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."

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