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Trump will extend Iran sanctions relief, keeping Obama-era nuclear deal alive—for now

President Donald Trump will, for the final time, waive sanctions against Iran, extending the life of an international nuclear accord that the commander in chief disavowed three months ago, according to senior administration officials.

Rather than continue to periodically extend sanctions relief, which is currently required to keep the deal alive, Trump will work with European partners on developing new triggers to strengthen the deal.

The president will be open to remaining in the Iran deal only if he can secure that new agreement without a sunset clause, officials told CNBC.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, in a separate statement, announced new sanctions on 14 Iranian individuals and entities in connection with various human rights abuses.

The waiver also marks the first time Trump has granted sanctions relief since he told Congress in October that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is no longer in the country’s national security interest. Trump has called the accord the “worst deal ever,” but he’s declined to scrap it while Congress prepares legislation to modify the agreement and his administration marshals international support to increase pressure on Iran.

The nuclear deal, hammered out in 2015 by six world powers, lifts crippling sanctions on Iran’s lifeblood oil and gas industry and the broader economy. In exchange, the Iranian regime agreed to limits on its nuclear program and allowed inspectors to monitor its facilities.

Trump risked sparking a diplomatic crisis with France, Germany and the U.K. — three parties to the deal — and the broader European Union if he refused to issue the waivers. Restoring sanctions against Iran, OPEC‘s third-largest oil producer, also threatened to roil energy markets and put a freeze on billions of foreign investment into the country.

The structure of the deal has created a recurring thorn in Trump’s side. The sitting president must suspend various sanctions every 120 to 180 days. Three key waivers were scheduled to expire in the coming days, with the next deadline to certify the deal to Congress also landing this week.

Even with the waivers in the rearview mirror, analysts say the agreement remains on shaky ground. Risk consultancy the Eurasia Group gives the deal a 55 percent chance of surviving Trump’s first term, while RBC Capital Markets says the prospects for the accord are “bleak” in 2018, given the constant threat of sanctions snapping back into place.

As a candidate, Trump threatened to scrap the deal, but several of his top advisors have implored him to preserve it. They have counseled him to instead apply pressure with new sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic missile program and elements of its security apparatus accused of aiding U.S.-designated terror groups and sowing instability throughout the Middle East.

On Thursday, the Justice Department announced it was forming a team of prosecutors to counter an alleged organized crime ring operated by Hezbollah, a Shiite political and militant group in Lebanon backed by Iran.

The Treasury Department has also applied new sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a hard-line security force with financial interests through the domestic economy.

The Trump administration is seeking support from European countries to address Iranian ballistic missile tests, isolate the Revolutionary Guard and modify the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump and Republicans want to prevent the expiration of key provisions of the deal scheduled to phase out in 10 to 15 years, including limits on Iran’s access to nuclear material and advanced equipment. It also wants to expand international inspectors’ access to Iranian military sites.

On Thursday, ahead of Trump’s decision, European nations jointly implored the United States to keep the deal in tact.

“The accord is essential and there is no alternative,” France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told reporters. “We do not hide the other points of disagreement (with Iran) that exist.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged last week that Congress would not be ready to present Trump with legislation before this week’s waiver deadlines. There is little evidence that the Senate’s legislative effort has advanced much beyond a framework Corker released in October.

That plan sought to make the nuclear deal essentially permanent, a proposal that upends the accord the Obama administration negotiated. Iran has dismissed that option, saying it violates the agreement, and the proposal remains a tough sell for Democrats and European allies.

Corker’s plan reflects a new strategy outlined by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in October. It would create red lines that, if crossed by Iran, would automatically restore sanctions.

— CNBC’s Kayla Tausche and Reuters contributed to this story.

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