The Trump administration issued new sanctions against Iran on Wednesday targeting its metal exports, hours after the Iranian president threatened to start enriching more uranium if it doesn’t get relief from U.S. measures that are crippling its economy.
The new sanctions included in an executive order signed by President Trump apply to Iranian iron, steel, aluminum and copper.
The measure comes exactly one year after Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear agreement that lifted U.S. and international sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. In the past year, the United States has designated nearly 1,000 Iranian individuals and entities for sanctions and is attempting to drive its oil revenue down to “zero.”
Even as its economy has cratered, Iran has continued to meet its commitments made in the nuclear deal, according to inspections made by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But as the anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal approached, tensions between Washington and Tehran ratcheted up, and the United States is deploying an aircraft carrier and bomber group to the Persian Gulf.
The United States has said the sanctions will only be lifted if Iran fundamentally changes its behavior and character.
In the past year, Iran exported a total of $5.5 billion of products using the four targeted industrial metals, according to Iranian customs data analyzed by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The materials also are used in Iran’s ballistic missile program.
In a statement, Trump said the newest sanctions target a sector that generates 10 percent of its export revenue.
“Tehran can expect further actions unless it fundamentally alters its conduct,” Trump said. “Since our exit from the Iran deal, which is broken beyond repair, the United States has put forward 12 conditions that offer the basis of a comprehensive agreement with Iran. I look forward to someday meeting with the leaders of Iran in order to work out an agreement and, very importantly, taking steps to give Iran the future it deserves.”
The new round of sanctions duplicate sanctions already in place and are likely to have little impact. Financial sanctions already bar some trade in iron, steel and aluminum for companies around the world.
Ryan Costello, policy director for the National Iranian American Council, said the administration’s policy of drying up any economic benefits for Iran explains why Tehran appears more willing to abandon the agreement, too.
“Sanctions are worse than they were before the nuclear deal,” he said. “This is just layer on layer of sanctions. The Trump administration is pretending it’s doing something productive, when it’s just driving Iran away from the negotiating table.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been under pressure to fight back against the economic squeeze as the United States has stepped up its campaign of maximum economic pressure, issuing sanctions against most oil exports and designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
Rouhani said in a televised address Wednesday that Iran is preparing to keep its stockpiles of excess uranium and heavy water used in its nuclear reactors. Although he stopped short of announcing a complete withdrawal from the 2015 accord, he said Iran will resume the enrichment of high-grade uranium in 60 days unless more is done to improve economic conditions. Europe is caught between wanting Iran to keep its commitments under the agreement and not wanting to run afoul of U.S. sanctions.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has taken a hard-line position against the Iranian government, said the United States will be watching to see whether any steps Iran takes reduce the breakout time to amass enough material to build a nuclear weapon. Speaking at a news conference in London, Pompeo said the United States will work with Europeans “to ensure Iran has no pathway for a nuclear weapons system.”
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned of serious consequences if Iran breaks its commitments under the deal.
“So we urge the Iranians to think very long and hard before breaking that deal,” he said. “It is in no one’s interest. It is certainly not in their interest. Because the moment they go nuclear, Iran’s neighbors will as well.”
Some analysts fear the U.S. policy is counterproductive and even dangerous.
“One year after the President’s withdrawal, we are closer to military conflict with Iran, closer to Iran resuming nuclear activities, no closer to negotiations with Iran over its other dangerous activities, and further from our allies,” said Thomas Countryman, a former State Department official who now advises the group Foreign Policy for America. “This is winning?”
But U.S. officials say the policy is working and insist the White House will maintain the pressure on Iran.
“We have a maximum economic pressure campaign that is designed to deny the regime the revenue it needs to conduct its foreign policy,” said Brian Hook, the diplomat in charge of countering Iran. “We are making Iran’s foreign policy prohibitively expensive.”
He said the administration is determined to prevent Iran from ever being able to acquire a nuclear weapon.
“America is never going to be held hostage to the Iranian regime’s nuclear blackmail,” he said.
Administration officials insist the economic pressure is doing its job and say the blame for Iran’s spiraling inflation and budget crisis lies with Tehran.
Tim Morrison, senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense at the National Security Council, accused Iran of trying to blackmail Europe and urged European nations to join in pushing the country back to the negotiating table.
“Let us be clear: This is nothing less than nuclear blackmail of Europe,” he said.
Morrison, speaking at a conference organized by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said Iran cannot be trusted with any nuclear capability and has no right to enrich uranium under the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
U.S. officials have said they have intelligence that Iran or its proxies may be planning an attack on U.S. forces in the region, but they have provided few details.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee subcommittee hearing Wednesday, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan described the intelligence as “very, very credible.”
Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon sent messages to Iran to make sure it was clear “that we understood the threat, and were postured to respond to the threat.”
Dunford said he asked Shanahan to accelerate the movement of USS Abraham Lincoln to the Persian Gulf “so that there were would be no ambiguity about our preparedness to respond to any threat to our people or partners in the region.”
William Booth in London and Paul Sonne and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.