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How Trump's hawkish advisors won debate on Iran oil sanctions

May 2, 2019 at 2:17 am

Former US Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton on 27 February 2015 [Gage Skidmore/Flickr]

US President Donald Trump’s unexpected decision to ban all Iranian oil purchases after May 1 – ending exemptions for eight nations – came after hawkish economic and security advisors allayed the president’s fears of an oil price hike, according to three sources familiar with the internal debate, Reuters reports.

The unprecedented move to fully sever Tehran’s financial lifeline – finalized just days before the April 22 announcement – underscores the influence of hard-liners within Trump’s National Security Council, which two of the sources said were the biggest advocates for the decision. They had for months argued for tightening the sanctions over the objections of State Department officials who favored allowing some partners and allies to keep buying Iranian oil.

“No one’s actually tried to take this all the way to zero,” a senior administration official told Reuters, adding that forging a consensus among government agencies required “a lot of work.”

President Donald Trump has been eager to halt Iran’s oil exports since slapping sanctions on the Islamic Republic last November for the first time since 2015, a move intended as punishment for Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its support of armed militant groups in the Middle East. But he initially backed a go-slow approach, providing waivers to allies and trading partners such as China, India and Turkey.

READ: Iran will export crude despite sanctions

The United States currently removes about 2 million barrels of oil per day from the world’s supply through sanctions on the Iran and Venezuela industries. But Washington hopes that soaring US oil production – now at an all-time high of more than 12 million barrels per day – will keep global markets well-supplied and hold prices down.

By the weekend of April 20, with the initial 180-day waivers given to countries due to expire May 1, top economic and security advisors convinced Trump that the time had come to cut off Iranian oil exports completely, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The National Security Council played a key role in driving the argument to end the waiver program – especially Richard Goldberg, a new member of the Trump administration and a longtime advocate for confronting Iran, according to the two sources. He was “instrumental,” one of the sources said.

National Security Adviser John Bolton added Goldberg to the NSC in January.

Previously, Goldberg was an adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think-tank headed by Mark Dubowitz, a leading advocate for tougher handling of Iran since the United States’ first round of sanctions against the country under former President Barack Obama.

TEHRAN, IRAN – MARCH 12: A general view of the Port of Kharg Island Oil Terminal, in the Persian Gulf on March 12, 2017. Kharg Island Oil Terminal brings Iranian oil to the world market. The oil terminal is the world’s largest open oil terminal, with 95% of Iran’s crude oil exports coming through it. ( Fatemeh Bahrami – Anadolu Agency )

A general view of the Port of Kharg Island Oil Terminal, in Iran, seen on 12 March 2017 [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency]

In 2012, Goldberg was an aide to then-Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican, and delivered a blow to Tehran by writing legislation that closed Iran’s last legal loophole in selling oil under the Obama sanctions. That legislation targeted the Belgium-based SWIFT financial messaging system over which Iran was conducting billions of dollars in oil trade.

White House economic advisors Kevin Hassett and Larry Kudlow had also called for ending the waivers, according to a second senior administration official.

Trump discussed the matter with Bolton, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Energy Secretary Rick Perry as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

While Bolton and Perry backed ending the waivers, some in Pompeo’s State Department reiterated worries about the potential for rising oil prices, the sources said, but they ultimately dropped their objections and supported the more aggressive policy on Iran.

At the time, the State Department had been engaged in talks with at least five of the eight economies holding waivers, according to sources – China, India, South Korea, Japan and Turkey.

READ: Qatar says tightening Iran sanctions harms oil consuming nations

The decision caught several US allies and Iranian oil buyers off-guard. China’s Foreign Ministry issued a formal complaint to the United States.

Separately, diplomats interviewed by Reuters from at least two large importers of Iranian oil said discussions about renewing their waivers continued until a few days before the announcement, suggesting the State Department had little time to brief partners on the decision.

Oil prices struck six-month highs after the announcement, but have since eased back.

Trump has long been anxious that rising oil prices could hurt the economy and raise retail gasoline prices, and in his last tweet before the waiver decision, he said global oil markets were “fragile”. He has asked members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to increase the flow of oil to compensate for losses from Iran and Venezuela.

“This was clearly what he was balancing in his own mind,” the administration official said.

One senior administration official said Trump held conversations recently with the Saudi and Emirati leaders on oil prices and received assurances that the two oil producers will ensure the market is well-supplied.

Saudi Arabia’s energy minister responded by saying he saw no need to raise oil output immediately. OPEC production declined by 1.6 million barrels per day between December and March, according to the organization’s figures.

READ: Iran slams US’s ‘bullying behaviour’ on nuclear deal

The Obama administration, which had imposed sanctions on Iran in 2012 to thwart its nuclear ambitions, kept its waivers in place through the duration of its pressure campaign.

Obama’s sanctions program ended with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an international accord with Tehran reached in 2015 aimed at preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. Trump ridiculed the deal and unilaterally abandoned it last year over the objections of the other signatories. International nuclear inspectors said at the time that Iran was abiding by the deal’s terms.

State Department officials said it was the Trump administration’s intention from the start to bring Iran’s exports to zero. But the timing had not been right until now.

“We are doing this … in a favorable market condition with full commitment from producing countries,” said Frank Fannon, US Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources. “We think this is the right time.”