By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Tuesday moved to let Iraq pay Iran for electricity via non-Iraqi banks, a U.S. official said, a step Washington hopes may keep Tehran from forcing unpopular power cuts during the sweltering Iraqi summer.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed a 120-day national security waiver allowing Iraq - heavily dependent on Iranian electricity - to deposit such payments into non-Iraqi banks in third countries instead of into restricted accounts in Iraq, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Monies put into the non-Iraqi accounts, like those deposited into Iraqi banks, will also be restricted, still requiring U.S. permission for Iran to get access to them and only for spending on humanitarian goods.
Tehran has in the past pushed Baghdad to secure U.S. permission to release such funds by cutting Iranian natural gas exports to Iraq, limiting Iraq's ability to generate power and forcing deeply unpopular electricity cuts.
The latest waiver was expanded to permit payments to banks outside Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government, apparently in the hopes that this might transfer some of the pressure that Iran has exerted on Baghdad to other countries.
"We have to help the Iraqis with this perennial pressure from the Iranians to access the money," said the U.S. official.
"The Iraqis have requested, and now we have agreed, to expand the waiver," said the U.S. official, saying this might help ensure better compliance with the U.S. requirement that any disbursements be for humanitarian purposes.
"It also helps the Iraqis, at least somewhat, to have an argument to make (to Iran) that they are not in control of the money that they have paid (into non-Iraqi accounts)," he added.
It is not clear, however, whether Iran might ease up on Iraq as a result. Tehran could decide it has greater leverage over Iraq than over other nations and continue to exert pressure.
Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Iran is under extensive U.S. economic sanctions reimposed in 2018 after then-U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal that Tehran struck with major powers Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States in 2015.
Trump believed his policy of "maximum pressure" on Iran would force it to accept more stringent restrictions to its nuclear program, which the United States, European powers and Israel fear may be designed to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Iran has long denied such ambitions.
As a result of Trump's withdrawal from the deal and U.S. President Joe Biden's failure to revive it, Iran could make the fissile material for one bomb in 12 days or so, according to U.S. estimates, down from a year when the accord was in force.
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Chris Reese and Sonali Paul)