U.S. extends waivers on Iran sanctions but warns it’s an interim move

The United States on Thursday waived nuclear-related sanctions on Iran but slapped new ones on 11 companies and individuals linked to the country’s ballistic-missile program and cyberattacks on U.S. companies several years ago.

The new sanctions on non-nuclear matters signal President Trump’s determination to confront Tehran over actions the United States considers destabilizing to the region and in defiance of the intent of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal.

“The administration seeks to bring a change in Iran’s behavior,” said a senior administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. The official cited Iran’s ballistic-missile tests, support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, backing of militias fighting in neighboring countries and human rights abuses including the detention of several U.S. citizens.

Officials in the Obama administration who negotiated the nuclear agreement acknowledged the other issues were problematic but said it was preferable to confront an Iran that is not armed with nuclear weapons.

Though the Trump administration extended existing waivers on sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors that were suspended when the nuclear deal took effect in January 2016, U.S. officials described the extension as a “holding action” until Trump decides next month whether to declare that Iran is not complying with the nuclear deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“This is an action the United States is taking in the interim while the president and his Cabinet come to a final decision . . . about what U.S. policy pertaining to the JCPOA will be,” said another official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Eight times since the agreement took effect last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency has determined that Iran has upheld its end. But administration officials repeatedly have accused Iran of violating the “spirit” of the deal and undermining the goal of peace.

In London earlier Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said a review of the Iran deal and U.S. policy toward the country is still underway. “President Trump has made it clear,” he said. “We must take into account the totality of Iranian threats, not just Iran’s nuclear capabilities.”

Tillerson said the expectation of the deal was that Iran would stop being a destabilizing factor in the region. “In our view, Iran is clearly in default of the expectations,” he said.

The nuclear deal eased corrosive economic sanctions that were imposed over concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and were designed to get the Iranian government to the negotiating table. But the deal that came out of those talks left numerous other sanctions in place.

The Treasury Department added sanctions Thursday, targeting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a hard-line branch of the armed forces that has opposed the nuclear deal and aspires to keep Iran pure of Western influences, even though it profits from smuggling Western goods into the country.

Among the companies hit with sanctions by the Treasury Department was SABA, an Iranian engineering firm that provides cranes to a Revolutionary Guard unit that develops ballistic missiles. Also facing new sanctions are two Ukrainian companies said to provide airline services, equipment and crews used by the Revolutionary Guard to ferry weapons and personnel from Iran to Syria.

Sanctions also were imposed on two private Iranian computer security companies, ITSecTeam and Mersad. U.S. officials said the companies had helped pull off attacks on nine U.S. banks and stock exchanges in 2011 and 2012 and done other work for the Iranian government and Revolutionary Guard. Seven Iranian employees of the firms also were hit with sanctions, including a hacker, a botnet manager and a malware developer.

“We have increasingly seen the IRGC play a destructive role in the region and also a negative role inside Iran,” said the U.S. official, citing its “increasing share of Iran’s economic activity to fuel its malign activities.”

The waivers were widely anticipated, even though Trump has been increasingly irritated at having to renew parts of a deal he famously labeled disastrous and vowed to dismantle. The administration has been laying the groundwork for the next major deadline on Oct. 15, when Trump must decide whether to certify that Iran is meeting its obligations under the nuclear agreement.

If Trump decides to decertify Iran, Congress will have 60 days to determine whether to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions and effectively renege on U.S. promises under the deal. That means Congress would be grappling with Iran at the same time that it will have to pass a budget.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was preparing for a change in policy. “We’re working hand in hand with the White House and with the State Department to be prepared to deal with this issue depending on the outcome,” he said. “I have a sense of where it’s going. I know that could change — I mean, international occurrences sometimes change the trajectory of these issues — but yes, we are definitely preparing.”

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, laid out the case for decertification earlier this month, saying the agreement does not serve U.S. national interests.

Trump told the Wall Street Journal he is leaning toward not certifying Iran’s compliance the next time, although he has certified it twice before.

When the U.N. General Assembly meets next week, U.S. officials are expected to discuss the deal with negotiating partner countries — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia. Some U.S. officials are hoping to gain support for a way to modify the agreement, even though France has ruled it out and Iran said it has no interest in reopening talks. In London, British Prime Minister Theresa May told Tillerson that the deal is an important tool in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Many of the agreement’s supporters are mounting a campaign in advance of next month’s certification deadline, urging Trump to keep the deal alive as long as Iran is not violating it. On Wednesday, more than 80 nuclear nonproliferation experts wrote a joint letter expressing concern that the Trump administration “may be seeking to create a false pretext for accusing Iran of noncooperation or noncompliance with the agreement in order to trigger the re-imposition of nuclear-related sanctions against Iran.”

“Abandoning the deal would also increase the likelihood of wider conflict in the Middle East and could trigger a destabilizing nuclear competition in region,” the letter said.

In an opinion piece Thursday for the Los Angeles Times, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s National Security Council and now a scholar at Princeton University, said the consequences of scuttling the deal would be drastic for U.S. credibility and national security interests, as well as Iranian domestic politics.

“If European leaders hold steadfast to the deal, as they have said they will, it will prove that Iran can pursue a relationship with the West minus the United States,” he wrote. “Iran may well cooperate with Europe — and only Europe — on regional issues such as defeating Islamic State and stabilizing neighboring countries.”

Ali Akbar Salehi, who is the head of Iran’s atomic-energy agency and helped negotiate the agreement, said last week that Iran will probably not abandon its commitments if the other parties stick to their end of the deal.

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

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