The US will continue to increase pressure on Iran, according to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday, however, he declined to say whether the Donald Trump administration would extend sanctions waivers on eight countries that import Iranian oil.
Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he had "no announcements" on whether the waivers, which allow Iran’s biggest oil buyers to import Iranian crude, would be renewed after they expire in May.
He would also not confirm whether sanctions waivers on Iran's civilian nuclear program would end, given that Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Actions (JCPOA), in May 2018 and reimposed most nuclear-related sanctions.
Pompeo said: "I can assure the rest of the world that President Trump will continue to ratchet up the pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran so that their behaviour will change."
Many members of the Foreign Relations Committee, notably Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, called on Pompeo and the State Department to listen to National Security Advisor John Bolton and end the sanctions waivers when the deadline comes up next month, arguing that Iran's oil exports generate billions of dollars in revenues for its government.
The money is often funnelled to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the personal army of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which also controls much of Iran's oil industry through a network of front companies.
This is important because the US placed the IRGC on its Foreign Terrorist List on Monday, the first time that the US has done so to a section of a foreign country’s military. The idea was that, given the IRGC’s control of the Iranian economy, it would mean that companies or governments breaking US sanctions on Iran would now be supporting a terrorist group. Given this, it is hard to see how the US can extend sanctions waivers.
Pompeo said: "We've been clear about our objective in getting Iran to zero [exports] just as quickly as we possibly can, and will continue to do that."
In November 2018, when oil sanctions snapped into place, the US granted six-month waivers to China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Greece, Italy, and Turkey, in order to stabilise the global oil market. On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Indian refiners are not ordering Iranian oil for loading in May until they hear about the waivers.