Obama administration preparing new sanctions
By ASA FITCH and JAY SOLOMON
Updated Dec. 31, 2015 2:37 p.m. ET
Mr. Rouhani’s comments, made on his official Twitter account Thursday, cast fresh doubts on the prospects for the U.S. and Iran to successfully implement the landmark nuclear agreement reached last July.
The Obama administration has said it could begin removing sanctions on Tehran as early as January since Iran has begun taking steps to roll back its nuclear program.
Mr. Rouhani said Thursday such sanctions are illegal and that Tehran will take steps to retaliate, including accelerating the pace of its missile program.
“If U.S. continues its illegitimate interference with Iran’s right to defend itself, a new program will be devised to enhance missile capabilities,” the Iranian president said. “We have never negotiated regarding our defense capabilities including our missile program and will not accept any restrictions in this regard.”
The Obama administration has long said that the nuclear agreement doesn’t prevent the U.S. from imposing sanctions on Iranian entities allegedly involved in missile development, as well as those that support international terrorism and human-rights abuses.
The U.S. Treasury Department is preparing to blacklist nearly one dozen companies and individuals in Iran, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates for their alleged role in supporting the Iranian missile program.
“We’re not going to respond to every comment from Iranian officials,” a State Department official said Thursday. “We have long taken actions to counter the threats from Iran’s missile program and will continue to do so, including working closely with our allies in the region to bolster their defenses against such threats.”
The missile-related sanctions would be the first since the July agreement was reached. U.S. and European officials said they were optimistic Tehran wouldn’t take any radical steps to blow up the deal.
During the nuclear negotiations the U.S. and its partners sought to construct the deal in a way that would allow a range of lighter sanctions for smaller breaches of the accord.
However critics of the deal have argued that Iranian hardball tactics would force the U.S. to chose between repeatedly overlooking smaller infractions or risking a major confrontation with Tehran that could cripple the deal.
“The first reaction of any country submitted to sanctions is posturing,” France’s ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, said on Twitter. “The real one comes later and discreetly.”
The U.S. wasn’t alone in its push for a response to Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests.
French officials said in December they were very attentive to Iran’s actions. France, the U.K. and Germany in October backed the U.S. call for the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions committee to take action over the missile test.
One European diplomat said Thursday the tests clearly breached two existing U.N. resolutions, including July’s Security Council decision endorsing the nuclear deal. “I just hope that it will not jeopardize the rest” of the deal, the diplomat said.
In theory, the EU could match the U.S. moves on sanctions, but diplomats said that was unlikely. There was no official response from the EU on the U.S. plans.
Iran has raised the possibility in recent days that it would take the U.S. to an international body empowered by the U.N. Security Council, called the Joint Commission, to arbitrate disputes that emerge as part of the nuclear agreement.
Iranian diplomats have specifically cited new U.S. visa legislation as a violation of the nuclear agreement. It requires all foreign nationals who have visited Iran, as well as Syria, in the past decade to obtain a visa before entering the U.S.
“If this law is applied, we will put forward a request to the Joint Commission, because the law goes against the nuclear accord,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, said this month.
The recent Iranian missile tests and the U.N. ruling that they violated Security Council resolutions threaten what had already been a fragile rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran in the aftermath of the nuclear deal.
“Publication of such false reports under the current circumstances is more a psychological operation and is questionable,” Revolutionary Guards spokesman Ramezan Sharif said Thursday, according to the Guards’ official news website sepahnews.ir.
Tests, military exercises and detentions of vessels around the crucial Strait of Hormuz have often taken place during times of heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. About a third of the world’s oil trade goes through the narrow passageway.
Despite signs of political strain—and repeated denunciations of U.S. policy by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—the substantive steps Iran and other countries committed to under the nuclear deal have progressed on schedule.
The International Atomic Energy Agency in mid-December issued a report on the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, determining that scientists had done research on nuclear weapons until 2009.
Iran also made some headway on several steps it must take to secure sanctions relief, including decommissioning thousands of enrichment centrifuges, removing the reactor core at its Arak nuclear facility near Tehran and reducing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.
Mr. Kerry said this week that Iran had shipped about 25,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium to Russia, including almost all of its 20%-enriched uranium. Iranian officials said they received about 140 tons of minimally processed yellowcake uranium from Russia in exchange.