Two days after warning that it was putting Iran “on notice,” the Trump administration Friday imposed relatively mild economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic as punishment for last Sunday’s ballistic missile test and its support for militant groups in regional conflicts.
The penalties, which target 25 Iranian companies and individuals, appeared calibrated to increase pressure on Iran without jeopardizing the landmark nuclear deal negotiated under the Obama administration, or creating a new international crisis.
“The Trump administration will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations that threaten our interests,” National Security Advisor Michael Flynn said in a statement.
The sanctions are largely symbolic since they target groups that are unlikely to have U.S. assets or business dealings. They were announced a day after the Trump administration also appeared to show restraint on two other foreign fronts where the new president previously had suggested he would order a sharp shift.
On Thursday, the White House publicly appealed to Israel not to expand construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying doing so “may not be helpful” in achieving peace.
That suggested a far less radical approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict than Trump has staked out in the past, and it set clear limits for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled visit to the White House on Feb. 15.
The new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, similarly presented the establishment view of Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and armed intervention in Ukraine during her debut speech Thursday to the U.N. Security Council.
We will never initiate war, but we can only rely on our own means of defense.
Although Trump has previously refused to condemn the Russian intervention, and suggested he might ease U.S. sanctions on Moscow, Haley said the United States would not lift sanctions until Moscow stopped destabilizing Ukraine and withdrew from Crimea.
Trump’s unconventional foreign policy continues to vex allies and adversaries alike. In the last week, he has squabbled over the phone with the leaders of Mexico and Australia, and spurred sharp concerns by imposing a broad travel ban on visitors from seven mostly-Muslim nations.
The combination of aggressive rhetoric and less aggressive action seemed to be part of a struggle between bluster and pragmatism in the young administration.
The sanctions on Iran have “real value” by making it more difficult for Tehran to procure missile-building materials “but there is no new ground here,” said Richard Nephew, a sanctions expert who was part of the Obama administration team that helped negotiate the 2015 international accord that curbed Iran’s nuclear development programs.
Nephew said the sanctions, targeting 13 people and 12 companies in Iran, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, were identical to Obama-era measures imposed before and after the nuclear deal was signed.
They even target the same groups: entities involved in ballistic-missile development, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s specialized Quds force, which is accused of supplying weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, both designated by the U.S. as terrorist groups.
Those named cannot access the U.S. financial system or deal with U.S. companies, and are subject to secondary sanctions, meaning foreign companies and individuals face being put on a U.S. blacklist for making deals with them.
“Iran’s continued support for terrorism and development of its ballistic missile program poses a threat to the region, to our partners worldwide, and to the United States,” said John E. Smith, acting director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Iran reacted angrily, saying it would impose its own “legal restrictions” on American individuals and entities “involved in helping and founding regional terrorist groups.” The foreign ministry said it would provide a list later.
It insisted the missile, which exploded in mid-air, was a test for defense only and does not violate U.N. resolutions or the arms control deal. “We will never initiate war, but we can only rely on our own means of defense,” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Twitter.
Administration officials suggested they may take further action in the weeks ahead.
“I would stress that these are just initial steps in response to Iranians’ provocative behavior,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with government protocol.
“Iran has a choice to make,” the official added. “We are going to continue to respond to their behavior in an ongoing way at an appropriate level to continue to pressure them to change their behavior.”
The official emphasized that the decision was taken through a “normal” and “deliberative” process, with Trump signing off each time.
For his part, Trump tweeted that Iran is “playing with fire.”
“They don’t appreciate how ‘kind' President Obama was to them. Not me!” Trump wrote.
Until now, Trump’s unorthodox approach to foreign policy appeared at odds with norms set by Republican and Democratic administrations since World War II.
The latest moves suggest his confrontational approach — even to longtime allies — has some limits, at least for now.
While Trump has refused to condemn Russia, Haley blamed Russia at the U.N. for a spike in fighting in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow backs separatists against the Kiev government. The violence has killed civilians and left tens of thousands without water, electricity and heat in the dead of winter.
The White House also issued its first, albeit mild, condemnation of Israeli settlement expansion. Although the administration said it does not believe settlements are an obstacle to peace, departing from Obama’s position, it said an expansion now did not help the pursuit of peace.
The rebuke was issued after the State Department warned the White House that Netanyahu has approved thousands of new settlement houses in the past two weeks, and that saying nothing would amount to a tacit endorsement of that policy.
Also for the first time, the White House stated support for a proposed two-state solution, the internationally prevailing solution that envisions an Israeli and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace.
“We don’t believe that the existence of current settlements is an impediment to peace,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Friday, “but I think the construction or expansion of existing settlements beyond the current borders is not going to be helpful moving forward.”
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