Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed several sanctions waivers related to Iran’s civilian nuclear activities which would exempt foreign countries and companies that work in Iran’s civilian nuclear sector from American penalties.
The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the sanctions waivers on Friday, said that they are aimed at turning Iran’s heavy-water Arak reactor into a less dangerous light-water reactor and also apply to the export of enriched uranium and heavy water outside of Iran. The waivers would also allow fuel to be sent to two reactors used for civilian purposes.
The move comes as the Biden administration hopes to entice Iran back to the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for an easing of economic sanctions.
The Trump administration withdrew from that deal in 2018 before reimposing tight sanctions on the country.
Former President Donald Trump had severely criticized the deal even before his presidential campaign began, calling it a “horrible, one-sided deal that should have never been made.”
“The waiver with respect to these activities is designed to facilitate discussions that would help to close a deal on a mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA and lay the groundwork for Iran’s return to performance of its JCPOA commitments,” the State Department said in a notice to Congress that announced the move last week.
“It is also designed to serve U.S. nonproliferation and nuclear safety interests and constrain Iran’s nuclear activities,” the department said. “It is being issued as a matter of policy discretion with these objectives in mind, and not pursuant to a commitment or as part of a quid pro quo. We are focused on working with partners and allies to counter the full range of threats that Iran poses.”
Friday’s decision comes following last month’s eighth round of indirect negotiations between the United States and Iran which was attended by representatives of China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain, and Iran, in the Austrian capital of Vienna, regarding the nuclear deal.
The United States has been participating indirectly in the talks because Iran refuses direct contact.
President Joe Biden has signaled that he wants to rejoin the deal but had until last week kept in place all Iranian sanctions it inherited from the Trump administration.
Critics of the nuclear deal have argued that even if the Biden administration wants to return to the 2015 deal it should at least demand some concessions from Iran before providing it with sanctions relief upfront.
“From a negotiating perspective, they look desperate: we’ll waive sanctions before we even have a deal, just say yes to anything!” said Rich Goldberg, a vocal deal opponent who is a senior adviser to the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said that even if Iran returned to compliance with the nuclear restrictions in the 2015 deal, Iran’s “dangerously and rapidly escalating nuclear program” has “put it on the brink of having enough material for a nuclear weapon.”
“While the deal the U.S. and our partners are pursuing in Vienna would ostensibly seek to reverse technological advancements, the acquisition of knowledge is never reversible,” he said during a floor speech on Wednesday. “At this point, we seriously have to ask, ‘What exactly are we trying to salvage?'”
Iran has now apparently enriched uranium to 60 percent purity, 20 to 30 percent below the purity required for building weapons, but denies that it is seeking a nuclear weapon.
Talks in Vienna are ongoing as part of the effort to bring both the United States and Iran back into the 2015 deal and the latest move is thought to help push the negotiations forward.
State Department spokesman Ned Price on Friday was quick to defend sanctions waivers for Iran’s nuclear program, saying that the move was not intended to provide relief.
Price also stressed that the United States will not provide sanctions relief to Tehran before it returns to its commitments under 2015 nuclear deal.
“We did NOT provide sanctions relief for Iran and WILL NOT until/unless Tehran returns to its commitments under the JCPOA,” Price wrote on Twitter.
“We did precisely what the last administration did: permit our international partners to address growing nuclear nonproliferation and safety risks in Iran,” Price said.
Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Feb. 5 that the move by the United States was “not enough” and Washington should provide political and economical guarantees for the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal.
“The lifting of some sanctions can in itself translate into good faith,” Amir-Abdollahian said, according to Iranian state media.
“While what is on paper is good, it’s not enough,” he added. “We demand guarantees in the political, legal, and economic spheres. Certain agreements have already been reached,” he added.
Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council in a Twitter post on Saturday said no agreement can restrict “Iran’s legal right to continue research and development” and “to maintain its peaceful nuclear capabilities and achievements along with its security against supported evils.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.