Sanctions levied against Iran after its recent ballistic missile test may reflect President Donald Trump’s recent bellicose language, but it’s likely the work designating those targeted was begun under the Obama administration, according to experts.
The U.S. on Friday morning announced new punitive sanctions against individuals and organizations helping boost Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as its militant armed forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in response to a ballistic missile test conducted 140 miles east of Tehran on Sunday.
Trump appeared to portray the action as a major policy change. “Iran is playing with fire – they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them,” he tweeted Friday. “Not me!”
Yet at least some of the work related to the sanctions likely began under Obama, which undertook similar measures against Iran.
“Certainly, based on past precedent, designations can take time,” said Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, in an interview. “But it’s expected — consistent with what the Obama administration has done in the past. It’s not surprising given Iran has continued to test ballistic missiles.”
While Davenport couldn’t be sure that the vetting had begun before President Trump took office, it would make sense, she said. “The Obama administration left open the possibility of additional designations.”
As part of the new sanctions, the Treasury Department placed 13 people and 12 companies on a list of “specifically designated nationals” — meaning U.S. citizens and permanent residents cannot do business with them.
Eric Lorber, a senior associate at the Financial Integrity Network with experience advising clients on compliance with the Office of Foreign Assets Control, agreed the Obama administration had likely “at least identified” possible targets for future designation. “It looks fairly straightforward,” he told The Intercept during an interview.
Treasury uses certain “tags” to explain why people and organizations get added to the list. In this case, Treasury connected these new additions to terrorism, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and ballistic missile development.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is not currently listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department — though lawmakers have tried to change that several times, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in early January.
The sanctions notably include not just Iranian individuals and corporations but Chinese ones, too. “We’ve seen this before,” Lorber said. “In China, certain companies and individuals provide services and equipment for Iran’s ballistic missile program.”
By adding them to the list, the U.S. is discouraging Chinese participation in Iran’s escalating weapons testing, he said
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, did not directly confirm the sanctions had been worked on during President Obama’s tenure, but said they “had been staffed and approved” and “were in the pipeline” for some time during a press conference on Friday afternoon. He noted the sanctions were a direct response to Iran’s ballistic missile test last Sunday.
The announcement also came after President Trump’s national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, brazenly said Iran was “put on notice” — a statement President Trump echoed on Twitter.
“The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over,” Flynn said in a statement.
According to Davenport, the United Nations Security Council will likely conduct its own investigation into whether or not the missile testing violated UN security resolutions. The council met on Tuesday to discuss the missile test at the United States’s request. At the time, the State Department was still determining whether or not the test violated security resolutions currently in place.
According to the State Department, the test involved a medium-range missile that was designed to be capable of delivering a nuclear weapon.
A State Department official confirmed to The Intercept that the United States considers the episode to be “in defiance” of the UN resolutions. “This launch was a destabilizing factor in the region,” the official said.