WASHINGTON—The Biden administration is waiving sanctions on some of Iran’s civilian nuclear activities as it seeks to close a deal with Iran on returning to the 2015 nuclear pact.
The U.S. will once again allow foreign companies and officials to work on certain nonweapons Iranian nuclear facilities, reversing a Trump administration decision in 2020 to sanction that work, which froze this activity, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The U.S. decision would free the way for that work to recommence as part of a restored nuclear deal currently being negotiated in Vienna in talks between Iran, the U.S. and several world powers.
Republican lawmakers, who overwhelmingly opposed the original 2015 deal, have criticized President Biden for seeking to rejoin it.
According to the documents, the waivers are related to work aimed at turning Iran’s heavy-water Arak reactor into a less-dangerous light-water reactor and on Iran’s underground Fordow enrichment facility that the nuclear deal stipulates should be turned into a research center. Additionally, the sanctions waiver also applies to the export of enriched uranium and heavy water outside of Iran which was needed to keep Iran within its stockpile limits under the 2015 nuclear deal, intended to stop Iran from gaining the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. The waivers would also allow fuel to be sent to Iran’s Bushehr reactor and the Tehran Research Reactor, both of which are used for civilian purposes.
Even after the Trump administration in May 2018 exited the nuclear deal with Iran and leading world powers—known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the U.S. allowed China, Russia and the U.K. to continue to work on the civilian projects until 2020.
The State Department said in a report to Congress that the new waivers, approved Thursday by Secretary of State
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 waivers were previously reported by the Associated Press.
At a time when the Biden administration is telling Iran it has only a few weeks to make the final decisions needed to restore the 2015 deal, a U.S. official involved in the talks said the decision should spur discussions Iran is having with Russia and China, who were helping Iran carry out the projects, on how to get the work going again if the deal is revived.
The conversion of Arak into a light-water plant was a key part of the 2015 deal. Iran was close to completing a heavy-water facility at Arak, which could have produced enough plutonium for two to three atomic weapons a year, U.S. officials said at the time. The plutonium production of the light-water facility would be much smaller. China and the U.K. were working with Iran on the project.
Likewise, the conversion of Fordow into a research center was intended to end the enrichment of nuclear fuel at the underground site, Iran’s most heavily protected facility. Russia was leading the work on this.
A State Department official on Friday said the waivers would be useful in advancing nuclear nonproliferation, as well as in technical talks related to efforts in Vienna to get Iran to return to the deal.
The waivers aren’t a quid pro quo arrangement with Iran and are also “not a concession to Iran” because they are linked to U.S. nonproliferation goals that are independent of the outcome of the talks in Vienna, the official said. The move is “not a signal that we are about to reach an understanding” on a return to the nuclear deal, the official said.
The Biden administration has pursued indirect talks with Iran—filtered through other members of the 2015 deal—in hopes that Tehran will return to the pact. Senior U.S. officials say the curbs on dangerous nuclear activities contained in the original deal are the best way to derail Iran from gaining the ability to make a nuclear weapon in the near term.
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Appeared in the February 5, 2022, print edition as ‘U.S. Is Waiving Some Iran Civilian Nuclear Sanctions.’