The Cable

Trump Slaps Sanctions on Iran While Keeping Nuclear Deal in Place — for Now

White House reluctantly certifies Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, while hitting Tehran with fresh sanctions

TEHRAN, IRAN - NOVEMBER 3:  Iranians burn a U.S. flag outside the former U.S. Embassy at a gathering to mark the 25th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy on November 3, 2004 in Tehran, Iran. Militant students stormed the U.S. embassy on November 4, 1979, and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)
TEHRAN, IRAN - NOVEMBER 3: Iranians burn a U.S. flag outside the former U.S. Embassy at a gathering to mark the 25th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy on November 3, 2004 in Tehran, Iran. Militant students stormed the U.S. embassy on November 4, 1979, and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

The Trump administration levied new sanctions on 18 Iranian entities Tuesday as it grappled with how to follow through on campaign promises to shut down the Iran deal while avoiding damaging diplomatic fallout.

The administration is required to notify Congress every 90 days as to whether Iran is abiding by the nuclear agreement negotiated between Tehran and major powers. President Donald Trump had last-minute reservations but on the advice of his top advisers, he grudgingly certified Iran was in compliance with the deal on Monday. The president coupled the decision with a move to increase pressure on Tehran, announcing a series of sanctions unrelated to nuclear weapons and the agreement.

“This administration will continue to aggressively target Iran’s malign activity, including their ongoing state support of terrorism, ballistic missile program, and human rights abuses,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

The 2015 nuclear agreement imposed strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting an array of punishing international sanctions that had crippled the country’s economy. Although U.N. inspectors have concluded Iran has kept up its side of the deal, the U.S. State Department said Iran’s support for proxies and its actions outside the agreement were cause for grave concern.

“Iran continues to support terrorist groups such as Hizballah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad that threaten Israel and stability in the Middle East,” the State Department said in a statement.

The State Department also cited Iran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and Tehran’s continued testing and development of ballistic missiles. It said Iran’s activities are undermining the “positive contributions” to regional and international peace and security that were agreed upon in the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

The new sanctions are designed to thwart Tehran’s purchase of unmanned aerial vehicles and military equipment, its maintenance of fast attack boats, and electronic components used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the IRGC-Navy and Iran’s military. Additionally, the sanctions targeted two Iranian businessmen who the U.S. government says helped steal U.S. and western software programs.

The State Department also called on Iran to release three U.S. citizens, Baquer Namazi, Siamak Namazi, and Xiyue Wang held on “fabricated national-security related charges.” And additionally requested the return of Robert Levinson, who disappeared from Iran’s Kish Island over a decade ago.

Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union also signed the nuclear accord. And unlike the United States, the other signatories say they believe the agreement is working, and that abandoning the deal could open the way to a nuclear-armed Iran.

As a candidate and as president, Trump has slammed the nuclear agreement as a disaster and claimed that it should either be abandoned or renegotiated.

The White House leaked word last week that it would certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement but a 1 p.m. media briefing was called off on Monday. Trump at the last minute had serious reservations about giving the greenlight. Top officials, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster ultimately persuaded the president not to declare Iran had violated the deal. A hastily arranged press briefing was held later at 7 p.m.

White House officials said they are a few months away from completing a review of the nuclear agreement and a wider review of U.S. policy toward Iran.

Advocates of a tougher approach to Iran, who oppose the nuclear deal, were heartened at the president’s approach, believing Trump could eventually jettison the agreement and hold Tehran more accountable for its actions across the region.

Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said the newly announced sanctions “indicate that this administration does have a larger game plan: countering all aspects of Iran’s destabilizing regional behavior.”

Photo credit: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Jesse Chase-Lubitz is an American Society of Magazine Editors intern at Foreign Policy. She is currently studying history and evolutionary biology of the human species at Columbia. Before that, she worked as a professional ballet dancer in Chicago and Austin.

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