Analysis of Mike Pompeo's Press Statement Revoking Sanction Waivers on Iran's Nuclear Activities

Dhanya Viswesvaran



On 27th May 2020, United States of America’s (henceforth, “USA”) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took out a press statement announcing the re-imposition of sanctions that the USA had previously waived.[1] These sanctions were in connection to civilian nuclear projects being undertaken in Iran. Additionally, the statement also announced the imposition of additional sanctions on two officials working for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (henceforth, “AEOI”). Majid Agha’i and Amjad Sazgar were said to be involved in activities that would enrich uranium by enhancing the production and development of centrifuges. The only waiver that has been extended is the one on the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant.

These waivers had allowed various companies operating in China, Russia, and Europe to carry out work on Iran’s civilian nuclear facilities without being a target of American penalties.[2] However, Pompeo’s press release seems to show up the implications of the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA. USA’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal in 2018 led to it reinstating sanctions. These have been violated on multiple occasions by Iran, which has consistently attempted to pressurize other nations to aid it economically.[3]

It is important to analyze the tumultuous relationship between USA and Iran from the aftermath of the USA’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal till now, especially the motivations behind Pompeo’s press release.

Background of the Iran Nuclear Deal and USA's withdrawal

In 2015, following tensions regarding Iran developing nuclear weapons, the five permanent members of the United Nations (henceforth, “UN”) Security Council along with Germany entered into a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (henceforth “JCPOA”) agreement with the country.[4] Together, these nations are known as P5+1.[5]

The agreement’s object was never to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity, something which is a lot easier said than done. Instead, it focused on stretching out Iran’s breakout time. The breakout time of a country while producing nuclear weapons refers to the period required for it to accumulate enough highly enriched uranium essential to carry out the production of a single nuclear weapon.[6] Championed by the Obama administration, it was believed that having the deal in place would be instrumental in acting as a setback in case Iran decided to exploit its nuclear capabilities. It would buy the international community some time to decide on proper action in case such a situation arises.

Major provisions of the agreement included:[7]

  • Nuclear Restrictions on Iran: The JCPOA attempted to prevent Iran from undertaking secret operations to develop nuclear weapons by restricting its uranium enrichment.[8] It did this by placing a limit on the number and type of centrifuges that Iran can operate, which are essential for the purpose of enrichment.[9] Additionally, the core of the heavy-water reactor at Arak was dismantled.[10]

  • Monitoring and Verification: The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was set up by the UN to act as a watchdog and ensure that nuclear facilities are repurposed for research, industrial, or medical aims.[11] It issues quarterly reports to the various stakeholders.[12] Iran is also a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty which mandates it to never pursue nuclear weapons, except for peaceful purposes.[13] The agreement is overseen by the Joint Commission, which is comprised of the representatives of all the stakeholders.[14]

  • Sanctions Relief: USA, UN, and the European Union all lifted their respective sanctions on Iran pursuant to the JCPOA agreement.[15] The USA also removed sanctions from specific entities but only waived existent nuclear sanctions, with previously imposed ones still remaining in place.[16]

However, the USA’s attitude towards the nuclear deal changed with the transfer of power from Obama to Trump. In fact, one of Trump’s most prominent campaign promises was that he would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, a promise that he managed to uphold.[17] However, whether this promise was a worthwhile one is a debatable point. The reason Trump gave for USA’s withdrawal was major that Iran wasn’t complying with the terms of the agreement, a claim for which no evidence was provided by either Trump or countries such as Israel or Saudi Arabia that are supporting his decision.[18]

Trump’s move even earned a rare public rebuke from Obama, who went on to say that “the decision to put the JCPOA at risk without any Iranian violation of the deal is a serious mistake.”[19] This is noteworthy considering that Trump and Obama have rarely agreed on policies, with Trump undoing most activities previously undertaken by the Obama administration. Further, one cannot deny that Trump’s move seems more politically motivated than anything, considering that the USA shares strong ties with Israel, which has had sour relations with Iran for years.[20]

The fact of the matter remains that having the nuclear deal in place was definitely not harmful for the USA as well as the international community, regardless of the assertions made related to Iran’s violations of the terms of the deal. This has led many to conclude that the USA’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 might not have been the smartest course of action. But it seems like Trump and his administration are committing to their previous decision, with Pompeo’s press release acting as the final straw in USA’s decision to withdraw.

Certain recent events may have further triggered this press release and it is important that these be understood and explored.

Repercussions of using the term "Final Solution"

The chain of events that seems to have motivated Mike Pompeo releasing his press statement began on Quds Day when Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s office released a controversial cartoon.

Khamenei is an 80-year old cleric who was appointed as Iran’s Supreme Leader after the passing of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who was the founding father of the Islamic Republic, a feat he achieved by managing to amend the Iranian Constitution.[21] He is the most powerful man in Iran and harbours a deep distrust towards the USA.