Lifting of sanctions on Aughinish owner may be delayed, US says

Treasury secretary indicates Congress may get more time to scrutinise decision

US House speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

US House speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

 

The US treasury’s decision to lift sanctions on Aughinish Alumina-owner Rusal could be delayed, treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin has indicated.

Mr Mnuchin was summoned to appear before Democrats this week on Capitol Hill to explain the decision by the White House to lift sanctions on companies controlled by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska in December.

That decision – which was notified to Congress on December 19th – was warmly welcomed by the Irish Government, amid fears that the US clampdown on Rusal could ultimately affect the alumina plant in Limerick, which employs hundreds of people.

But Democrats have reacted angrily to the move, accusing the Trump administration of going soft on Russia.

Speaking after the 90-minute closed-door meeting, Mr Mnuchin said he would consider delaying the move to allow members of Congress more time to scrutinise the decision. But he showed now signs that he intended ultimately to change the decision.

Irish officials in Washington have been working closely behind the scenes with European counterparts to lobby the US authorities on the issue, amid fears that the sanctions could severely disrupt the European and global aluminium markets.

The Aughinish Alumina plant on the Shannon
The Aughinish Alumina plant on the Shannon

In a measure of the resistance to the move by Democrats, Richard Neal, the chairman of the Ways and Means committee and a close friend of Ireland on Capitol Hill, was among those who called on Mr Mnuchin to delay the decision. In a letter to the treasury secretary after Thursday’s meeting, he noted that the sanction decision had been notified to Congress just before the recess.

A delay “would allow Congress a meaningful opportunity to exercise oversight over this proposed action as intended by CAATSA, including through reviews of relevant intelligence assessments,” he wrote, referring to the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act.

Stiff competition

House speaker Nancy Pelosi also blasted Mr Mnuchin after the briefing, branding it “one of the worst classified briefings we’ve received from the Trump administration”, despite “stiff competition”.

In a statement after the meeting, the treasury department highlighted the fact that Mr Deripaska has relinquished control of the company, and pledged to ensure he complies with those terms.

“These entities are undergoing significant restructuring and governance changes that sever Deripaska’s control and significantly diminish his ownership,” Mr Mnuchin said in the statement. “Treasury will be vigilant in ensuring that EN+ and Rusal meet these commitments. If these companies fail to comply with the terms, they will face very real and swift consequences, including the reimposition of sanctions.”

Though Democrats now control the House of Representatives, Republicans still maintain a majority in the Senate so are likely to still give approval to the move.