New sanctions that the Trump administration imposed on Friday to punish Tehran’s latest ballistic missile test marked the beginning of what officials called the end of an era in which the United States was “too tolerant of Iran’s bad behavior.”
In what was described as the first in a series of efforts to confront Iran around the globe, the ban on banking transfers was levied against 25 Iranians and companies that officials said assisted in Tehran’s ballistic missile program and support of terrorist groups.
The immediate trigger for the sanctions, which drew from a list of targets drawn up last year by the Obama administration, was Iran’s missile test last Sunday. The exact details of the test remain shrouded in considerable mystery. But the way the two countries jabbed at each other — with the White House saying it would “no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations that threaten our interests,” and Iranian state news media vowing retaliation — had distinct echoes of the darkest days before the July 2015 nuclear accord was reached.
In striking that deal 19 months ago, the Obama administration was gambling that, over time, Washington and Tehran would learn how to manage their differences and cooperate on one or two discrete projects, starting with eliminating the Islamic State. But that era never arrived. And with the announcements on Friday, it became clearer than ever that leaders in both countries now see an advantage in taking a hard line — each betting that the other does not have the stomach for a risky, expensive confrontation.
“The danger is that this is the first stage in an escalation that could culminate in a military confrontation between Iran and the United States, or Iran and Israel,” said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The entire eight years of the Obama administration was an example of unprecedented but largely unreciprocated overtures for cooperation with Iran in the Middle East. The Iranians weren’t interested. And now, the Iranians sense the rest of the world would not line up with the Trump administration.”
The sanctions themselves are unlikely to have a significant effect on Iranian action. They strike at specific companies and arms traders from Iran to Lebanon and China. Mr. Obama took similar steps a year ago, after another Iranian missile test. But by and large, his administration tried to de-escalate tensions — and at one point even assured European banks that, under the nuclear deal, they were free to resume transactions with Iran without fear of American retaliation.
In announcing the new sanctions, the White House made clear that it planned to call out every violation, and respond. The Treasury Department took the unusual step of describing the inner workings of three networks that produce technology for Iran around the globe, in an effort to expose front companies and signal a new level of pressure on Tehran.
“The international community has been too tolerant of Iran’s bad behavior,” said Michael T. Flynn, the president’s national security adviser. “The ritual of convening a United Nations Security Council in an emergency meeting and issuing a strong statement is not enough. The Trump administration will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations that threaten our interests.”
Kate Bauer, a former Treasury official who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the sanctions and the announcements surrounding it were “a way to take back the narrative, to declare that this is not a ‘post-sanctions era.’”
“By providing so much public detail about the networks that feed Iran’s missile program,” she said, “they will cause significant disruption.”
Even inside the White House it is unclear how much further, beyond sanctions, President Trump is willing to take the confrontation. While he suggested during his campaign that he might scrap the nuclear deal, which he described as a “disaster,” both his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and his secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, made clear during their confirmation hearings that the world was better off with the accord, for the next decade at least, because of its prohibitions on Iran amassing enough enriched uranium or separated plutonium to manufacture even a single nuclear weapon.
The Iranians have largely complied with every provision of the deal, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which conducts regular inspections of the nuclear facilities. When small violations have been found, the Iranians have quickly rectified them, including by shipping fuel out of the country.