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U.S. Quietly Waives Some Sanctions To Allow Key Part Of Iran Nuclear Deal To Continue


The Trump administration has been sending mixed signals on Iran this week. It imposed sanctions on Iran's foreign minister and is taking other steps to isolate the country. But the administration also quietly waived some sanctions to allow a key part of the Iran nuclear deal to continue. Joining us now to talk about why is NPR's Michele Kelemen. And Michele, I want to start with the sanctions that have been waived. What's the significance of this?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: So the administration says that it's allowing some projects to continue. These are, you know, Russian, Chinese, European companies that are working on projects that are central to the nuclear deal. That's the deal the Trump administration left, which limits Iran's nuclear activity and ensures that it would take at least a year for Iran to produce enough material for a bomb.

The State Department says that these are limited nonproliferation activities that do not help Iran; instead, they help restrict and constrain Iran's nuclear program. So it's things like redesigning a reactor and support for the Bushehr reactor so that Iran doesn't need to enrich uranium for that.

CORNISH: But the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from this deal, which President Obama negotiated. So in some sense, is this administration acknowledging that it's keeping part of it alive?

KELEMEN: Well, as some critics have said, it's on life support. It may not be for long. Listen to how national security adviser John Bolton described this decision in an interview with the Fox Business Network.


JOHN BOLTON: This is a short 90-day extension. It's intended, as I say, to be under constant observation. And I'd just keep my eye on that spot.

KELEMEN: And Bolton, as you know, is a hawk on Iran. He seemed to be indicating that he'd like to see the administration stop waiving these sanctions the next go round.

CORNISH: Is the administration essentially all on the same page?

KELEMEN: It doesn't really look like it. I put that question to Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He's also a critic of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA.

MARK DUBOWITZ: I think there's an ongoing internal struggle inside the administration between those who want to retain the JCPOA as a framework for future nuclear negotiations with Iran and those who believe that the JCPOA is a fatally flawed agreement.

KELEMEN: And he says, you know, this whole debate about waivers, the extension for 90 days, these waiver extensions, really captures that internal disagreement.

CORNISH: Here Dubowitz is talking about the idea of negotiating a new deal. The administration says it wants to do that, but it's also imposing sanctions on Iran's foreign minister. What's the disconnect here?

KELEMEN: Yeah, well, diplomats are sure trying to figure that out right now and trying to figure out what the U.S. strategy is here. France, Britain and Germany, all signatories of the Iran nuclear deal, say that the U.S. should keep all diplomatic channels open. The U.N. secretary general again today called for maximum restraint, rather than maximum pressure, the policy that the Trump administration is pursuing.

So far, Iran's foreign minister is brushing off the sanctions, saying that they won't have any effect on him because he doesn't have assets here. But it's obviously going to be hard for U.S. officials to deal with him if he continues to be the main diplomat from Iran.

CORNISH: That's NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Michele, thanks for explaining it.

KELEMEN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.