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U.S. moves to restore some Iran sanctions lifted under nuclear deal

President Trump issued an executive order Aug. 6 to reinstate the sanctions on Iran that were dropped following the 2015 nuclear deal. (Video: Reuters)

The Trump administration on Monday moved to reimpose the first round of Iranian trade sanctions that had been suspended under a 2015 nuclear agreement, distancing itself from every other country that signed the deal and marking another decisive moment in the accord’s unraveling.

The renewed sanctions starkly highlighted the divisions between the United States and its allies. The Europeans that were parties to the agreement said they would protect their own companies from legal reprisals and work to maintain Iran’s access to the financial system and its continued export of oil and gas that forms a large share of its income.

“The JCPOA is working and delivering on its goal, namely to ensure that the Iranian programme remains exclusively peaceful,” said a statement from the European Union, Britain, France and Germany, using an acronym for the agreement officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Under President Trump, United States-Iranian relations have taken a decisive turn for the worse. Here's a brief history of the tumultuous relationship. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

Monday’s announcement seemed to foreclose the likelihood that President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would meet anytime soon, although both leaders said they are open to talks. Trump said Iran must significantly change its policies and behavior for sanctions to be lifted, and Rouhani said the United States should be prepared to discuss compensation for decades of intervention in Iran.

“We urge all nations to take such steps to make clear that the Iranian regime faces a choice,” said Trump in a statement. “Either change its threatening, destabilizing behavior and reintegrate with the global economy, or continue down a path of economic isolation.”

Rouhani slammed U.S. sanctions as ineffective, and boasted of Iran’s ties to the European Union, Russia and China, saying Beijing is Tehran’s “closest financial ally.”

The sanctions that take effect Tuesday, 90 days after Trump withdrew the United States from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, prohibit Iran from using U.S. dollars, the primary currency for international financial transactions and oil purchases. Trade in metals and sales of Iranian-made cars are banned, and permits allowing the import of Iranian carpets and food, such as pistachios, are revoked. So are licenses that have allowed Tehran to buy U.S. and European aircraft and parts — a restriction that comes just days after Iran acquired five new commercial planes from Europe.

The resumption of sanctions leaves the nuclear agreement, once heralded as a historic breakthrough, on its final legs. Sanctions on petroleum will be restored Nov. 5. U.S. officials have advised other governments to begin winding down their purchases of Iranian oil, eventually to zero, to starve Tehran of its chief source of foreign income.

Those who don’t comply could be subject to “severe consequences,” Trump said.

Trump administration’s use of sanctions draws concern

The sanctions are the latest action Trump has taken to reverse programs that formed the backbone of President Barack Obama’s legacy, including the Paris climate agreement and a trade pact with Pacific Rim nations. Trump’s antipathy toward the Iran deal has been a theme since the 2016 campaign, when he derided it as the worst in history and insisted that he could secure better terms that also would address Iran’s support of militant groups, its ballistic missile tests and human rights abuses.

A number of prominent hawks on Iran are in the administration’s upper reaches, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton. They rarely mention Iran without calling it the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Pompeo disparages the Iranians as the region’s leading “bad actors” who are guilty of all sorts of “malign activities,” including support for militants in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

In a background call to reporters, senior administration officials said Monday that their goal is twofold: to renegotiate the nuclear agreement and to change the government’s behavior. They openly sided with Iranian protesters who are unhappy with the faltering economy and social issues, but stopped short of calling on Iranians to rise up against their government, which they say has spent heavily on militias around the region instead of lifting up the fortunes of its citizens.

“None of this needs to happen,” one official said, adding, “The Iranian people should not suffer because of their regime’s hegemonic regional ambitions.”

In his statement, Trump slammed the Obama administration’s agreement, saying: “The JCPOA, a horrible, one-sided deal, failed to achieve the fundamental objective of blocking all paths to an Iranian nuclear bomb, and it threw a lifeline of cash to a murderous dictatorship that has continued to spread bloodshed, violence, and chaos.”

Trump said he remains “open to reaching a more comprehensive deal that addresses the full range of the regime’s malign activities, including its ballistic missile program and its support for terrorism.” And he hinted at his desire for the theocratic rulers of Iran to be replaced.

“The United States continues to stand with the long-suffering Iranian people, who are the rightful heirs to Iran’s rich heritage and the real victims of the regime’s policies,” he said. “We look forward to the day when the people of Iran, and all people across the region, can prosper together in safety and peace.”

In an interview on Fox News Channel, Bolton said Trump is serious in offering to meet with Iranian officials to talk about Tehran’s nuclear program and regional activities.

“If the ayatollahs want to get out from under the squeeze, they should come and sit down,” Bolton said.

But Rouhani seemed to dismiss the idea, suggesting that sanctions must be lifted before Iran would return to the negotiating table.

“When someone stabs you and then says, ‘Let’s talk,’ he is the one who should take out the knife in the first place,” he said in a televised speech.

One of the first reactions from Tehran came from Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who zeroed in on sanctions affecting the sale of commercial aircraft. Administration officials said Iran uses civilian planes to carry equipment and supplies to militias throughout the region.

“Trump Administration wants the world to believe it’s concerned about the Iranian people,” Zarif tweeted. “Yet the very first sanctions it reimposed have canceled licenses for sales of 200+ passenger jets under absurd pretexts, endangering ordinary Iranians. US hypocrisy knows no bounds.”

How killing the nuclear deal could make it easier for Iran to pursue the bomb in secret

Reaction in Congress was divided along party lines.

Democrats warned of the dangers of reimposing sanctions. “It risks reopening a resolved conflict, and will divide us further from our European allies,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), who helped shepherd the deal through Congress.

Republicans welcomed the move as a brake on Iranian aggression. “Make Iran Great Again,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). “Dump the Ayatollah!”

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is charged with monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, has said in 11 consecutive reports that Tehran remains in compliance with the commitments it made.

The White House hopes the renewed sanctions will provide leverage over Tehran as it grapples with a collapsing economy. The Iranian rial has been in a free fall as the deadline for the first round of sanctions approached.

Iran’s Central Bank said it would ease foreign exchange rules to prop up its currency and allow access to hard currency at market rates. The rial has lost about half its value since the spring.

The administration officials said Iran’s economy has lagged in large part because of widespread corruption and domination by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. One official noted that almost 100 foreign companies have announced their intention to leave the Iranian market.

“Foreign investors in Iran never know whether they are facilitating commerce or terrorism,” the official told reporters.

The sanctions will squeeze the Iranian economy even more, and Tehran has started talking about the need to return to a war footing with a “resistance” economy. The White House insists that it will ensure that sanctions are enforced.

“We are very intent on using these financial sanctions to great economic leverage,” another administration official said, characterizing the economy as on a downward spiral even before the sanctions decision was made. “There’s no question financial sanctions are going to continue to bring significant financial pressure against the world’s largest state sponsor of terror.”

Anne Gearan and Felicia Sonmez in Washington and Erin Cunningham in Istanbul contributed to this report.