Trump Imposes New Sanctions on Iran, Adding to Tensions
WASHINGTON — President Trump announced on Monday that he was imposing new sanctions on Iran, stepping up a policy of pressuring the nation’s leaders and further squeezing the Iranian economy in retaliation for what the United States says are recent aggressive acts by Tehran.
The move came on top of actions taken by the administration this spring to cut off all revenues from Iranian oil exports, the lifeblood of the nation’s economy.
The new sanctions are aimed at preventing some top Iranian officials from using the international banking system or any financial vehicles set up by European nations or other countries. But the Iranian officials most likely do not keep substantial assets in international banks, if any at all, or use those institutions for transactions, and any additional pressure from the new sanctions is likely to be minimal.
The largely symbolic nature of this round of sanctions indicates that the Trump administration is running low on arrows in its economic quiver. It now finds itself in a waiting game, as it watches for whether the latest clampdown on oil exports, which was announced in late April, will force the Iranian leaders to surrender to American demands in exchange for economic relief.
Speaking in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump said the new sanctions order would bar Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, and his office from access to the international financial system. The Treasury Department said it was also imposing sanctions on eight Iranian military commanders, including the head of a unit that the Americans say was responsible for shooting down an American drone last Thursday.
Mr. Trump acted at a time of rising concerns over Iran. Those have been prompted in part by declarations from Tehran that it is amassing more nuclear fuel, the latest evidence that Mr. Trump’s withdrawal last year from a nuclear containment deal is pushing Iranian leaders to violate terms they had been abiding by until now.
“We will continue to increase pressure on Tehran,” Mr. Trump said as he sat at his desk in the Oval Office preparing to sign an executive order. “Never can Iran have a nuclear weapon.”
While he warned on Monday that his restraint has limits, Mr. Trump has signaled that he prefers tightening sanctions to launching an immediate military strike to try to alter Iran’s behavior and force political change in Tehran.
But critics said the new sanctions would have little substantive effect and could further inflame tensions.
Iranians at the old grand bazaar on Monday. The inflation rate in Iran has risen to about 50 percent.CreditAbedin Taherkenareh/EPA, via Shutterstock
“Symbolic politics at its worst,” said Robert Malley, the president and chief executive of the International Crisis Group and a former senior Obama administration official on the Middle East. “At every level it is illogical, counterproductive or useless.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the administration would add Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and its top negotiator on the nuclear deal, to the sanctions list this week. (In his announcement about the sanctions on the supreme leader, Mr. Trump misspoke and said “Ayatollah Khomeini,” who died in 1989, rather than “Khamenei.”)
The inflation rate in Iran has risen to about 50 percent and many Iranians are dissatisfied with the economy, but authoritarian leaders have historically shown they can withstand stress from sanctions for many years. Some Iranian citizens also blame the United States government for the devastation of their economy, and they point to the shortage of critical medicine, even though Trump administration officials say they do not intend to limit humanitarian aid.
Iranian officials could choose to carry out nonfatal attacks on United States or international interests, as they did with the downing of the drone, to try to get the Trump administration to ease sanctions. Iran’s naval commander, Rear Adm. Hossein Khanzadi, said on Monday that the military was capable of shooting down other drones that violate Iranian airspace.
Mr. Trump said on Monday that he was willing to negotiate with Iran — “I think Iran, potentially, has a phenomenal future” — but insisted Iranian leaders would have to end their pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as halt uranium enrichment, “fueling of foreign conflicts” and “belligerent acts directed against the United States and its allies.”
Mr. Trump always emphasizes the need to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, while his hawkish top foreign policy aides, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, say Iran must also make wholesale changes to its policies in the Middle East.
International nuclear experts say Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program and has been adhering to the terms of a landmark nuclear agreement that it reached in 2015 with world powers.
Mr. Trump withdrew from the deal in May 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions. Iran said last week it would soon breach some limits on low-grade uranium in the deal, a type of fissile material used in civilian reactors. Iran would still be far from being able to make a nuclear weapon; its announcement appeared intended to pressure European nations to find ways to resume trade with Iran in order to alleviate the impact of American sanctions.
Mr. Trump’s rollout of sanctions and the effort to end all oil exports, along with an insistence by Mr. Pompeo that Tehran meet 12 expansive demands mostly unrelated to the nuclear program, “set a spark to the escalatory cycle we’re seeing today,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a Middle East expert at RAND Corporation, a research group in California.
“The administration argued maximum pressure would bring Iran to the negotiating table, but instead it brought provocative Iranian actions that are not likely to end without Iran getting something concrete on sanctions relief,” she said. “Talk about wanting to talk is not likely to be enough.”
China and Russia, who also signed the nuclear deal, have joined European nations in opposing the sanctions. European officials are trying to persuade Iran to stay in the agreement and are expected to speak with Mr. Trump about his Iran policy at the Group of 20 summit meeting this week in Japan.
Mr. Trump and his top foreign policy aides say further squeezing Iran will compel its leaders to buckle to demands to limit their nuclear program in ways that go beyond the terms of the 2015 deal, which was negotiated by the Obama administration and opposed by many Republicans, Israel and Arab nations in the Persian Gulf.
Hesameddin Ashena, an adviser to President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, said on Twitter that the “U.S.’s claim that it wants negotiations without preconditions while it increases sanctions and pressure is not acceptable.”
If the United States wants more than the 2015 nuclear deal, he said, “it must offer us more than the deal with international guarantees.”
On Monday afternoon, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi, told reporters that he had been barred from a closed-door meeting of the Security Council called by the United States. He also said there was no way Iran and the United States could have a dialogue right now.
The imposition of more sanctions could provoke further actions by Iran to add to the crisis that has unfolded since early May in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, analysts say.
American officials have blamed Iran for two separate sets of explosions on six oil tankers around the Strait of Hormuz, saying Iran is trying to increase global oil prices in retaliation for the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Iranian officials have denied responsibility.
The downing of the drone prompted Mr. Trump to order a missile strike on Iranian military sites last Thursday, but he pulled back at the last minute after hours of debate, and instead opted for a cyberattack.
On Monday, Mr. Pompeo met at a palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with King Salman, then had lunch with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the administration has supported despite his suspected role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist, and in overseeing an air war that has killed thousands of civilians in Yemen. The State Department said Mr. Pompeo talked with the king and the prince about “heightened tensions in the region and the need for stronger maritime security to promote freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.”
Mr. Pompeo then flew to Abu Dhabi to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed over dinner. Mr. Pompeo told the prince that his nation should contribute money and military resources to a maritime security program for ships around the Strait of Hormuz. The Americans are calling it the Sentinel program, and Mr. Pompeo said it was supposed to involve 20 nations in addition to Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.
“The president is keen that the United States doesn’t bear the cost of this,” Mr. Pompeo told the prince.
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