U.S. President Donald Trump will increase sanctions on Iran in the coming hours, while again stopping short of reimposing sanctions intended to push the Tehran regime to give up nuclear weapons research, according to multiple news agency reports. The president was meeting with his national security team on the Iran question late Thursday.
By law, the administration must certify every 90 days whether Iran is complying with a 2015 agreement it signed with the international community to limit its nuclear program. The most recent certification deadline is Friday.
In October, Trump said Tehran had failed to live up to the spirit of the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, but he held off on reimposing severe sanctions on Iran's energy industry that had existed previously.
Trump's decision is bound to be a disappointment for exile groups and human rights activists that had hoped for tougher measures from an administration that has voiced strong support for anti-government protests in many Iranian cities and a president who has harshly criticized the Iran nuclear deal.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, in answer to a VOA question at Thursday's White House press briefing, suggested that Trump's actions would get the Tehran regime's attention.
'Very clear' about need for changes
"The president has been very clear that many aspects of the Iran deal need to be changed," Mnuchin said. "There are many activities outside of the Iran deal, whether it be ballistic missiles, whether it be other issues, that we will continue to sanction, that are outside the JCPOA — human rights violations — we couldn't be more focused."
"We have as many sanctions on Iran today as we have on any other country in the process, and we will continue to look at things," Mnuchin told VOA.
Hours before Trump's decision was due, he spoke by phone about the importance of the Iran nuclear deal with French President Emmanuel Macron. A French readout of the conversation said Macron said the accord should be respected by all sides, and he stressed the importance of continued dialogue with Tehran about its ballistic missile program, according to Reuters.
A White House readout of the conversation said only that Trump had "underscored that Iran must stop its destabilizing activity in the region."
Ray Takeyh, Iran specialist and senior fellow for Middle East studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said Trump was caught between keeping in tune with allies who want to preserve the accord and heeding intelligence estimates of Iran's destabilizing role in the Middle East.
"Iran's domestic repression, regional aggression and proliferation are a problem, and the challenge is trying to balance these concerns with a punitive policy," he said in a telephone interview.
Takeyh, formerly a State Department adviser on Iran, told VOA the quandary facing Trump is that in the absence of European support, his ability to sanction the Tehran government is limited. "How do you unravel an arms control agreement that has the support of a number of parties that were members to it, even though that arms deal is profoundly defective?" he asked.
Europeans back deal
Hours earlier, European parties to the deal made clear that they stood firmly in support of the JCPOA, leaving Trump diplomatically isolated.
After a meeting in Brussels, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that while there were concerns about Iran's development of ballistic missiles and other activities in the Middle East, those should be dealt with separately.
Iran has maintained its nuclear program is solely peaceful in nature. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attended the EU meeting but did not appear alongside the other diplomats as they spoke to reporters. On Wednesday, however, Zarif accused the United States of implementing destructive policies.
CFR's Takeyh said the administration's challenge on Iran would be in following up its tough talk with effective policy. "Its rhetoric has been fine. Now it has to deliver results," he said. "If they are going to shrink Iran's imperial footprint, they have to demonstrate that it is actually happening."
The JCPOA was put in place through a U.N. Security Council resolution with monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has certified that Iran is complying with its responsibilities that include limiting its enrichment of uranium and dismantling equipment.
VOA's Steve Herman contributed to this report.