National Security Advisor John Bolton (R) opposes any extension of sanctions waivers: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo favors (Mark Wilson/Getty)
UPDATE, 1615 GMT:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has jabbed at Republican senators calling for an end to sanctions waivers for countries dealin with Iran.
Pompeo said on Saturday that the accusation of the six senators, who have written Donald Trump, that the State Department is easing off a maximum pressure approach is “ludicrous”:
“People want to tell stories. People want to sell newspapers. I’ve got it. Congressmen will grandstand. I’ve got that, too. The State Department’s going to get it right.
We’re going to put pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran, on the regime, until we get for the Iranian people what it is they deserve: the chance to live a normal life in a state that isn’t the world’s largest state sponsor of terror.
The Trump Administration is split over its comprehensive sanctions against Iran, with some high-level officials opposing an extension of waivers on Tehran’s top oil customers.
The Administration imposed the sanctions in November, after Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the 5+1 Powers (US, UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia). However, it gave six-month exemptions to China, South Korea, Japan, and India over imports of energy, provided the countries reduced their purchases.
National Security Advisor John Bolton, a hardliner who favors regime change in Tehran, is opposing any extensions in May. He is opposed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who, while normally taking a tough stance, is backing his Department’s position that the waivers fulfil broader US interests including the stability of oil markets.
Bolton is supported by Republican senators who wrote Trump last week, demanding that Iran’s limited civilian nuclear research program is shut down with the closure of the Fordoo centrifuge complex and the Bushehr and Arak reactors.
The group includes 2016 Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Senator Tom Cotton, who has been considered for a senior position within the Administration.
US intelligence services have said since 2007 that Iran halted any push for a military nuclear capability, but the senators insist, “There is extensive evidence Iran channeled its nuclear weapons program through civil nuclear projects after 2003.”
Cruz challenged Pompeo at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, claiming waiver extensions “could further Iran acquiring nuclear weapons”: “‘Maximum pressure’ should be ‘maximum pressure’.”
Pompeo avoided any commitment, “I’d love to talk to you in a classified setting about it — it’s complicated. We’ve got 90,000 employees, probably that many opinions.”
Despite the hard-line pressure, “two people familiar with the administration’s thinking” said they expect the waivers to be renewed.
One source said GOP senators are still considering their tactics of opposition, including whether to hold up administration nominees.
A spokesman for Cruz, Billy Gribbin, said, “The Trump Administration should end all implementation of the deal, including the nuclear and oil waivers the State Department has been issuing, and Senator Cruz will use all options available to him to push the administration to do so.”