Steve Mnuchin’s recent besting of Mike Pompeo on whether to waive sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program raises questions about the Trump administration’s resolve vis-à-vis Iran.
This week marked the end of a 60-day waiver on U.S. sanctions against European, Russian, and Chinese companies operating at Iran’s civilian nuclear plants. But despite the strenuous objections of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the State Department announced that it will renew the waivers. The statement emphasized President Trump’s commitment to preventing Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon, and it speaks of renewing restrictions.
But this is deceptive because the restrictions (and the United States has repeatedly granted exemptions to them, for all companies helping the Iranian nuclear program) are a mechanism for allowing continued business activity that would otherwise be illegal under America’s sanctions on virtually all business with or in Iran. In essence, renewing the restrictions — which the U.S. then waives — is a way to preserve one last element of Obama’s nuclear deal, from which the United States has withdrawn in all other respects.
But the decision was a clear victory for Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and a setback for Pompeo, who has been outspoken in his view that that the administration should maintain the pressure on Iran despite sympathy for the country generated by its being hit hard by the coronavirus.
In an administration known for its infighting and diversity of views, a skirmish over an issue such as Iran sanctions is hardly unusual. But with Mnuchin’s view on sanctions apparently winning the day, it’s clear that he has President Donald Trump’s ear on the issue.
A campaign to pressure Trump to loosen sanctions on Iran has won support from Europe as well as from alumni of President Obama’s administration, including former deputy national-security advisor Ben Rhodes, and from mainstream media outlets that supported the nuclear deal, such as the New York Times. (Rhodes once candidly called the Times part of Obama’s “media echo chamber” on the Iran issue, and the paper’s editorial board argued last week that “piling on more sanctions while Iran bleeds is morally wrong.”)
As Pompeo has pointed out, however, there are no U.S. sanctions on medical or humanitarian aid to Iran. The U.S. has even offered to help the Iranians cope with COVID-19, but Tehran has refused American aid.
But the main problem with the arguments for easing Iran sanctions during the pandemic is that softening our stance toward the regime won’t help ordinary Iranians but it will be a windfall for their rulers.
In a tweet, Pompeo shared a video of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani speaking about the regime’s goal, which is “cash for its leaders”:
Startling revelation by #Iran's President @HassanRouhani that the regime's concerted effort to lift U.S. sanctions isn’t about fighting the pandemic. It's about cash for the regime’s leaders. pic.twitter.com/gyDFkgdYGI
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) March 28, 2020
The rogue Islamist regime has been tottering in the past year as its subjects have protested the leaders who have prioritized funding foreign terror and nuclear ambitions over the needs of ordinary Iranians. The Iranian people took to the streets last December by the tens of thousands to demonstrate against the theocrats who oppress them. Thousands were shot down by the regime’s praetorian guard — the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which also controls much of that nation’s economy.
Any sanctions relief will be a gift to the IRGC and the foreign terror groups it funds. For decades, Iran has funneled its oil wealth into a nuclear program whose main goal is the domination of Iran’s Sunni Muslim neighbors — and the ability to threaten Israel’s very existence. If the Trump administration allows the civilian component of that program to continue functioning with foreign help, it will undermine its entire policy agenda; it would also worry the Arab states and Israel, which felt abandoned by Obama.
Those waivers are among the last vestiges of Obama’s disastrous Iran deal, which enriched and empowered the regime while also allowing it a legal path to a nuclear weapon.
Why is Mnuchin pushing for yet another extension of the waivers?
In July of last year, the Treasury Department said it required the extensions so it could gauge the impact of the sanctions on the nations that continue to use the waivers to do business with Iran and to work with its nuclear program. At that time, a “senior administration official” told the Washington Post that the goal was still to end the waivers but that Trump had sided with Mnuchin over Pompeo on the question because of the Treasury’s “legitimate concerns” about the effect of the sanctions on other nations.
But several months later, it appears that Mnuchin is seeking to change the administration’s basic purpose in dealing with Iran. Rather than replacing Obama’s terrible deal, the administration would bow to European and Russian pressure to maintain it in place. Mnuchin is apparently more interested in good relations with the international community than in using American economic power to roll back the alarming gains Iran has made in the Middle East — gains made as a result of Obama’s misguided attempt to bring about a rapprochement with Tehran.
This is a huge mistake. Richard Goldberg, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (a key resource on Iran policy) has argued that we could retain the waiver if the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese promised to “snap back” sanctions in the event that Iran violated the deal. Indeed, under the pact, these countries have pledged to hold Iran accountable. But none of them have any intention of doing so. What they want is to preserve the nuclear deal at all costs; they want to roll back Trump’s sanctions policy, which has made it harder for the Iranians to continue funding terror.
The timing for this decision is also particularly tragic because it comes just after a public acknowledgement that Robert Levinson, a retired American intelligence operative kidnapped by the IRGC in 2007, died while in Iranian custody.
Levinson’s disappearance is still officially unsolved — Iran has not produced his body. But Levinson’s family has recently said that the Trump administration told them that newly discovered intelligence — reportedly including intercepted Iranian communications — show that Levinson died while in Iranian hands sometime in the past several years.
The story of Levinson’s mission is still classified; it involved CIA officials using him on a mission that was not officially authorized by the agency. This allowed the Obama administration to act as if freeing Levinson was not their responsibility or priority.
Sadly, along with other U.S. concessions made during the Iran-deal negotiations, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry decided they would not hold up the agreement by insisting that Iran free Levinson or produce his body.
The recent history of American dealings with Iran has been dominated by that kind of callous expediency. Obama, in his effort to end sanctions on Iran, not only did nothing to improve the lives of Iranian people; he actually bolstered the regime’s ability to threaten its neighbors and tyrannize its people at home. Strengthening Iran by once again loosening sanctions — as Mnuchin apparently wants — out of misplaced sympathy or a desire to accommodate the Europeans or Russians won’t help anyone but the IRGC and its theocratic masters.
Hostility to Obama’s Iran deal has been a core foreign-policy position for Trump since he began his presidential campaign in 2015. Trump agreed with Pompeo on the need to withdraw the United States from the pact; he saw the impact of the sanctions on Iran’s ability to fund terrorism. But the president is apparently letting Mnuchin have his way on a waiver that would prop up Iran. Such a waiver would hurt rather than help Iran’s coronavirus victims and all those suffering under the regime’s rule.
Iran’s people deserve sympathy for their suffering from the pandemic. But we should have no sympathy for the regime that oppresses them and that is still working on a dangerous nuclear program. Trump should understand that Mnuchin’s agenda is undermining one of his key foreign-policy objectives, and it’s serving the interests of Democrats, who would surely revive the nuclear deal if they retook the White House.