Washington slapped a new round of sanctions on 11 Iranian individuals and companies Sunday, just hours after a prisoner swap between the two countries and less than a day after more wide-ranging economic penalties against Tehran were lifted as part of a landmark nuclear deal.
The move adds drama to a whirlwind two days during which the longtime rivals met on rare common ground to improve diplomacy. But the new sanctions, U.S. officials said, are meant to punish Tehran for violating United Nations resolutions that prohibit ballistic missile tests — and not in response to Iran’s shrinking nuclear program.
In a televised address Sunday, President Barack Obama said the sanctions prove the U.S. will “remain vigilant” about curbing Iran’s development of medium- and long-range missiles. “We’re not going to waver in the defense of our security or that of our allies and partners,” he said.
The Treasury Department said in a statement it was targeting 11 entities and individuals who helped build and maintain Iran’s ballistic missile program. They included five Iranian individuals whom Treasury accused of working to obtain ballistic missile materials. The restrictions are very strictly targeted to hit only a few small companies involved in importing parts used in Tehran’s ballistic missile program.
The sanctions were announced only hours after a plane carrying three American prisoners left Iranian airspace Sunday. The Americans — Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini — have since landed in Germany for medical evaluation. A fourth American, Nosratollah Khosravi, whose incarceration was not announced before his release, was not on the plane and appears to have decided to stay in Iran. In a separate agreement, Iran released a fifth American, a recently detained student named Matthew Trevithick who had worked in Iraq and Afghanistan and at least once contributed to an article published in Foreign Policy.
In return, the United States pardoned or dropped charges against seven Iranians accused of sanctions violations, and rescinded international arrest warrants on over a dozen others.
After Iran launched a ballistic missile test last October, the Obama administration was excoriated by lawmakers in Congress for failing to impose new sanctions as allowed under a U.N. Security Council resolution. Even liberal supporters of the Iran nuclear deal, such as Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), publicly criticized the White House for not acting tough enough. “I don’t know why the administration has hesitated,” Coons told reporters last week.
Yet U.S. officials said senior diplomats had already worked behind the scenes for 14 months to free the five Americans, and feared potentially derailing those negotiations by imposing new punitive sanctions against Iran.
Still, Republicans on Sunday criticized the prisoner swap, saying it gave foreign governments a new incentive to capture Americans and wring concessions out of Washington. “Our enemies now know that if you can capture an American, you can get something meaningful in exchange for it,” GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told NBC’s Meet the Press.
Democrats praised the return of the imprisoned Americans but called on the U.S. to stand firm against Iranian missile development. “The way we’re going to hold them accountable is to have consequences when they do anything that might deviate from the agreement,” Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton told NBC, referring to the July nuclear deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said “with the nuclear deal now in place, we must be more vigilant than ever to hold Iran to its commitments and continue to crack down on its harmful activities.”
In his Sunday remarks, Obama lauded his negotiating team for their years of work on the nuclear deal. “Iran was steadily expanding its nuclear program, we have now cut off every single path that Iran could have used to build a bomb,” he said. “This is a good day.”
Separately, Washington and Tehran settled a long outstanding financial dispute Sunday over a $400 million trust fund that Iran used to buy military equipment from the U.S. before the break in diplomatic relations. According to the State Department, the U.S. agreed to pay Iran the balance of the $400 million fund as well as about $1.3 billion in interest.
Tensions remain, however. Last month, Iranian naval vessels test fired missiles near the USS Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf, and just last week, Iranian naval forces took 10 U.S. Navy sailors into custody when two small American riverine craft entered Iranian waters. The sailors were released along with their boats within 24 hours after Iranian and American diplomats made several rounds of frantic phone calls to defuse the situation.
Without the channels opened up by the nuclear talks, that quick resolution might not have been possible, a senior administration official told reporters Sunday. After months of face-to-face negotiations with the Iranians, Secretary of State John Kerry “can pick up the phone, call the foreign minister of Iran, and resolve that issue in a matter of hours,” the official said.
“That just wasn’t available to us two years ago,” the official said.
Photo Credit: Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images