The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna [Leonhard Foeger-Reuters]

The United States has tightened restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme by failing to renew two key sanctions waivers which allowed Russia and the European nations to do business with Tehran.

The two waivers – one that allowed Iran to store excess heavy water produced in the uranium enrichment process in Oman, and another that allowed Iran to swap enriched uranium for raw yellowcake with Russia – were not renewed, the State Department said on Friday.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo extended the waivers, which were due to expire on Saturday, for 90 days, shorter than the 180 days that had been granted in the past. The waivers permit work at several Iranian nuclear sites to continue without US penalties.

It is almost a year since President Donald Trump reimposed crippling US sanctions after exiting a landmark nuclear agreement between major powers and Iran.

Last month, the Trump administration announced it would no longer renew sanctions exemptions that allowed China, India, Japan, Turkey and South Korea to continue importing Iranian oil.

Those waivers expired on Friday, although it was not immediately clear whether the administration would impose sanctions on some or all of those countries if they take delivery of previously purchased oil.

Mahjoob Zweiri, director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, told Al Jazeera the US move is aimed at stopping Iran from exporting oil.

“The centre of what is happening right now is oil. The American administration basically wants to block Iran from exporting even one milimetre of its oil,” he said.

“The sanctions mean Iran will lose its main source of revenue and hence, more pressure on the country’s budget.”

Forcing Iran to stop enriching uranium

Under the terms of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Russia and several European nations help maintain the nuclear facilities and are engaged in converting equipment there for exclusively civilian use.

Facilities included in the waiver extensions include the Bushehr nuclear power plant, the Fordow enrichment facility, the Arak nuclear complex and the Tehran Research Reactor, the State Department said.

However, the Bushehr waiver is being tightened so that any assistance to expand the plant could incur sanctions.

The decision is aimed at forcing Iran to stop enriching uranium, something it was allowed to do up to certain limits under the nuclear deal, it said. Highly enriched uranium can be used to fuel a nuclear weapon.

“Iran must stop all proliferation-sensitive activities, including uranium enrichment, and we will not accept actions that support the continuation of such enrichment,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

“The United States will continue to impose maximum pressure on the Iranian regime and remains committed to denying Iran any pathway to a nuclear weapon.”

Some hardliners on Iran in the US Congress and outside the administration have called for the elimination of all sanctions waivers, including for civilian nuclear cooperation, in order for the administration to make good on its “maximum pressure” campaign.

Supporters of the Iran deal say the cooperation waivers are important to maintain because they give the outside world additional eyes on what Iran is doing in its nuclear facilities.

Rouhani urges unity in face of US ‘war on hope’

Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for the country to “resist and unite” against US pressure in what he called a “war on hope” waged against the Islamic republic.

“America will only let go of this game when it realises it cannot achieve anything. We have no way but to resist and unite,” Rouhani said in a televised speech on Saturday.

“Our war today is the war on hope. They want to break our hope, and we have to break their hope.”

Rouhani said he has vowed that Iran will continue to supply oil to its major customers despite the unilateral measures adopted by the US.

“They want to cut our foreign currency supply … they seek to sow discord in the country. They want us to be divided, to stand against each other,” he added.

Iran’s economy has been battered since sanctions returned. Inflation has shot up, its currency has plummeted and imports are now vastly more expensive.

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