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President Donald Trump meets with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in the Oval Office of the White House. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

With the first round of U.S. sanctions on Iran set to resume tonight at midnight, the European Union is taking steps to protect its companies that do "legitimate business" with Iran from being harmed.

The big picture: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has refused to grant broad exemptions to European companies doing business with Iran, citing a need to apply "unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime.” But the EU, frustrated by President Trump's unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May, will exercise a 1996 law to prohibit European companies from complying with sanctions.

"The lifting of nuclear-related sanctions is an essential part of the [Iran] deal — it aims at having a positive impact not only on trade and economic relations with Iran, but most importantly on the lives of the Iranian people. We are determined to protect European economic operators engaged in legitimate business with Iran, in accordance with EU law and with U.N. Security Council resolution 2231. This is why the European Union’s updated Blocking Statute enters into force on 7 August to protect EU companies doing legitimate business with Iran from the impact of U.S. extra-territorial sanctions."
— European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker

The details: Under the "Blocking Statute," which was originally developed (but never implemented) to circumvent a U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, companies that seek to pull out of Iran as a result of the sanctions must first seek authorization from the EU. If they fail to do so, they risk being sued by EU member states.

  • Companies that apply for exemptions must prove that the U.S. sanctions are hurting their business operations.
  • The 1996 law has never actually been exercised, and some diplomats and lawyers have doubts about how effective it can be in protecting firms, per the Financial Times.

A senior U.S. administration official told reporters Monday that they were "not particularly concerned" about the statute. The official claimed that "the messages [European] companies and financial institutions are sending" indicate an appreciation for the goal of the sanctions: to expose the Central Bank of Iran's complicity in helping to fund terror.

Go deeper: The companies hit hardest by Iran sanctions.

Go deeper

Updated 56 mins ago - Health

First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada

COVID-19 testing personnel at Toronto Pearson International Airport in September. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The first two cases of the new Omicron variant have been detected in North America, the Canadian government announced Sunday evening.

Driving the news: The World Health Organization has named Omicron a "variant of concern," but cautioned earlier on Sunday that it is not yet clear whether it's more transmissible than other strains of COVID-19.

Former Defense Secretary Esper sues Pentagon over book

Former President Trump and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the White House in 2020. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper filed a lawsuit Sunday against the Defense Department, accusing the Pentagon of "censoring" his First Amendment rights by redacting parts of his upcoming book on the Trump administration.

The big picture: Esper, who served as defense secretary from July 2019 until he was fired by then-President Trump in November last year, alleges in the suit that "significant text" is "being improperly withheld from publication" of the manuscript "under the guise of classification."

WHO warns against travel bans on southern African countries

Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization regional director for Africa. Photo: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

The World Health Organization called on countries Sunday to not impose travel bans on southern African nations amid concerns over the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The U.S. and countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific announced travel restrictions in response to Omicron, which was first detected in South Africa. It's since spread to several European countries, Canada, Israel, Australia and Hong Kong. The WHO noted in a statement that only two southern African nations have detected the new variant.

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