U.S. Ends Sanctions Waivers for Iran Nuclear Projects

On May 27, the Trump Administration announced that it would end waivers – or exemptions from U.S. sanctions – allowing British, Chinese and Russian companies to work at three Iranian nuclear sites. The work focused on ways to contain or limit Iran’s ability to use its nuclear program to build a bomb. The foreign projects were part of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s six major powers. Foreign companies involved were given 60 days to wind down activities on three projects—or face U.S. sanctions. The projects include:

  • Work by Britain and China to help Iran redesign the heavy water reactor at Arak into a light water reactor so that it cannot produce sufficient plutonium to fuel a nuclear weapon.
  • Russian supplies of uranium – enriched to only 20 percent – to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes.
  • Russian export of Iran’s scrap (residue) and spent fuel from the research reactor.

The three projects, along with several others, were mandated under the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and approved by the Obama administration. In May 2018, the Trump Administration withdrew from the JCPOA. It then sanctioned the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) in November 2018. But the United States repeatedly issued waivers to allow foreign companies to work with the AEOI on projects designed to contain Iran’s nuclear program. “Allowing these activities to continue for the time being will improve ongoing oversight of Iran’s civil nuclear program and make these facilities less susceptible to illicit and illegal nuclear uses,” Pompeo said on November 5, 2018.

In July 2019, the State Department said that the extension “will help preserve oversight of Iran’s civil nuclear program, reduce proliferation risks, constrain Iran’s ability to shorten its ‘breakout time’ to a nuclear weapon, and prevent the regime from reconstituting sites for proliferation-sensitive purposes.” The waivers were extended for another 60 days in March 2020. The Trump Administration had gradually discontinued waivers for other projects, including the production and export of heavy water as well as swapping low-enriched uranium for natural uranium.

But on May 27, Pompeo said that he could no longer justify renewing the waivers since Tehran had increased work on the nuclear program. Since July 2019, Iran has breached its obligations under the nuclear deal at least five times. “The regime’s nuclear extortion will lead to increased pressure on Iran and further isolate the regime from the international community,” Pompeo warned. The move was the latest expression of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign to get Iran to negotiate an expanded nuclear deal.

The Trump administration did, however, issue a 90-day waiver for foreign companies working on the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. “At the moment, we are willing to countenance operations there for purposes of safety and reactor operation – probably a good thing for there not to be a reactor incident in Iran,” Dr. Christopher A. Ford, Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, said at a briefing.

Tehran dismissed the U.S. decision to end the other waivers. “Of course America wants its actions to have an effect in line with pressure on Iran, but in practice nothing will happen,” AEOI spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said on May 28. 

Iran could use the ending of the waiver as justification to resume uranium enrichment to 20 percent, warned Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association. “Any production and stockpiling of 20 percent enriched uranium would significantly reduce the time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons grade uranium for a nuclear bomb.”

The remaining parties to the nuclear deal expressed their disapproval of the U.S. move. Britain, France, Germany and the European Union said that they “deeply regret” the U.S. decision and that the projections “serve the non-proliferation interests of all.” Russia said that “Washington's actions are becoming more and more dangerous and unpredictable.” China emphasized that complying with arrangements under the JCPOA was a shared responsibility and the United States was already in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution. 

The following is Pompeo’s statement, a transcript of a briefing with top State Department officials on the waivers and international reaction.


Keeping the World Safe from Iran’s Nuclear Program

Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State

PompeoToday, I am announcing the end of the sanctions waiver covering all remaining JCPOA-originating nuclear projects in Iran – the Arak reactor conversion, the provision of enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor, and the export of Iran’s spent and scrap research reactor fuel. The sanctions waiver covering these activities will end following a final, 60-day wind-down period allowing companies and entities involved in these activities to cease their operations.

