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Pompeo: No More Sanctions Waivers For Iranian Oil Importers


The State Department this morning is threatening to punish its allies to get at iran - the United States is trying to get other countries to stop buying Iranian oil.


MIKE POMPEO: Today I'm announcing that we will no longer grant any exemptions. We're going to zero - going to zero across the board.

GREENE: That's the voice of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announcing an end to waivers it had granted to countries like Japan and Turkey. This is all part of an effort the United States began a year ago, when it pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal; that was the international agreement giving Iran sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. Let's talk this through with NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, who's at the State Department. Hi, Michele.


GREENE: So explain exactly what Pompeo's doing here.

KELEMEN: So he came in to discuss this next phase of the pressure campaign, you might say. As you mentioned, the administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal a year ago, and it's been reimposing sanctions that were suspended under that deal. And that includes what we call secondary sanctions - that is, sanctions on countries that import oil from Iran.

The U.S. gave seven countries and Taiwan a waiver for six months the last time, but that period is now coming to an end. The administration says it won't extend those waivers any further. They say the oil market is well-supplied now. So they argue that this is a good time to push countries to get to zero, to stop importing Iranian oil completely.

GREENE: So is it just that it's a good time, or do they feel like taking away these waivers could really, you know, hurt the Iranian economy even more?

KELEMEN: Well, that's the big part. I mean, oil is the No. 1 source of cash for Iran's economy. Pompeo says that they've so far denied Iran, he claims, more than $10 billion in oil revenue. But the Trump administration faced some criticism from the right for giving too many waivers the last time around. So now they're cracking down harder.

It's not clear what they're contemplating, as far as punishments are concerned, if these countries do continue to buy oil from Iran. Pompeo says the risks aren't worth the benefits, but his aides really wouldn't say if, you know, these are going to be targeted sanctions or if they're going to go for sanctions that are really going to affect trade relations with these countries. And remember, David, we're talking about countries like China, India and Turkey.

GREENE: Well, can we talk about one of the complexities with the nuclear deal that you and I have spoken about? I mean, when the United States pulled out, other countries did not, and there were all these questions about what the United States could or couldn't do to change other countries' behaviors - is that part of the context here?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, proponents of the deal say that it's working, that Iran is abiding by it, it's limiting Iran's nuclear program. Pompeo downplays that, though. He talks about an enormous coalition which is countering Iran now. He talks about the Gulf states and Israel and some Europeans.

But you know, as you mentioned, there were other world powers that are invested in this - Russia, China, U.K., France and Germany all helped negotiate the deal. The Trump administration always argued that the deal was too weak, and it also didn't cover all these other problems with Iran - Iran's support for militias throughout the region, its ballistic missile programs - and they're trying to really push on that.

GREENE: And as they push on things like this, the ultimate goal of the Trump administration is still - what? - regime change in Tehran?

KELEMEN: Well, they say it's about changing the behavior of Iran. But, of course, there's a lot of questions about how you do that, and it's hard right now to see a pathway for diplomacy on this - a way to get back to some sort of deal, either the Iran nuclear deal or something broader.

GREENE: NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen at the State Department this morning. Michele, thanks, as always.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.