President Donald Trump’s administration slapped fresh sanctions on Iran on Tuesday, shortly after certifying the country is technically complying with the nuclear deal — a move that experts say is a key part of the White House’s approach until the comprehensive review of Iran policy is completed.
The Treasury Department targeted 18 entities and individuals for “engaging in support of illicit Iranian actors or transnational criminal activity.” Those included activities backing Iran’s military and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as well as organizations involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program, according to the department.
Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and head of its Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance, noted that “the administration is really targeting the Revolutionary Guard, and it’s really the beginning of a massive expansion in both economic and other forms of warfare against the IRGC.”
The sanctions unveiled on Tuesday serve as a “shot across the bow” by the Trump administration, showing that it sees the IRGC as the “most malign actor within the Iranian systems and is taking steps to target them and counter their influence,”
Retired four-star General and former Vice Chief of Army Staff Jack Keane said although there may be an instinct to pull away from the nuclear pact by Trump, who campaigned against it during the 2016 election, “there’s just not a practical way to be able to do that without some evidence that Iranians are not complying with the deal.”
The White House, then, has elected to do two things, according to Keane.
“One, hold Iran accountable for its malign and aggressive behavior in the region, and thus the sanctions that it’s issuing against them for ballistic missile testing, etc. And not the least of which is their use of proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, all of which are trampling on U.S. interests and those of our allies in the region. That’s number one,” he said.
“Number two, keep the deal for the time being, believing that Iran will likely not stay in compliance, and indeed there may be ample justification to abandon it based on Iran’s behavior. I sort of think that’s where they are,” Keane added.
Late on Monday, the administration certified that Iran is technically complying with the 2015 international pact. The White House, however, emphasized that although the requirements seem to be fulfilled as written, Iran was “unquestionably in default of the spirit” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Dubowitz said the the certification was “very specific and careful not to say Iran was in compliance with the JCPOA, just that they met the conditions laid out by the statutory requirements under which the 90 day certification takes place.”
This was then followed by what Dubowitz dubs the “waive-and-slap approach” — waive the statutory sanctions, but then slap on new sanctions, to buy time until the administration’s comprehensive Iran policy review is completed.
According to Dubowitz, the next step he expects will be a “sharp break from Obama’s Iran policy.” The administration “sees the Iranian threat not just as a nuclear threat, but based on the nature and behavior of the regime,” Dubowitz said, and he noted he is closely tracking any marked shifts in U.S. policy in terms of countering Iranian aggression in the region to assess the administration’s overall approach.
“The plan that is being developed is how to use all instruments of American power, not just sanctions, to roll back Iranian influence regionally, globally,” he said.
One of Trump’s major campaign promises was to withdraw from the 2015 agreement, which he has called “the worst deal ever.” By law, the U.S. must certify every 90 days that Iran is meeting the provisions of the deal.
Keane said he believes there is “disagreement” within the Trump administration about what the course ahead should be for the nuclear deal.
“Certainly, the president during the campaign and after the campaign expressed his disapproval of it, and at least prior to assuming office there was plenty of discussion that he would abandon the deal,” he said. “But the problem they have is there are six other signatures for the deal and if the United States pulled away from it unilaterally, they would be isolated in doing that.”
The other signatories are China, Russia, France, the UK, Germany, and the European Union.
“In a sense, you give the Iranians a bit of a moral high ground and a certain legitimacy as a result of doing something like that because the other countries would be in agreement with Iran,” he added.
The New York Times reported that Trump agreed to the certification announcement “only after hours of arguing with his top national security advisers” on the issue, noting that all of his major advisers recommended he maintain the deal right now.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that “his opinions and his feelings on this deal have certainly not changed. He still very much thinks it is a really bad deal and that the Iranians have not been fully compliant, and we are going to continue through this process.”
The Trump administration is currently conducting a comprehensive review of its Iran policy. “But I suspect they have made up their minds based on their actions to date to end the appeasement and accommodation of the previous administration with Iran. That is absolutely over,” according to Keane.
State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said Tuesday the administration “firmly believes” that Iran “is in violation of the spirit of the agreement with regard to an important part of it.”
“Part of what the JCPOA agreement says is that it is supposed to contribute to regional and international peace and security, and we believe that some of the actions that the Iranian government has been involved with undermines that stated goal of regional and international peace and security. Iran remains, and we all know this, one of the most dangerous threats to the United States, not only our interests around the world, but also to regional stability,” she said.
Overall, the Trump administration’s position “is to compel a behavior change,” according to Keane. A very strong anti-Iranian viewpoint is that the regime is not capable of change and the only thing that will lead to a normal behavior in Iran by the government would be to change out the regime. But that’s not the administration’s position.”
Dubowitz said this week’s moves indicate that the administration sees Iran violating certain elements of the deal that may not yet amount to a material breach. But, he said, it also suggests the White House is “not going to tolerate those kinds of violations and is not likely to see the Iran deal as something worth keeping without some major, major changes.”
Verdi Tzou contributed to this report.
Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.