President Hassan Rouhani (R) and the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, inspecting a nuclear plant, Tehran, April 9, 2019

The Trump Administration has imposed symbolic sanctions on the head of Iran’s nuclear agency, but renewed waivers for foreign companies working at Iranian sites.

The Administration announced the addition of the Atomic Energy Organization and its chief Ali Akbar Salehi.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry immediately denounced the step. “Sanctioning this prominent scientific and political figure, which has been made only out of desperation, will have no effect on the development of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program,” said spokesman Abbas Mousavi.

Referring to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012, with Israel suspected of responsibility, Mousavi said, “This is not the first time that [Salehi] has been placed on the list of illegal and unilateral sanctions, just as it is not the first time that our nuclear scientists have been the target of the animosity of the US and the Zionist regime.”

But the Trump Administration, which withdrew in November 2018 from the 2015 deal between Iran and the 5+1 Powers (US, UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia), will not block Russian, Chinese, and European companies to continue work at Iranian nuclear sites — including co-operation with the Atomic Energy Organization.

Administration officials said the ongoing presence of the foreign companies makes it harder for Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

The waivers, renewed for 60 days, cover the Arak heavy-water research reactor, the Bushehr nuclear power plant, the Tehran Research Reactor, and other initiatives.

“We will closely monitor all developments in Iran’s nuclear program and Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo can end these projects as developments warrant,” the US special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, told the press.

A Western diplomat assessed:

There was a difference of opinion between the US Treasury and State Department. The Treasury won. There is an appetite for more sanctions, so this was a surprise; but others argue that these waivers are vital to ensure nonproliferation.

The diplomat said the US also may have extended the waiver for the Bushehr nuclear plant because the Russian company involved also provides nuclear fuel to US facilities.

Salehi, a former Foreign Minister, led the Iranian delegation in the technical talks around the 2015 deal.