I am also announcing the designation of Majid Agha’i and Amjad Sazgar pursuant to E.O. 13382 for engaging or attempting to engage in activities that have materially contributed to, or pose a risk of materially contributing to, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Sazgar is the Managing Director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran entity responsible for the industrial-scale production of uranium enrichment gas centrifuge machines. In 2019, Sazgar managed and supervised the installation of centrifuges at Iran’s Fordow Fuel Enrichment plant. Through these activities, Sazgar has contributed to Iran’s continued provocative and destabilizing expansion of its nuclear capabilities. Agha’i has also been centrally involved in Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuge operations, and is a manager in the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran subsidiary responsible for research and development of advanced centrifuges.

The Iranian regime has continued its nuclear brinkmanship by expanding proliferation sensitive activities. These escalatory actions are unacceptable and I cannot justify renewing the waiver for these JCPOA-related activities as a result. The regime’s nuclear extortion will lead to increased pressure on Iran and further isolate the regime from the international community. Moreover, Iran’s nuclear personnel need to make a choice – work for Iranian proliferation organizations and risk being sanctioned or put their skills to work for the Iranian people in pursuits outside of the proliferation realm.

As the waiver covering JCPOA-related activities comes to an end, the United States is providing a 90-day extension for the waiver covering ongoing international support to the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant Unit 1 to ensure safety of operations. We will continue to closely monitor all developments in Iran’s nuclear program and can modify this waiver at any time.

A regime that just days ago invoked “The Final Solution” and which regularly threatens to wipe Israel off the map must never obtain a nuclear weapon. The United States welcomes the international community’s widespread condemnation of the regime’s recent anti-Semitic statements. The regime’s vile rhetoric only strengthens the international community’s resolve to counter its threats.


Briefing with Brian Hook, Special Representative for Iran and Senior Advisor to the Secretary, and Dr. Christopher A. Ford, Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation

May 27, 2020 via Teleconference

HOOK:  Today, Secretary Pompeo terminated the nuclear waiver for three remaining Iran nuclear-related projects.  This includes the Arak reactor conversion, the provision of enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor, and the export of Iran-spent and scrap research reactor fuel.  The decision will take effect after a 60-day wind-down. 

Secretary Pompeo extended a waiver for the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant for 90 days.  International assistance a Bushehr predates the Iran nuclear deal.  The Secretary retains the right to revoke or modify this waiver at any time.  In light of the Iranian regime’s ongoing expansion of its proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities, we cannot justify extending the waiver for these activities beyond the wind-down period. 

In addition, Secretary Pompeo announced the designation of Amjad Sazgar and Majid Agha’i for supporting Iran’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

In 2019, Sazgar managed and supervised the installation of centrifuges at Iran’s Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant.  He also managed uranium centrifuge activities that have contributed to Iran exceeding its enriched uranium stockpile in excess of its nuclear deal commitments.  Agha’i has also been centrally involved in Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuge operations, and is a manager in the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran subsidiary that is responsible for research and development of advanced centrifuges.  As a result of this action today, these two individuals have been added to Treasury’s SDN list.

We are taking these actions now because the regime continues to use its nuclear program to extort the international community. The Iranian regime’s threats are designed to intimidate nations into accepting Iran’s usual violent behavior for fear of something worse.  We refuse to play by Iran’s rules. 

President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign has constrained and countered Iran in unprecedented ways.  We have deprived the clerical rulers of vast amounts of revenue.  We have disrupted their financial networks and their sectarian networks.  Because of our pressure, Iran’s leaders are facing a decision: either negotiate with us or manage economic collapse. 

Iran’s economy is especially grim because the autocratic rule of the ayatollahs has proven to be an economic catastrophe for the Iranian people.  Exports are down, the economy is in deep contraction, the budget – the government budget is facing unprecedented pressures it cannot fix, and access to foreign reserves is minimal.  The United States will continue its successful strategy of maximum economic pressure and diplomatic isolation. 

