Trump Administration Mulling Tougher Iran Sanctions

Trump Administration Mulling Tougher Iran SanctionsTrump Administration Mulling Tougher Iran Sanctions

The Trump White House is poised to ratchet up existing sanctions against Iran and is weighing a much stricter interpretation of the nuclear agreement between Tehran and major powers.

The US administration is inclined to adopt a "more rigorous application of the tools at its disposal", a senior White House official told Foreign Policy, referring to sanctions policy.

Among the options under consideration: broadening US sanctions to include much larger chunks of the Iranian economy linked to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.

No final decision has been taken by the president or the Cabinet. But officials said some decisions will need to be taken soon. On April 25, Iran and the six governments that negotiated the nuclear deal with Tehran, including the United States, are due to meet in Vienna for a quarterly review of the accord.

How US President Donald Trump decides to proceed on sanctions and the nuclear deal more broadly carries high stakes for the United States, Iran and the wider Middle East. A concerted US effort to squeeze Iran would represent a gamble that Tehran's push to assert its regional role could be checked in part by increasing economic pressure.

But the approach could backfire if it causes tensions with the Islamic Republic to spin out of control or prompts Tehran to pull out of the nuclear deal. Tougher US sanctions would make for a tougher reelection fight for President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who championed the 2015 nuclear deal but is under pressure to show Iranians a notable improvement in the economy. And a harder line on sanctions also could drive a wedge between Washington and its European allies.

"Sweeping sanctions that cut across economic sectors could jeopardize the nuclear agreement and prompt Iran to withdraw," said Richard Nephew who was the leading sanctions expert on the US team that negotiated the accord with Iran.

"It all really comes down to whether the people making decisions agree that the [nuclear deal] is worth keeping."

The 2015 agreement imposed numerous restrictions on Iran's nuclear program in return for easing an array of sanctions that had damaged the country's economy.

Trump repeatedly blasted the accord as "the worst deal" and, while on the campaign trail, vowed to "tear it up", but now that he is in office, he has not indicated what he will fulfill that promise.

  Forceful Stance

Trump does not have to tear up the deal to tighten the screws on Iran. The agreement, which is not a treaty, provides broad leeway to the governments that signed it in interpreting its terms, and the Trump White House is mulling taking a much more forceful stance on enforcing the deal to the letter.

There are already signs that the Trump administration is using existing legal authorities in a more forceful manner than the Barack Obama administration.

Last Thursday, the Treasury Department announced it had sanctioned an individual and an organization for their role in alleged abuses at Iranian prisons.

In February, the Treasury Department blacklisted eight organizations linked to IRGC, as well as one of its officials based in Lebanon.

The sanctions measures imposed since Trump entered office were based on cases prepared by the Obama Treasury Department that were never enacted, said the White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

And Treasury's recent actions reflect a heightened focus by the administration on IRGC. Its actions coincide with a debate within the administration about whether to designate the entire IRGC as a terrorist organization. At present, only the group's arm for overseas operations, the Qods Force, is blacklisted.

Apart from designating the entire Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, the administration is also looking at other options.

Currently, any entity that has a 50% ownership stake or more held by the IRGC is subject to sanctions, but the administration is mulling a change that would drop the threshold to a lower percentage.

Such a move would break with longstanding policy at Treasury, which has traditionally defined ownership as above 50% for any category of sanctions. A lower threshold would mean blacklisting hundreds and possibly thousands of additional Iranian companies and organizations with links to the IRGC, experts said.

That would almost certainly cause a political backlash in Iran and chill any international interest in investing in Iran. European officials are worried that if the White House opts for a blanket blacklisting of the IRGC, it could effectively kill the nuclear agreement.

Appetite for a tougher stance is not found in the White House. In the Republican-controlled Congress, there is growing bipartisan support for pushing back against Iran through additional sanctions, though most Democrats want to steer clear of measures that would directly violate the nuclear deal. New bills in the House and Senate call for additional sanctions against Iran over its ballistic missile program and its alleged human rights violations and support for resistance groups.

Former US officials believe the sanctions legislation poses a possible threat to the nuclear deal, as the measures could wreck the consensus among the countries that negotiated the deal.

"Rather than containing Iran, such steps would isolate the United States," several former administration officials wrote in a commentary in Foreign Policy.


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