Tough Talk Tough Actions
Trump Slaps Sanctions on Iran

In the five days since Iran launched a ballistic missile as an early test of the Trump administration, decision-makers in Washington have staked out a tough rhetorical line on Iran. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn made a pointed statement that rebuked Tehran for destabilizing the Middle East and cryptically announced that it was being put “on notice.” Press Secretary Sean Spicer provocatively charged Iran with attacking a Saudi vessel off of Yemen. Meanwhile, President Trump has taken to Twitter in a series of messages deriding the Iran nuclear agreement and warning that Iran was “playing with fire.”

Behind all this tough talk, however, what concrete actions is the new administration likely to take? Today’s announcement of new sanctions on Iran offered the first glimpse. Reuters:

The United States on Friday ratcheted up pressure on Iran, putting sanctions on 13 individuals and 12 entities days after the White House put Tehran “on notice” over a ballistic missile test. […]

A senior U.S. administration said Friday’s sanctions were an “initial step” in response to Iran’s “provocative behavior,” suggesting more could follow if Tehran does not curb its ballistic missile program and continues support for Houthi militia in Yemen.

The U.S. moved a Navy destroyer, the USS Cole, close to the Bab al-Mandab Strait off the coast of Yemen to protect waterways.

The U.S. Treasury, which listed the individuals and entities affected on its website, said the sanctions were “fully consistent” with U.S. commitments under the nuclear deal clinched between Tehran and six major world powers in 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

Crucially, the administration is not arguing that Iran’s missile tests have violated the terms of the nuclear deal, nor is it “snapping back” the sanctions that were lifted under the terms of that agreement. Rather, Trump is using new sanctions outside of that framework to ratchet up the pressure on Iran’s non-nuclear aggression. Under Obama, Iran and its proxies made serious gains in the Middle East; Trump is signaling his intent to check those advances while strictly enforcing the nuclear deal. This screws-tightening approach is in line with what Iran hawks in both Israel and the U.S. have been advising Trump to do rather than blowing up the nuclear deal outright.

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