Obama To Hit New "Friend" Iran With Fresh Sanctions Over Contested Ballistic-Missile Program

Spot what’s wrong with the following sentence: “The Obama administration is preparing to impose its first financial sanctions on Iran since it forged a landmark nuclear agreement in July.”

That’s from WSJ and it underscores how truly absurd the relationship between Washington and Tehran has become. Just as the US is preparing to lift crippling international sanctions against Iran in connection with the country’s nuclear program, The White House is set to slap new sanctions on the country to punish the Iranians for advances in ballistic-missile development.

You might recall that back in October, Tehran test-fired the Emad, a new generation, precision-guided, surface-to-surface ballistic missile with the capability of hitting arch enemy Israel. According to The Center for Strategic and International Studies, the liquid-propelled Shahab-3 variant has a range of 1,700 kilometers, is accurate to within 500 meters of the target, and can carry a 750-kilogram payload. For those who might have missed it, here’s the test-fire:

As we wrote at the time, Iran simply doesn't seem to care how Washington feels when it comes to the development of what Tehran calls “defensive” weapons. If you read between the lines, Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan essentially said in October that Iran will continue to exploit any and all ambiguities in the nuclear deal to its advantage up to and including building new ballistic missile systems, an act which certainly goes against the spirit of the deal if not the letter. 

And while the launch of the Emad may not have violated the letter of the “historic” nuclear accord, it did, apparently, violate paragraph 9 of Security Council resolution 1929 (see here). As Reuters notes, “a team of U.N. sanctions monitors said in a confidential report that a medium-range Emad rocket that Iran tested on Oct. 10 was a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, making it a violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution.” That finding prompted the likes of Chris Coons - who, you’re reminded, wants to impose a new tax on Americans to fund the “war” on ISIS - to call for the imposition of new sanctions going into the new year. 

Now, on the heels of a “close call” in the Strait of Hormuz where the US claims rockets fired by the Iranians passed within 1,500 yards of the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman, Washington is preparing sanctions against a handful (or two) of companies and individuals tied to Tehran’s ballistic-missile program. 

“The planned action by the Treasury Department is directed at nearly a dozen companies and individuals in Iran, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates,” WSJ reports, adding that “the sanctions being prepared by the Treasury Department relate to two Iran-linked networks alleged to be involved in developing the country’s missile program and include sanctions on many of the individuals involved.” 

"We've been looking for some time‎ at options for additional actions related to Iran's ballistic missile program based on our continued concerns about its activities, including the October 10th launch,” an unnamed White House official said. "We are considering various aspects related to additional designations, as well as evolving diplomatic work that is consistent with our national security interests." 

Here’s the new sanctions list:

  • U.A.E.-based Mabrooka Trading and its founder, Hossein Pournaghshband
  • Hong Kong-based Anhui Land Group 
  • Five officials from Iran’s Ministry of Defense for Armed Forces Logistics, or MODAFL including Sayyed Javad Musavi, a key figure at a MODAFL subsidiary which has been the subject of Treasury Dept. sanctions in the past

Amusingly, Washington is playing the Kim card. Here's The Journal again:

Among the reasons for the potential new sanctions are ties the Treasury is alleging between Iran and North Korea on missile development. This includes Iran buying components from Pyongyang’s state-owned Korea Mining Development Trading Corp., which is sanctioned by both the U.S. and the European Union. 


The U.S. also alleges that Tehran sent technicians to North Korea over the past two years to jointly work with its defense industries on the development of an 80-ton rocket booster.

The "Axis of Evil" is alive and well apparently.

Chris Coons is pleased. “Strict, aggressive, and consistent enforcement is critical to punishing Iran for its destabilizing behavior and making the nuclear deal work,” he said. John McCain, who accused The White House of “turning a blind eye to Iranian saber rattling for fear Iran will walk away from the nuclear deal” after the rocket “incident” on Sunday, along with other war hawks, will likely say the punishment doesn’t go far enough. 

Make no mistake, there are important political implications for Iran as well. "Inside Iran, hard-liners fear that President Hassan Rouhani will use the deal, and the imminent lifting of the nuclear-related sanctions, to bolster his party in the coming parliamentary elections," The New York Times wrote on Wednesday. The same "hard-liners" have in the past derided the Rouhani's nuclear accord.

As WSJ also notes, “Iranian officials have warned the White House in recent months that any such financial penalties would be viewed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a violation of the nuclear accord.” And make no mistake, the Ayatollah isn’t a man who enjoys being embarrassed.

Sure enough, Tehran was out on Thursday calling the new sanctions “arbitrary and illegal.” 

"Iran's missile program has no connection to the (nuclear) agreement," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said. “Iran will resolutely respond to any interfering action by America against its defensive programs.”

All of this speaks to an underlying debate about why the US should be allowed to interfere when sovereign countries pursue the very same technologies that their sworn enemies are pursuing. As a reminder, the US is also staunchly opposed to the sale of Russian S-300 missile defense systems to Tehran. According to Sergei Lavrov, those weapons cannot be used for offensive purposes and yet Washington still insists Iran shouldn't have them. Ayatollah rants notwithstanding, the idea that Tehran would launch a preemptive strike on Israel (or anyone else for that matter) is borderline absurd. One shouldn't simply expect a major world power to sit idly by while the rest of the world makes advances in both offensive and defensive weapons. 

"Secretary of State John Kerry delayed the nuclear deal reached in July in Vienna by days as he haggled with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, over the side issue of whether, and how long, a United Nations resolution banning missile development and testing would remain in place," The Times reminds us. "The Iranians dismissed that part of the accord as soon as it was announced: Nothing, they said, could infringe on their fundamental right to build a 'defensive technology,' intended to counter Saudi Arabia and Israel."

And why should there be impediments to Iran building defensive technology? Why is a weapon a "threat" in the hands of one nation and a "deterrent" in the hands of another? Consider that, along with the fact that American troops have been operating on Iran's western and eastern borders for over a decade. In fact, when it comes to who's a "threat," there's some evidence to suggest that the reason the Quds cooperated with the US in the wake of 9/11 (at least initially, before Tehran's Shiite militias began attacking US troops years later in Iraq), was that Iran feared it was next on Bush's invasion agenda.

Leaving all of that aside, the more immediate question is whether the new sanctions end up derailing the nuclear deal. The accord will almost certainly go into effect, but if implementation is beset by intractable bickering and mutual distrust, one of Obama's defining "achievements" could well disintegrate into a pile of radioactive ashes. More importantly, US-Iran relations could once again backtrack just as Tehran is resurgent on the world stage.