Tehran and the United States end 2015 with threats and recriminations over missile tests, sanctions, and visas.
Iran responded angrily on Thursday to U.S. plans to impose new sanctions on nearly a dozen companies and individuals with ties to Tehran’s ballistic missile program, with its Foreign Ministry warning the “arbitrary and illegal” measures would violate the Iran nuclear deal signed between Tehran and world powers in July.
The Obama administration’s new measures, if enacted, would mark a significant downturn in U.S.-Iranian relations and set back expectations of a detente between the longtime adversaries. The planned action follows calls from Republicans and some Democrats in Congress to bring more pressure to bear on Iran in response to its Oct. 10 launch of a medium-range Emad rocket capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. A U.N. panel confirmed the launch earlier this month.
A senior administration official confirmed to Foreign Policy that the United States has prepared sanctions against individuals in Iran, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates, including Mabrooka Trading Co. and its founder Hossein Pournaghshband, for their alleged role in helping Iranian firms obtain carbon fiber for the country’s missile program.
Pournaghshband reportedly worked with a subsidiary in Hong Kong, Anhui Land Group Co., to obtain funding and resources for a carbon-fiber production line. The material is an important component for developing missiles. The Treasury Department is also poised to sanction five employees of Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, moves first reported by the Wall Street Journal, for their alleged involvement in the missile program.
“As we’ve said, we’ve been looking for some time at options for additional actions related to Iran’s ballistic missile program based on our continued concerns about its activities,” said the official.
Earlier this month, U.N. sanctions monitors said Iran’s Oct. 10 launch violated Security Council resolution 1929, which remains valid until the landmark nuclear deal comes into effect. Once it goes into effect, Iran is merely “called upon” not to carry out ballistic missile work that could deliver a nuclear warhead for up to eight years.
Some U.S. officials have said Treasury reserves the right to sanction Iranian companies and individuals suspected of involvement in missile activities under the July nuclear deal.
Iranian officials, for their part, say Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, views those measures as violating the nuclear accord.
“As we have declared to the American government … Iran’s missile program has no connection to the [nuclear] agreement,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said on Thursday.
Iran says international resolutions only ban missiles “designed” to carry a nuclear bomb, not “capable” of carrying one. And because Tehran says it is not pursuing a nuclear weapon, it regards the restrictions as not applicable to its military program. (Iran considers Emad a “conventional missile.”)
The new sanctions fight highlights the complexities of Washington’s relationship with Tehran, with the two longtime adversaries in a de facto alliance against the Islamic State while simultaneously at odds over the implementation of the historic pact that traded sanctions relief for sharp constraints on Iran’s nuclear program.
On Monday, Iran shipped more than 25,000 pounds of nuclear material to Russia, a major milestone that left the Islamic Republic without enough low-enriched uranium to manufacture a nuclear weapon.
While the White House touted the accomplishment, Republicans continued to clamor for a more aggressive response to Iran’s missile testing and introduced legislation to bar the Obama administration from lifting sanctions on Iran, as agreed to in the nuclear deal, until it certifies that Iran has ended any military-related activity in connection to its nuclear program, among other things. The Obama administration opposes the legislation.
Meanwhile, in Iran, the Foreign Ministry expressed anger over new U.S. visa rules it says violate the nuclear deal by impeding Iranian business. (A spokesman for the ministry said on Monday that Iran may take “its own steps in response.”)
In December, President Barack Obama signed into law rules restricting visa-free travel for individuals who have visited Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan in the past five years. The law affects 38 countries that have visa waiver arrangements with the United States and is framed as a measure to prevent Islamic State terrorists from entering the homeland. Given Iran’s staunch opposition to the Islamic State, and the fact that the Shiite-dominated country has not been known to export fighters to the Sunni extremist group, Tehran has attacked the legislation as senseless.
“Any steps taken outside the agreement are unacceptable to Iran, and Iran will take its own steps in response where necessary,” Jaber Ansari said Monday referring to the legislation.
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