The Trump administration on Wednesday granted important exemptions to new sanctions on Iran's Revolutionary Guard, watering down the effects of the measures while also eliminating an aspect that would have complicated U.S. foreign policy efforts.
Foreign governments and businesses that have dealings with the Revolutionary Guard and its affiliates will not be subject to a ban on U.S. 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 U.S. in Iraq and Lebanon, where the Guard's many subsidiaries are active, will face the full weight of American 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 organization by the United States. The designation, which took effect April 15, is part of a broader administration effort to increase pressure on Tehran.
Under U.S. immigration law, foreigners found to have provided designated foreign terrorist organizations with "material support" can be banned from the U.S.
When it was announced earlier this month, the designation raised fears that U.S. diplomats and troops might have to end contacts with officials in countries that have ties with Iran or elements of the Guard, a paramilitary organization formed in the wake of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution to defend its clerically overseen government.
Lebanon, where Iran and the Guard are active in their support of the militant Hezbollah movement, and Iraq, where they back Shiite militias and have close ties to the government, are two such countries where the U.S. is heavily engaged on the military and diplomatic fronts.
Pompeo said in the notices that he decided to waive the travel bans in U.S. 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 U.S. sanctions.
In the second notice, he said the sanctions won't apply "to any business, organization, 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 organization."
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. Those waivers, which primarily affect five countries — China and India and U.S. treaty allies Turkey, Japan and South Korea — expire on May 2. The announcement sparked a spike in world oil prices due to concerns that the global supply of crude would be diminished if Iranian exports are cut off.
In the days since, however, concerns have been raised by Iran hawks that the administration may not impose sanctions on those countries if they continue their imports. China and Turkey have severely criticized the decision not to renew the waivers and said they will not bow to U.S. pressure while India has said it will try to comply but is hoping for a work-around.
Under one scenario 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 discuss internal deliberations.
Then, the administration could grant them waivers from sanctions to insure, transport and refine the oil that are 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.
The State Department declined to comment on the possibility that Iranian oil imports might continue without sanctions.
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