivers really benefit U.S. nonproliferation interests because they support activities at Iranian sites that would make it more difficult for Iran to reconstitute or convert them, if Tehran ever were to choose to pursue a nuclear weapons program," said analyst Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association, a Washington policy institute that seeks to promote effective arms control policies.
"Renewing the waivers really is a no-brainer decision," Davenport told VOA Persian. "If the waivers lapse, Iran could return some of these sites to their original purposes, and that could mean higher levels of uranium enrichment at Fordow and constructing the Arak reactor based on the original design. Those projects in particular pose far more of a proliferation risk if they are not modified."
Several Republican senators who back the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign against Iran have urged Trump to scrap at least some of the waivers.
An Oct. 24 report by Bloomberg cited a U.S. official as saying Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham have drafted legislation that would require the Trump administration to end three waivers that allow international work at Fordow, Arak and the Tehran Research Reactor.
Bloomberg said Republican supporters of the bill believe Iran cannot be trusted to keep its nuclear activities peaceful because it ran a covert nuclear weapons program under cover of civilian projects in the early 2000s. It said they also believe that ending the waivers would make it harder for a Democratic president to revive the 2015 nuclear deal should Trump not be re-elected next year.
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington research group that also backs a tough U.S. stance against Iran, wrote in a Monday op-ed that the Trump administration should at least terminate the Fordow waiver and "conditionally suspend" the Arak waiver. It noted that Iran has delayed fulfilling its commitments to make the Arak site less of a proliferation risk and to convert the Fordow facility into a "nuclear, physics and technology center" for international scientific cooperation.
Speaking to VOA Persian, FDD op-ed co-author and nonproliferation analyst Andrea Stricker said the status quo is not working. "We think (our proposal) would be the best tool for Europe and the U.N. nuclear agency to pressure Iran to actually take the actions that it is supposed to under the nuclear deal," she said.
Asked how Iran could be prevented from resuming weapons-related work at any site for which a U.S. waiver is revoked, Stricker called for threatening more U.S. sanctions in response to such Iranian action.
This article originated in VOA's Persian Service.