The U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions on Iran on Friday, after a week of escalating hostility toward the country from the White House.
BREAKING: U.S. Treasury Dept. announces new sanctions against Iran: 13 individuals and 12 entities impacted. pic.twitter.com/1VvmUrknBE
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) February 3, 2017
The sanctions themselves aren’t anything extraordinary. They target eight Iranian people and five Iranian companies, as well as a handful of people and companies from China, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, due to associations “with Iran’s ballistic missile program.” The sanctions very well could have been passed under the Obama administration or a Clinton administration, and don’t violate the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement. Still, it follows a week of hostile White House rhetoric and actions toward Iran in the past week.
Last Friday, Trump announced his Muslim ban, under which Iranian nationals would be barred from the country for three months, regardless of whether they have a legal visa or are legal permanent residents (green card holders). It took five days for the White House to clarify that the ban would no longer apply to green card holders.
On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that it was clear that the U.S. government is against the Iranian people. “For years, they were saying that we are against the government of Iran, but we are supporters of the Iranian people,” he said. “This clearly, the false statements that they said for years — behind the curtain, they thought one way, in language, they spoke another way — because this man is a particular man, he lifted the two-faced curtain.”
Trump’s immigration EO gave Rouhani an easy line he will use again & again: “US is not anti-Iran regime; US is anti-Iranian people too” https://t.co/cQapsuXBZL
— Alex Vatanka (@AlexVatanka) February 1, 2017
Shortly after that, Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn declared in a press conference that the United States is “officially putting Iran on notice” for test-firing a ballistic missile and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel by Houthi militants in Yemen. The Houthis in Yemen are not that closely tied with the Iranian government. Flynn did not clarify what “on notice” means.
On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer added to Flynn’s statement, and mistakenly claimed that Iran was on notice due to its attack on a U.S. naval vessel. “I think General Flynn was really clear yesterday that Iran has violated the Joint Resolution, that Iran’s additional hostile actions that it took against our Navy vessel are ones that we are very clear are not going to sit by and take,” he said. “I think that we will have further updates for you on those additional actions.”
Only after being corrected by a reporter did Spicer acknowledge that it was a Saudi vessel. The lack of Spicer’s knowledge — or deliberate obfuscation — when discussing putting another country “on notice” is terrifying. As The Intercept noted, this kind of error is often exactly how U.S. wars start.
Donald Trump tweeted about Iran four times in the last two days, including both early Thursday and early Friday morning. On Thursday, he condemned the Iranian nuclear agreement. On Friday, he said that Iran was “playing with fire.”
Iran is playing with fire – they don't appreciate how "kind" President Obama was to them. Not me!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 3, 2017
Iran was on its last legs and ready to collapse until the U.S. came along and gave it a life-line in the form of the Iran Deal: $150 billion
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
The Iranian government is already interpreting Trump’s statements as threats. On Friday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that Iran will be “unmoved by threats” and shared an answer he gave last year to a reporter who asked about Iran’s ballistic missile tests.
Iran unmoved by threats as we derive security from our people. We'll never initiate war, but we can only rely on our own means of defense. pic.twitter.com/TxlSEL8rjj
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) February 3, 2017
In the video, Zarif told the reporter:
You were not the subject of eight years of war, where your cities were showered with missiles, carrying chemical warheads, and you did not have a single missile to retaliate, so that maybe, Saddam Hussein would stop. We went to one country after another, begging, begging, insisting, begging for a single SCUD missile to defend our people. Begging… We are entitled to the rudimentary means of defense, which we need in order to prevent another Saddam Hussein around the corner, attacking us with chemical weapons, because the international community has failed miserably in protecting the Iranian people, in safeguarding international humanitarian law.
Under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran deal, Iran limited its nuclear program in return for sanctions removal. The deal does not discuss ballistic missiles, and Zarif stressed this week that the recent missile test is not a violation because it did not involve rockets with nuclear warheads. Iran has fully complied with the Iran deal since it first went into effect, but has yet to see many of the benefits of sanctions removal.
Trump has surrounded himself with a lot of Iran hawks, making the last week’s escalation all the more concerning.