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White House’s Mixed Messages to Iran Continue With Sanctions

Economic penalties had been removed under nuclear pact Trump left

President Donald Trump departs the White House on July 31. His administration kicked off six days of hearings on proposed tariffs on imports from China. (Win McNamee/Getty Images file photo)
President Donald Trump departs the White House on July 31. His administration kicked off six days of hearings on proposed tariffs on imports from China. (Win McNamee/Getty Images file photo)

Updated 11:14 a.m. | The Trump administration reactivated sanctions Monday on Iran in an attempt to further squeeze its stumbling economy, a tough move that is the latest in a volley of mixed signals from Washington.

“Our actions will continue to limit Iran” from obtaining the resources needed to “support its malign behavior” across the Middle East, a senior administration official said Monday. “We are fully committed to rigorously enforcing our sanctions … to ensure they fully change course.”

But they come after threats from President Donald Trump about a U.S. military action, followed by his revelation last Monday that he wants a summit with Iranian leaders. The weekly shifts have left many lawmakers searching for a clear policy.

“If countries around the world are confused about where the United States stands on Iran, they’re not alone. I certainly can’t keep up with the administration’s policy,” House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot Engel of New York said last week. “Maybe [Trump is] trying to keep people guessing, but that’s only a guess. This comedically muddled message from the White House will further alienate our allies and leave our adversaries without the clear but firm diplomacy that prevents disputes from becoming wars.”

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Administration officials made clear the sanctions, which are being put back in place after they were removed when the Obama administration and other world powers struck a deal with Tehran over its nuclear program that Trump pulled out of, are intended to create pressure on the Iranian regime from within. They noted recent protests there, saying they are the result of “Iran’s already fragile economy” and a “long-term economic tailspin” caused, in part, by other U.S. sanctions.

Administration officials used terms like “fed up” to describe many Iranian citizens, but they said the White House’s policy is not to bring about “regime change” in Tehran but to alter the current government’s actions. “We think the Iranian people are looking for the same thing,” an official said.

“If Iran will start behaving like a normal country, there are several benefits that will follow from that,” an administration official said.

Specifically, the Trump administration’s moves are aimed at preventing Iran from accessing and doing business with American dollars, as well as keeping it from doing transactions in precious metals, graphite, aluminum, steel and coal. Other penalties are aimed at hindering Iran’s shipping, shipbuilding and financial services sectors.

Non-Iran firms that might be penalized by violating the sanctions were given 90 days to prepare for this wave and “they are getting out” of the Iranian market, an administration official said.

The sanctions that will go back into full effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday are not expected to deliver a major new blow to Iran’s economy. But officials described the move as the “next step” building toward what could be a major blow: the “snapping back” in place of oil and energy sanctions in early November.

But an official said putting those potentially crippling sanctions back in place “doesn’t have to happen.” That’s because “President Trump will meet with Iranian leaders at any time.”

The foreign ministers of the European Union, Germany, France and the United Kingdom reiterated their opposition to reviving the sanctions and their collective view that the nuclear pact is working.

The European officials said the deal is “delivering on its goal, namely to ensure that the Iranian programme remains exclusively peaceful, as confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 11 consecutive reports.”

“The lifting of nuclear-related sanctions is an essential part of the deal — it aims at having a positive impact not only on trade and economic relations with Iran, but most importantly on the lives of the Iranian people,” they added.

The call, like recent statements by Trump and senior aides in recent days, embodied the administration’s swerving from threats of war to offers to negotiate at the highest level to economic sanctions aimed at fanning the flames of unrest on Iranian streets.

Just 14 days ago, the White House was hawkish on Iran and its nuclear program. Trump responded to remarks from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by warning he would unleash “consequences” that no other country has ever experienced if he again threatens America.

National Security Adviser John Bolton said last Monday that Trump “told me that if Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid before.” That came about 12 hours after the president’s tweet, which echoed the kind of fire-and-brimstone language he once reserved for North Korea.


But just seven days ago, Trump shifted again. This time, he expressed a willingness to negotiate directly with Iranian leaders over their nuclear program — and he said he would not slap any preconditions on such a summit.

“I’ll meet with anybody,” he said, referring to Iranian leaders. “I believe in meeting.”

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Behnam Ben Taleblu and Saeed Ghasseminejad, both with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, say it continues to be a “trying time for the Iranian economy.”

The duo wrote in a policy brief last week that the U.S. has other steps it could take before the oil and energy sanctions are set to go back in place on Nov. 4. The Trump administration could designate Abdolnasser Hemmati, the new head of the Central Bank of Iran, as a sponsor of violent extremist organizations.

“The U.S. should designate Hemmati as soon as possible,” the FDD scholars wrote. “Sanctioning the man leading the Iranian government’s hub of illicit finance would signal the administration’s intent to put unprecedented pressure on Tehran that goes beyond reinstating sanctions as a result of withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal.”

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