USA Foreign Policy First Look

US targets Iranian missile program with new financial sanctions

The new US Treasury measures against individuals tied to Iran's missile program have been in the works for months. But the reaction in Iran shows the possible consequences of further measures against the country.

A long-range S-200 missile is fired in a military drill in the port city of Bushehr, on the northern coast of Persian Gulf, Iran, in this photo released Dec. 29, 2016.
Amir Kholousi/ISNA/AP | Caption

On Friday, the Treasury Department froze the US assets of 13 foreign individuals and 12 companies connected to Iran’s ballistic missile program.

“Iran’s continued support for terrorism and development of its ballistic missile program poses a threat to the region,” John E. Smith, acting director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement announcing the sanctions. “Today’s action is part of Treasury’s ongoing efforts to counter Iranian malign activity abroad that is outside the scope of the JCPOA.”

In the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, Iran agreed to drastically curtail its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Thanks to this deal, says the International Crisis Group, “Trump is the first U.S. president in more than two decades who enters office not needing to worry about Iran crossing the threshold to nuclear weaponization undetected.”

Under the JCPOA, Washington retains the ability to punish Iran for its missile program. But doing so could weaken the Iranian leaders who supported the nuclear deal, and that, in turn, could put the deal’s gains at risk.

As The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson explained in January, new controls on Iran’s nuclear program have “not diminished continued concerns in Washington about Iran’s missile program and involvement in Syria and Iraq, with its own forces and proxy Shiite militias.”

In part, Friday's sanctions represent a continuation of former President Obama's approach: limited punishment for Iran's ballistic missiles, in order to avoid a bigger showdown over the nuclear deal itself.

Even so, the new measures could be a foretaste of tougher policies toward Iran under President Trump, who criticized the deal during the campaign. “Iran is playing with fire,” Trump tweeted Friday morning. “They don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”

This kind of rhetoric could inflame Iranian opponents of the nuclear deal, some observers say.

"Having an enemy is an inseparable part of hard-liners' philosophy," an anonymous Iranian official told the Monitor in December. "It is existential...You read [that] it is the US that stops us being developed, having a good life. To stay in power, they need this enemy, no matter what."

By targeting the missile program, the sanctions could give these Iranians further grounds to oppose dialogue with the US. On Friday, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a prayer leader in Tehran, declared, "We are living in a world of wolves – wolves such as the arrogant government of America," according to the Associated Press. "In this world of wolves, should we remain unarmed and they do whatever … they want? No way! This will never happen!"

An extension of sanctions that cuts deeper into the Iranian economy could make more Iranians sympathetic to views like these – and open to violating the nuclear deal. Kelsey Davenport, a nonproliferation expert at the Washington-based Arms Control Association (ACA), sees such a development as a major setback for peace in the Middle East.

“If the Iran deal falls apart and Iran resumes some of its questionable nuclear activities, it will destabilize the region and create another crisis that the US will have to spend political capital and time trying to resolve,” Ms. Davenport told the Monitor in January. “That’s completely unnecessary.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.