By Nick Wadhams , Margaret Talev , and Kambiz Foroohar
The Trump administration moved to ratchet up pressure on Iran Thursday as the president faces a series of deadlines for decisions on sanctions underpinning the 2015 nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.
The Justice Department said it will establish a “financing and narcoterrorism” team to target Iran’s ally Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. Later in the day, President Donald Trump was scheduled to meet with his national security team before the first deadlines on Iran sanctions come Friday.
While the president plans to extend waivers on sanctions against Iran that were suspended under the nuclear deal, he is also preparing new sanctions targeting Iran for ballistic missile, human rights and cyber violations. Those moves are intended to increase pressure without abrogating the nuclear accord that Iran reached with the U.S. and five other world powers, according to two administration officials familiar with the matter.
“I am expecting new sanctions on Iran,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said at the White House Thursday, without giving further details. “You can expect there will be more sanctions coming.”
Measures to isolate and pressure Iran partly “by spotlighting human rights abuses, corruption, support to terrorism and militant proxies, progress on their ballistic missile program, which is still subject to UN sanctions — all of that can be undertaken right away,” Juan Zarate, a former assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes at the Treasury Department, said during a congressional hearing Wednesday.
Decision on Thursday
Trump will make a final decision Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters earlier in the day at the State Department. It wasn’t immediately clear if the decision would be announced at that time.
“He’s going to get to make that decision this afternoon,” Tillerson said. “We have a session with him over at the Oval today.”
The Justice Department’s move seemed aimed at boosting resources for a program, known as Project Cassandra, targeting Hezbollah’s drug trafficking and related operations. In that sense, it would be similar to administration efforts to disrupt financing flows, even relatively minor ones, that benefit North Korea’s government, which is also heavily sanctioned by the U.S.
“The team will initiate prosecutions that will restrict the flow of money to foreign terrorist organizations as well as disrupt violent international drug trafficking operations,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.
Nuclear-related sanctions that were waived under the 2015 deal stem from four separate pieces of legislation. Those laws all grant the president the power to waive the restrictions but set different timetables for how frequently he must do so. As it happens, those deadlines all fall due in the next several days.
Trump must officially decide by Friday whether to continue relief from sanctions that cut off Iran’s central bank from the global financial system. Waiving those restrictions was required under the agreement that Iran reached with world powers in exchange for curbing its nuclear program, and reimposing them would effectively scuttle the deal.
The administration officials, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, both stressed that no final decision had been made and said the president’s plans could change at any time.
The administration vocally supported street protests this month by Iranians against economic mismanagement and the political system, which led to at least 20 deaths and about 1,000 arrests. Trump’s United Nations envoy, Nikki Haley, called an emergency session of the Security Council last week to discuss the demonstrations, and the president has praised the bravery of Iranians in the streets “as they try to take back their corrupt government.”
Trump has also continued to rail against the nuclear accord, calling it the “worst deal ever.” In October, in a measure required every 90 days under U.S. law, Trump declined to certify that the agreement was in U.S. national security interests.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been working on legislation to keep the nuclear deal in place but tighten restrictions on Iran by amending the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, or Inara.
Congress passed that law in 2015 as a way to gain some leverage over the nuclear agreement reached during the Obama administration. The accord wasn’t written or signed by the participating countries as a treaty, which probably would have been rejected by the U.S. Congress and by lawmakers in Tehran.
The decision to extend the waivers isn’t a surprise because reimposing the sanctions would sabotage the nuclear deal and render irrelevant the discussions the administration is having with Congress about amending Inara. All of the other participants in the deal — including U.S. allies in Europe — have said Iran is honoring its end of the agreement and that they oppose ending or reopening it.
In an interview with the Associated Press last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said changes to the law could come this week or next.
“The president said he is either going to fix it or cancel it,” Tillerson said in the interview, according to the AP. “We are in the process of trying to deliver on the promise he made to fix it.”
— With assistance by Chris Strohm