The Trump administration on Wednesday granted important exemptions to new sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), watering down the effects of the measures while also eliminating an aspect that would have complicated the United States’s foreign policy efforts.
Foreign governments and businesses that have dealings with the IRGC and its affiliates will not be subject to a ban on US travel under waivers outlined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in two notices published in the Federal Register.
That weakens the effect of the measures and will frustrate members of Congress backing tough measures against Iran who are already concerned that the Trump administration won’t fully enforce sanctions on Iranian oil. But it lifts the threat that those who work with the US in Iraq and Lebanon, where the Guard’s many subsidiaries are active, will face the full weight of US penalties.
The waivers leave intact sanctions that apply directly to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its proxies, which are the first agencies of a foreign government that have ever been designated a foreign “terrorist” organisation by the US. The designation, which took effect April 15, is part of a broader administration effort to increase pressure on Tehran.
Under US immigration law, foreigners found to have provided designated foreign “terrorist” organisations with “material support” can be banned from the US.
When it was announced earlier this month, the designation raised fears that US diplomats and troops might have to end contacts with officials in countries that have ties with Iran or elements of the IRGC.
Lebanon, where Iran and the IRGC are active in their support of the Hezbollah movement, and Iraq, where they back Shia militias and have close ties to the government, are two such countries where the US is heavily engaged on the military and diplomatic fronts.
Pompeo said in the notices that he decided to waive the travel bans in US foreign policy and national security interests.
In one notice, he said the sanctions “shall not apply to any ministry, department, agency, division, or other group or subgroup within any foreign government” unless that entity is covered by existing US sanctions.
In the second notice, he said the sanctions would not apply “to any business, organisation, or group, whether public or private, solely based on its provision of material support to any foreign government sub-entity that has been designated as a foreign terrorist organisation”.
Both notices said Pompeo retains the right to reverse the waivers.
The notices were published just two days after the Republican administration announced that it would not renew sanctions waivers for countries that import Iranian oil.
In the days after, concerns have been raised by Iran hawks that the administration may not impose sanctions on those countries if they continued their imports.
China and Turkey have severely criticised the decision not to renew the waivers and said they would not bow to US pressure while India has said it will try to comply but is hoping for a workaround.
Under one scenario which is being considered by the administration, those countries could be allowed to place and pay for future orders of Iranian oil before May 2, essentially front-loading continued imports, according to congressional aides and outside advisers familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to Reuters to discuss internal deliberations.
Then, the administration could grant them waivers from sanctions to insure, transport and refine the oil that is allowed under the 2012 Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act, they said.
That act, passed in the Obama administration, provides legal authority to impose sanctions on Iran’s petroleum industry and foreign countries that do business with it. But it also allows for the penalties to be waived.
Separately on Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking in New York, said the administration was creating dangerous conditions with its campaign against Tehran.
“Iranians are allergic to pressure,” he said, adding that he believed the conflict could be resolved diplomatically.
He said Iran would continue to find international buyers for its oil and use the Strait of Hormuz to transport it, warning that if the US tries to stop Tehran it should “be prepared for the consequences”.
The State Department declined to comment to Reuters on the possibility that Iranian oil imports might continue without sanctions.