At the same time, we will deny Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon.  Just recently, Iran’s supreme leader publicly invoked the “final solution,” which is to endorse the Nazi policy of genocide against the Jews.  His regime was condemned widely, as it should be, but it underscores the very real threat this regime poses.  No country that threatens to annihilate Israel or any nation should be allowed the means to do so.  The United States stands with Israel and many other partners around the world in ensuring Iran never develops a nuclear weapon.  We have taken another step in that direction today with our decisions regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

I will now turn it over to my colleague, Acting Under Secretary Chris Ford.

FORD:  I don’t have much to add, but I do want to remind the listeners of the trajectory that this has come along over the last year or so.  As you all recall, there were basically quite a larger number of projects that had begun under the JCPOA for which U.S. waivers were in place, and those waivers have gradually been taken down one by one with this as the latest step in that progression.  As you might recall, there were – there was originally a U.S. sanction waiver applying to Iran’s production and export of heavy water, for which it has no use but which it has continued to produce, a project that originally began in connection with the effort to build a plutonium production reactor moderated by heavy water. 

There was also a waiver for a uranium swap mechanism under which the Iranians were – designed to allow the Iranians to continue to produce low-enriched uranium without exceeding their JCPOA caps because as they would come up to that cap it could be swapped out abroad for natural uranium that was not so enriched.  There was also a waiver that applied to a project at a place called Fordow which was to permit the construction of a stable isotope project using uranium – or using centrifuges, not using uranium – using centrifuges in that project in one of the tunnels that Iran had dug into a mountain some years before as part of its illicit nuclear weapons effort.  There was also – there were also a number of additional waivers that were in place for a while; the remainder of them are now coming off.  As Brian mentioned, there is fuel supply for the Tehran research reactor, a scrap removal provision for the Tehran research reactor, and a project for the redesign of the Arak nuclear reactor.  Those last three are now coming off with the 60-day wind-down that Brian mentioned. 

We are, however, continuing, as he indicated, to keep in place our willingness to allow safety and other operations work in connection with the first unit at the Bushehr nuclear reactor, as well as fuel supply and fuel take-back for that reactor.  But as we clarified a couple of rounds ago in this, our sanctions waiver does not extend to work on any additional units that might be constructed at Bushehr.  We are willing to continue countenancing the Bushehr reactor, but we are not of the view that Iran should be getting any additional nuclear reactors.

So that’s the (inaudible) of the waiver progression, the latest step of which is being announced today. 

With regard to the two individuals that Brian mentioned on whom sanctions are going to be imposed, I should note that these are State Department authorities that we are using under Executive Order 13382, and that the Treasury Department is probably even as we speak taking steps to add those two gentlemen to the list of specially designated nationals under the U.S. sanctions authority.

QUESTION:  How long does the administration think it would take Iran to go back to the prior configuration for the Arak reactor after this wind-down period?  And then separately, have there been any efforts to coordinate with the E3 on an arms embargo, and what work has been going on on the draft that the administration has circulated that you’ve referred to previously, Brian? 

FORD:  The Arak reactor project – our assessment at this point is that going back to the original design would take them quite a few years and a great deal of money that, frankly – for the reasons that Brian outlined – frankly they don’t have right now.  It’s also not entirely clear they have the expertise in-country to do this on their own.  There have been persistent rumors that they may have gotten some foreign assistance the first time around, and we would obviously have a high priority to ensure that that did not occur if they were to try to go back to that original design.  But it would take a great deal of time. 

They originally started talking about this reactor in the early 2000s, and they were all over the map in terms of projecting an operational date.  It was reported at one point that they would be going up in the late 2000s.  That obviously didn’t occur.  It actually wasn’t terribly advanced at the time of the nuclear deal, and at this point it is even less advanced because the calandria at the reactor vessel core has been, as part of the redesign project, extracted and filled with concrete.  So they would be starting from scratch, and this would take them quite a bit of time.  It’s also worth pointing out that going for a – trying to produce a plutonium production reactor in Iran would be an extraordinarily provocative thing to do, in addition, of course, to taking lots of time and costing lots and lots of money. 

