(Updates with Iran’s response to new sanctions)
By Humeyra Pamuk and John Irish
WASHINGTON/PARIS, Jan 30 (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Thursday said it will allow Russian, Chinese and European companies to continue work at Iranian nuclear sites to make it harder for that country to develop a nuclear weapon, drawing ire from Iran hawk Republicans.
But it has also imposed sanctions on Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation (AEOI) and its chief, a move described by the entity’s spokesman as sign of Washington’s “despair” who said Tehran’s civilian nuclear work would continue full force.
The Trump administration, which in 2018 pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran, will let the work go forward by issuing waivers to sanctions that bar non-U.S. firms from dealing with the AEOI.
The waivers’ renewal for 60 days will allow nonproliferation work to continue at the Arak heavy-water research reactor, the Bushehr nuclear power plant, the Tehran Research Reactor and other nuclear cooperation initiatives.
There had been a great deal of lobbying in Washington to stop the latest waivers as U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to exert more pressure on Iran. A Western diplomat said there was initial disagreement between the U.S. State Department and Treasury but the latter won.
“We will closely monitor all developments in Iran’s nuclear program and Secretary (Mike) Pompeo can end these projects as developments warrant,” Brian Hook, U.S. special representative for Iran, told a news briefing.
The moves come weeks after the United States and Iran came to the brink of war. Washington killed Iranian military commander Qassem Solemani, the mastermind of Iran’s control over Iraq, in a drone strike in Baghdad on Jan. 3.
Under the 2015 deal between Iran and six world powers - Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for the lifting of economic sanctions that had crippled its economy.
Trump unilaterally abandoned the deal in May 2018, and reimposed U.S. sanctions in a “maximum pressure” campaign designed to force Iran to return to the negotiating table.
Washington in November terminated the sanctions waiver related to Iran’s Fordow nuclear plant after Tehran resumed uranium enrichment at the underground site.
“There was a difference of opinion between the U.S. Treasury and State Department. The Treasury won,” the Western diplomat said. “There is an appetite for more sanctions, so this was a surprise; but others argue that these waivers are vital to ensure nonproliferation.”
The United States on Thursday also placed Ali Akbar Salehi, head AEOI, and the organization itself under U.S. sanctions, Hook said.
The decision to sanction Salehi and the AEOI would have an impact on Iran’s civilian nuclear program because it has operational control over the program, including purchasing parts for nuclear facilities.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio expressed discontent over the waiver renewal. “While I am glad to see new sanctions imposed against Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and its chief, the administration should terminate the controversial sanctions waivers on Iran’s civil nuclear program and exert maximum pressure on the regime in Tehran,” he said in a statement.
Last week three Republican senators known to be close to Trump - Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina - had called for the remaining civil nuclear waivers to be rescinded. “Enough is enough,” the senators and Republican lawmaker Liz Cheney said in a joint statement.
The diplomat said the United States had likely opted to extend the Bushehr waiver because the Russian company targeted also provides nuclear fuel to U.S. facilities, causing a potential sanctions headache for the administration.
“Imposing sanctions...is a political game played by Washington. These sanctions have no value and are childish measures,” IAEO spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi told Iran’s Fars news agency.
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and John Irish Additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Parisa Hafezi in DUBAI Writing by John Irish Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker