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Trump’s new sanctions against Iran aren’t as aggressive as you might think

Obama might’ve done the same thing.

National security advisor Michael Flynn said Iran was “on notice” on Wednesday due to its ballistic missile test and support for Houthi rebels in Yemen's civil war.
Getty Images

Two days ago, the Trump administration ominously warned Iran that it was putting the country “on notice” after Tehran flexed its muscles in the region by testing a medium-range ballistic missile over the weekend. It didn’t take long for Trump to follow through on the threat: On Friday morning, the Treasury Department announced that it was expanding sanctions against Iran.

The US will be targeting 25 people and organizations for either their involvement with Iran’s ballistic missile program or for providing support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force, which oversees the army’s foreign operations and backs groups like Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The new sanctions will freeze the US assets of the targets and blacklist companies around the world that do business with them. They hit procurement agents and middlemen involved in ballistic missile programs in Iran and networks of individuals that do things like help transfer cash to Hezbollah.

Set aside Trump’s tough talk, though, and the sanctions don’t actually amount to much. For one thing, these aren’t really new sanctions — the prohibitions were already on the books. Instead, Trump has expanded the number of people and entities that the sanctions target. In other words, the administration is ramping up its enforcement of a currently existing policy to send a message to Iran.

“This is consistent with a response we might have seen from the Obama administration — or what a Clinton administration might have done,” said Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution and a former State Department adviser on Iran.

Trump’s new sanctions aren’t designed to unravel Obama’s nuclear deal

These sanctions have nothing to do with the Obama administration’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran, during which the US and allies lifted onerous sanctions on Iran’s economy in exchange for shuttering thousands of centrifuges and getting rid of most of its enriched uranium.

Today the US has no nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, but it still has plenty of sanctions against certain people and organizations within the country for activities like ballistic missile testing, human rights abuses, and backing political adversaries of the US. And the Obama administration continued to put pressure on Iran for those activities while keeping the nuclear-related sanctions off the table.

Richard Nephew, a sanctions expert at Columbia University who coordinated sanctions policy at the State Department under Obama, noted that Obama had slapped sanctions on Iran for ballistic missile testing the very day the nuclear deal went into effect in January 2016.

Trump’s current position on the nuclear deal is murky — he’s railed against it as "the worst deal ever negotiated," but his Defense secretary said that it should be upheld during his confirmation hearing. So far he hasn’t taken any big steps to undo it the way he did, say, the Trans-Pacific Partnership during his first full day in office.

So did Iran really do something it’s not supposed to do with its provocative missile test over the weekend? According to Nephew, Iran’s missile testing isn’t prohibited by a UN Security Council resolution that was negotiated around the same time as the nuclear deal was settled in 2015, but it is discouraged by it. “The UN Security Council can tell people ‘you ought not do something’ and it can say ‘you cannot do something.’ The language [on Iran testing ballistic missiles] says ‘you ought not do something,’” Nephew says.

But while Iran might be abiding by the letter of the UN resolution here, it is at odds with its spirit — and the Trump administration is taking action to add some teeth to it.

So as of now, outside of directing some unpredictable and scary-sounding rhetoric at Iran, there’s nothing unusually hawkish about the concrete steps the Trump administration has taken against the country so far. And the Iran deal is still fully intact.

But Washington has many ways it could make Tehran’s life very difficult. Trump is likely to interpret the terms of the Iran deal — like how much enriched uranium its allowed to have at any given moment — as stringently as possible. It’s possible that Trump and Republicans in Congress will pursue new sanctions that would reimpose penalties that were lifted during the Iran deal, but ostensibly based on other justifications like its support for militant groups throughout the region.

And Trump could also pursue other avenues of pressure on his own. As the New York Times reports, Trump’s team has been contemplating moves like “more aggressive patrols in the Persian Gulf, including the possible interception of arms or parts.” The newest chapter of US-Iranian relations is just getting started.