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Pompeo testifies on Iran in February. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The U.S. is ending waivers that had allowed foreign companies to work at Iran's civilian nuclear facilities, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Wednesday.

Why it matters: This will eliminate most elements of U.S. sanctions relief still in place two years after President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Pompeo said "continued nuclear escalation" made the move necessary, but critics warn it will encourage further Iranian enrichment.

The big picture: Since withdrawing from the Obama-era deal, President Trump has piled sanctions and threats on Tehran over its nuclear program and activities around the region.

  • Iran has responded by creeping beyond the limits of the deal, which the other signatories — particularly France, Germany and the U.K. — have attempted to salvage.
  • The U.S. waivers allow Russian, European and Chinese companies to work at Iran's civilian nuclear sites without facing American sanctions.
  • Those waivers will be eliminated except in the case of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power station, which had received international support prior to the nuclear deal, per the Washington Post. That extension is for 90 days.

Between the lines: Critics of the move say it will reduce U.S. visibility into Iran's nuclear program and offer Iran a rationale to increase uranium enrichment from under 5% up to 20%.

  • There was debate about timing within the administration, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin previously arguing the administration was "under fire" for tightening sanctions during a pandemic and should hold off, per the Post.
  • Rob Malley, CEO of the International Crisis Group, and other former Obama administration officials have argued that the move appears motivated by a desire to unwind the 2015 nuclear deal, rather than further U.S. national security.

The other side: Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies says the messages the administration is sending are "that pressure will escalate over the summer, that Iran’s entire nuclear program is illegitimate, and that it is trying to reset the pieces on the chessboard over what, if anything, can be permitted in a final deal."

Go deeper

Aug 26, 2020 - World

U.S. presses Israel to cool ties with China over support for Iran

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Aug. 24. Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Jerusalem on Monday to further cool relations with China and limit Chinese investments in Israel over the new strategic partnership agreement China signed with Iran, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

Why it matters: The Trump administration has been lobbying Israel for two years to scale back its relations with China. Until now, those efforts have had very little success.

Updated 2 hours ago - Health

The next big bottleneck in the global vaccination effort

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

The world still needs more coronavirus vaccines, but an additional bottleneck has emerged in many low-income countries: They need help getting shots in arms.

Why it matters: Increasing vaccination rates across the world is both a humanitarian necessity and the best way to prevent dangerous new variants from emerging, but it increasingly requires complex problem-solving.

Updated 2 hours ago - Health

COVID-19 Omicron variant cases identified in Europe, U.K.

People wearing masks walk in London on Nov. 25. Photo: Li Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images

Health officials in the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany announced on Saturday that they've detected the first known cases of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The discoveries come as the world scrambles to respond to concerns over the new variant, discovered in South Africa earlier this week.