So far, Iran has been notably measured in building up its nuclear capabilities, even in – even though these are violations of its JCPOA commitments.  Iran does not seem to wish to antagonize the remaining participants in the JCPOA – the European 3, Russia, and China.  They don’t want to provoke a full snapback of UN Security Council sanctions and a complete resumption of full-bore international economic pressures upon the Iranian regime.  And so it’s been fairly measured in its responses even on other aspects, and so going back to the full-scale pursuit of a plutonium production reactor would be an extraordinary provocation that I think is relatively unlikely for them to undertake even if they had the money with which to do so.  And it’s also true that no one can forget what happened the last time someone tried to build a plutonium production reactor in the Middle East, in Syria, which was of course destroyed by the Israelis in 2007.

HOOK:  I know you also asked about the arms embargo.  President Rouhani recently went on television and declared that, quote, “Iran will give a crushing response if the arms embargo on Tehran is extended.”  This is yet another example of how the Iran nuclear deal has failed to moderate the regime.  We believe the Security Council has to reject Rouhani’s extortion.  We will – we are pressing ahead with diplomacy.  We are working methodically to build support in the Council to extend the embargo.  We have drafted a resolution, we certainly hope it will pass, and our efforts are focused on securing passage in the Council.  I don’t have anything to say about confidential bilateral discussions with our European allies other than to say that they continue.

QUESTION:  You mentioned the recent statement from Iran that – as evidence that the Iran nuclear deal hasn’t moderated the regime, but I mean, at what point do you begin taking ownership for how Iran is responding?  Because obviously the Trump administration’s Iran policy has been in place for a long time, and it seems like there’s some selective picking and choosing about what is a result of the maximum pressure campaign and what is a lingering result of the Obama administration nuclear deal.  And I was just wondering, the second question, what was the reaction like from European officials when you guys consulted with them on this decision?

HOOK:  Don’t have anything to say about discussions with allies, which are confidential and should remain so.  I am in regular touch with my E3 counterparts.  On the first question, it is true to say that the Iran nuclear deal did not moderate the Iranian regime’s behavior, and that was one of the premises – you can see it in the preambular language of the Iran nuclear deal itself – that the deal would contribute to regional peace and stability.  Instead, we have seen the Iran nuclear deal come at the expense of peace and stability in the Middle East because it gave an incentive for nations to look the other way on Iran’s non-nuclear threats, which include ballistic missile testing, missile and rocket proliferation, regional aggression, and hostage taking. 

We put in place a policy after a comprehensive review of Iran’s threats – and this is early on in the administration – and we then put in place an entirely new approach to Iran that is the right formula of maximum pressure, diplomatic isolation, and credible military deterrent.  These are the three necessary ingredients to have a successful Iran policy, and we have been unwavering in our commitment to implementing that.  And as a consequence, the regime, by most economic metrics, is much weaker today than it was three years ago.  That’s, as I said in my earlier remarks, largely a function of the mismanagement of the economy by successive ayatollahs, but it’s also because our sanctions have really dried up the revenue that the regime historically would otherwise spend supporting its proxies in the gray zone across the Middle East.

So we have never claimed to have eliminated Iran’s asymmetric capabilities.  That is the nature of modern terrorism.  There is always that asymmetric capability, and terrorism on the cheap is not something that anybody, any nation can eliminate.  But we have deterred and disrupted Iranian operations now for a number of years, and the regime is facing its worst economic crisis in its 41-year history.  President Rouhani himself said that our sanctions have cost the regime $200 billion.  And they understand our strategy.  They’re not used to being told no.  They don’t like our policy.  But to us, that’s just another metric that it’s working.

FORD:  If I could add to that, one could argue about the degree to which their behavior has been moderated in kind, but I think it is quite clear that it has been constrained to some really non-trivial and quite important degree in practice.  That $200 billion that Brian mentioned is no trivial sum, and it wasn’t that long ago, if you’ll recall, that Iranian sort of adventurous proxies in the Middle East were – would brag to the media about all the limitless supplies of support, of money that they were getting from the Iranian regime. 

But in the last year or so they’ve changed their tune, and there have been some – actually, you can look this up online if you’d like – there have been some very public complaints about how those sources of funding have been dramatically cut back in recent months.  So I think Iran’s ability to act upon its still unfortunately demonstrably bad intentions has been much more constrained than before.  We are forcing them to make tradeoffs they didn’t have to make, and I think unless and until they come to the table to negotiate the kind of solution that we need with them, that will certainly continue, but forcing them to make those tradeoffs is, I think, very much a good thing for peace and stability in the Middle East.

QUESTION:  As I understand it, allowing the work on these three sites had given international companies and officials more kind of eyes-on visibility on what was happening inside.  And I’m just wondering, in that way, doesn’t this decision remove those safeguards that sought to ensure that Iran couldn’t violate the deal?

FORD:  I wouldn’t say that these particular projects provided any particular visibility.  The – were there to have been scrap removal from the TRR, that would have been a one-time transaction to bring out some bits and pieces of metal.  The fuel supply has actually already taken place, and the TRR is already in no need of fuel for quite some time to come, potentially for years depending upon the burn rate that they have the reactor at.  And as for the Arak project, it hasn’t progressed so far beyond really what is more than a glorified series of committee meetings.  So I think actually, the delta there that you’re referring to is really quite negligible. 

What is important is the continued visibility provided by the International Atomic Energy Agency and its safeguards inspectors into what the Iranian nuclear program is doing.  And we are, of course, strongly committed to continuing to support the IAEA and make sure that the rest of the international community joins as one in voicing support for the IAEA doing its job and making it very clear that Iran has legal obligations to allow IAEA inspectors to have access and get the information that they need in order to do that job, and that when Iran denies those access requests and those requests for information, as it has been doing, as the director general of the agency has reported to the board of governors in Vienna, it’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure that the integrity of the safeguard system is preserved.

But that’s the visibility that is critical here, and I hope that despite Iranian denials of access and information, we can all pull together and make sure that the signal is sent to them that they do not and must not have the option of treating their legal obligations and their safeguards obligations as options. 

QUESTION:  Just looking forward, how much is Iran’s aggressive behavior militarily playing into this, and how much is it the nuclear proliferation?  I mean, how are you disaggregating the issues that have led you to this state – this stage?

HOOK:  We have – from the very beginning, we have not siloed Iran’s threats to peace and security.  What we’ve done is take a comprehensive approach to all of them, and we seek a truly comprehensive deal, not comprehensive in name only – a truly comprehensive deal that addresses Iran’s nuclear threats, missile, regional aggression, the hostage taking. 

And so I can’t say that there is, Andrea, one particular sort of motive for these actions today.  It’s a comprehensive approach that we have always taken, and we work across various platforms in the State Department and across the interagency to have a very synchronized and coordinated approach.  We think that by doing it in this way and not putting all of our chips on one aspect – sort of one threat that Iran presents – it’s been a much more successful effort.

FORD:  Sure.  I wouldn’t add much to that except to point out that while there were – some of the – these projects had a direct potential impact upon increasing Iran’s level of nuclear knowledge in ways that we thought were not proliferation responsible, such as the excuse that the fuel swap – the very first of the waivers – one of the first waivers to come off – the excuse that the fuel swap gave them to continue enrichment activity that we felt they had no business being involved in doing in the first place; the heavy water program, for example.  There’s no use for that in Iran, so it was simply a way for the Iranian nuclear industry to make some money and to help keep some of its people employed.  That wasn’t a project we felt it was worth associating ourselves with.  There were concerns about in various ways – the ways in which these projects could over time increase the aggregate amount of Iranian nuclear knowledge.

