WASHINGTON – The Trump administration on Monday moved to reimpose the first round of Iranian trade sanctions that had been suspended under the 2015 nuclear agreement, distancing itself from every other country that signed the accord and putting its future in jeopardy.
U.S. officials said the sanctions that have been waived for the past 2½ years will be snapped back officially on Tuesday morning at one minute past midnight.
From that moment on, Iran will be prohibited from using U.S. dollars, the primary currency for international financial transactions and oil purchases. Trade in metals and sales of Iranian-made cars will be banned. Permits allowing the import of Iranian carpets and food, such as pistachios, will be revoked. So will licenses that have allowed Tehran to buy U.S. and European aircraft and parts — a restriction that comes just days after Iran completed the acquisition of five new commercial planes from Europe.
Those who don't comply could be subject to "severe consequences," President Donald Trump said in a statement. That was directed at European governments that expressed regret over the U.S. sanctions, and vowed to protect their own firms from legal U.S. reprisals.
The resumption of sanctions leaves the Iranian nuclear agreement, once heralded as a historic breakthrough, on its final legs. As Trump ordered in May when he withdrew the U.S. from the accord, sanctions on petroleum will be restored in another 90 days, on Nov. 4. U.S. officials have advised governments around the world to begin winding down their purchases of Iranian oil, eventually to zero.
The Iranian sanctions are the latest in a series of actions Trump has taken to reverse programs that formed the backbone of President Barack Obama's legacy. During the 2016 campaign, he frequently derided the nuclear deal with Iran as one of the worst in history, insisting he could secure better terms.
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, in the same breath, the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. Pompeo disparages the Iranians as "bad actors" in the region guilty of all sorts of "malign activities," including support for militants in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
In a background call to reporters, senior administration officials said that the goal of the renewed sanctions is twofold: to renegotiate the nuclear agreement and to change the government's behavior. They openly sided with Iranian protesters unhappy with the faltering economy and social issues, but stopped just short of calling on Iranians to rise up against their government.
"The president has been very clear," said one official. "None of this needs to happen. … The Iranian people should not suffer because of their regime's hegemonic regional ambitions.
In his statement, Trump slammed the Obama administration's "horrible" agreement and declared himself receptive to a replacement for the accord officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
In a gesture aimed at European countries that consider the deal vital to their security but remain concerned about Iran's other activities, Trump said: "As we continue applying maximum economic pressure on the Iranian regime, I remain 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. The United States welcomes the partnership of like-minded nations in these efforts."
Like others in his administration, Trump hinted at his desire for a different government to replace the theocratic rulers of Iran, without directly calling for regime change.
"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."
Bolton said Trump is serious in offering to meet with Iranian officials to talk about Tehran's nuclear program and regional activities.
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 ferry 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."
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. Dick Durbin, D-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 Graham, R-S.C. "Dump the Ayatollah!"