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U.S. Unilaterally Reinstates Sanctions On Iran In Attempt To Change Its Behavior


The Trump administration says it will be relentless with sanctions on Iran. And a new round of sanctions took effect today. But the president says he's moving cautiously when it comes to oil. He's letting some of the biggest buyers of Iranian oil continue importing for now. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the administration is having a hard time stepping up pressure on Iran without international support.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Even as he announced that China, India and other major Iranian oil importers are exempt from U.S. sanctions for now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was talking tough.


MIKE POMPEO: The regime has a choice. It can either do a 180-degree turn from its outlaw course of action and act like a normal country. Or it can see its economy crumble.

KELEMEN: He's laid out 12 demands that go well beyond getting Iran to curtail its nuclear program. The U.S. wants Iran to stop supporting Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthi rebels in Yemen and militias in Iraq. He's also calling on Iran to withdraw forces from Syria.


POMPEO: Our ultimate goal is to convince the regime to abandon its current revolutionary course.

KELEMEN: And the U.S. continues to increase its demands. The head of his Iran Action Group, Brian Hook is criticizing Iran's domestic policies and says Iranians are fed up with the mismanagement of the economy.

BRIAN HOOK: We agree with the Iranian people on all of these things - that they should do more to help the poor. They should get their environmental system under control. And they should stop spending money in places like Syria and Iraq and Yemen.

KELEMEN: Administration officials say this is a very different approach than the Obama administration took. There's another big difference, says Elizabeth Rosenberg, who served in Obama's Treasury Department and is now with the Center for a New American Security.

ELIZABETH ROSENBERG: The United States is going it alone this time. They are taking these actions independently without traditional security allies, without the close coordination of Iran's major oil consumers. Those are the ones that have the most leverage economically over Iran.

KELEMEN: And they still support the Iran nuclear deal. The Trump administration has managed to cut off nearly a half of Iran's oil sales since May. But Rosenberg says now comes the hard part.

ROSENBERG: Without partners to enforce its sanctions, the United States has a Herculean task of enforcement ahead of that to try and keep these measures buttoned up and everyone moving in the direction it wants them to go, which is away from Iran.

KELEMEN: Eight importers of Iranian oil have been granted six-month waivers from U.S. sanctions. They are China, India, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey. The U.S. is also providing some exemptions to Iraq, a fragile nation and U.S. ally in the region that relies on trade with Iran. Administration officials won't say how much oil will continue to flow. And President Trump is pushing back at Iran hawks who say he's giving Iran too much leeway.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't want to drive the oil prices in the world up, so I'm not looking to be a great hero and bring it down to zero immediately. I could get the Iran oil down to zero immediately, but it would cause a shock to the market. I don't want to lift oil prices.

KELEMEN: Trump administration officials also insist that Iran won't be able to use any oil revenue to fund proxy militias. Money will be held in escrow accounts to be used for legitimate trade - for humanitarian goods, for instance. That's something else U.S. Treasury officials will have to monitor. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLAZO'S "EARLY ORANGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.