But the fundamental point is really more basic than that.  It is simply that as a point of principle, at a time when Iran has been building up their capabilities in ways that we consider to be very provocative and destabilizing, we simply – I think it was the Secretary’s decision very clearly to dissociate ourselves from being willing to countenance that kind of engagement.

QUESTION:  Two questions.  One:  Why not terminate the waiver that allows the Russians to continue to work on Bushehr?  I get that the Bushehr project predates the JCPOA, but the Bushehr project has also been a matter of concern for successive U.S. governments for more than a decade.  Why not just cut that off?

And secondly, you both have made repeated reference to Iran’s increasing its nuclear activities.  Is it not the case, though, that much of if not all of that activity has been undertaken after the U.S. decision to withdraw from the JCPOA?  So on the one hand you say you wish to dissociate yourselves from that activity pursued by Iran, but on the other hand one could (inaudible).

FORD:  With respect to Bushehr, I mean, I should point out that we are – what we are not announcing this week is that we will absolutely never, under any circumstances, change our course with respect to activities at that reactor.  These are on a 90-day cycle.  When the next cycle comes around, the Bushehr waiver will be examined as before on its merits, and we may or may not change course at that time.  So I wouldn’t want to prejudge or assume any (inaudible) the Secretary in advance of decisions that are actually made at the time on the basis of the facts of the moment. 

So why not Bushehr?  We are continuing to assess the situation there.  At the moment, we are willing to countenance operations there for purposes of safety and reactor operation – probably a good thing for there not to be a reactor incident in Iran – and also with respect to spent fuel supply – sorry, spent fuel take-back and fuel supply, to make sure that there is no reason for Iran to be claiming a need to enrich for Bushehr and no opportunity to use spent fuel to – for the purposes of separating plutonium from it, which could be of course redirected to a nuclear weapons program.

So for the moment we’re perfectly happy with the Bushehr project going forward, although I would stress, as we made clear earlier, that our waiver does not apply to the construction of additional reactors.  So one is plenty.  Iran doesn’t even really need that one, but it does exist and we want to make sure that it remains safe and doesn’t contribute to proliferation problems.  But we will look in 90 days’ time at all the facts – the totality the facts are going to be, and make that decision at that point. 


International Reaction

Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi

“The ending of waivers for nuclear cooperation under (the nuclear deal) will not in practice have any effect on Iran’s work.”

“Of course America wants its actions to have an effect in line with pressure on Iran, but in practice nothing will happen.”

“America is trying to distract world public opinion with these actions given Iran’s powerful actions in the world and the continuation of its nuclear program.”

—May 28, 2020, statement to ISNA via Reuters and Al Monitor


Joint Statement by the Foreign Ministries of France, Germany and the United Kingdom and the High Representative of the European Union

We deeply regret the US decision to end the three waivers covering key JCPOA nuclear projects in Iran, including the Arak Modernisation Project.

These projects, endorsed by UN Security Council resolution 2231, serve the non-proliferation interests of all and provide the international community with assurances of the exclusively peaceful and safe nature of Iranian nuclear activities.

We are consulting with our partners to assess the consequences of this decision by the United States.

The JCPOA is a key achievement of the global non-proliferation architecture and currently the best and only way to ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. That is why we have worked continuously with the aim of ensuring the full and effective implementation of commitments under the JCPOA, in particular the return of Iran to full compliance with its nuclear commitments without delay.

—May 30, 2020, in a statement


Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian

"The U.S. has chosen to stick to its maximum pressure campaign on Iran. It has not only unilaterally withdrawn from the JCPOA in violation of the UNSCR, but also ratcheted up efforts to thwart other parties’ implementation of the deal."

"Complying with and acting on these arrangements [of the JCPOA] serves all parties’ common interests and is a shared responsibility." 

—May 29, 2020, during a press briefing


Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova

“Washington’s actions are becoming more and more dangerous and unpredictable.”

“The nature of this behavior is clearly disruptive.”

—May 28, 2020, in remarks to reporters


Some of the information in this article was originally published on May 28, 2020.