President Donald Trump’s administration announced Wednesday that it will keep suspending nuclear-related sanctions on Iran as part of the contentious 2015 nuclear deal, but that it is imposing new sanctions on the Islamic Republic over its ballistic missile program.
The decision to impose the new sanctions, coupled with the release of a report on alleged human rights abusers in Iran, was just the latest attempt by the new Republican administration to make clear its hostility toward Iran even as its tries to avoid jettisoning the nuclear deal negotiated by former President Barack Obama.
The announcements come just two days before Iran holds presidential elections that pit a moderate incumbent against a hardliner favored by Islamists, although it’s unclear whether the U.S. moves will be much of a factor in people’s votes. Trump aides also are conducting a broader review of U.S. policy toward Iran.
The newly imposed sanctions, unveiled by the Treasury Department, are aimed at seven targets, including two senior Iranian defense officials, an Iranian organization, and a China-based network that the United States alleged is “supporting Iran’s military by supplying millions of dollars’ worth of missile-applicable items.” Iran’s support for the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad is also cited as a factor driving the new sanctions.
“This administration is committed to countering Iran’s destabilizing behavior, such as Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and support to the Assad regime,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “It is alarming that individuals involved with Iran’s missile program are assisting the brutal Assad regime, and we are taking action to curtail this behavior.”
The State Department released the semi-annual report that details existing U.S. sanctions on people alleged to be committing human rights abuses in the Islamic Republic. Buried in the same announcement about the report was the administration’s acknowledgment that it will keep waiving nuclear-related sanctions as required by the 2015 deal.
“Whether it’s imprisoning people arbitrarily, inflicting physical abuse and torture, or executing juvenile offenders, the Iranian regime has for decades committed egregious human rights violations against its own people and foreign nationals, and this pattern of behavior must come to an end,” Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ambassador Stuart Jones said in a statement.
The nuclear deal, which involved several countries as well as multilateral institutions, lifted many sanctions on Iran in exchange for the dismantling of much of that country’s nuclear program. Obama considers the deal a key part of his foreign policy legacy. But even as the Trump administration has admitted that Iran is holding up its end of the nuclear deal, it also insists the agreement is a failure because its provisions are not permanent. Iran’s growing military and political influence throughout the Middle East also alarms the administration as well as U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson certified to Congress that Iran was meeting its obligations under the deal, but he did so in a written press release and a news conference that was focused primarily on Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and other malign activities. Tillerson’s statements came several weeks after former Trump administration National Security Adviser Michael Flynn announced that the new U.S. leadership was putting Iran “on notice.” Flynn’s remarks were followed by new U.S. sanctions on Iran a few days later.
Although the 2015 deal means Iran is no longer under nuclear-related sanctions, the United States still maintains numerous other types of sanctions on Tehran, including ones imposed over its human rights record, its ballistic missile program and its sponsorship of terrorism. That means U.S.-based businesses are largely restricted from investing in Iran, but businesses in European and other countries that lifted their nuclear-related sanctions have fewer restraints.
The Trump administration’s imposition of new, non-nuclear sanctions on Iran could in the long run lead Iranian leaders to accuse it of violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the 2015 agreement. That could mean that in the long term, the nuclear deal could fall apart.
Although Iran has since some improvement in its economy since the nuclear deal was implemented, the changes have not come fast enough for many ordinary Iranians. The economy is a huge issue as tens of millions of Iranians vote Friday in the country’s presidential elections.
Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who helped usher in the nuclear deal, is seeking a second term; he’s seen as a moderate, at least by the standards of Iran’s system, which blends democracy and theocracy. The most powerful person in Iran is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a hardline cleric.
Rouhani is being challenged for the presidency by a hardliner, Ebrahim Raisi, who has cast doubts on the payoff from the nuclear deal. Polling in Iran is not too reliable, but the sense is that Rouhani is not doing as well as he should be.
Although both Raisi and Rouhani are expected to stick with the nuclear deal if elected, a Raisi win could give Trump aides more room to claim that the Iranian government cannot be dealt with except through harsh measures.