The Trump administration hit Iran with new sanctions on Friday while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was denouncing Iran's growing influence on a visit to Lebanon.
The Treasury Department said the sanctions target 31 Iranian scientists, technicians and companies affiliated with Iran's Organization for Defense Innovation and Research, which had been at the forefront of the country's former nuclear weapons program. Officials said those targeted continue to work in Iran's defense sector and form a core of experts who could reconstitute that program. Fourteen people, including the head of the organization, and 17 subsidiary operations are covered by the sanctions.
The sanctions freeze any assets that those targeted may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from any transactions with them. But, officials say the move will also make those targeted “radioactive internationally” by making people of any nationality who do business with them subject to U.S. penalties under so-called secondary sanctions.
U.S. secondary sanctions apply to foreign businesses and individuals and can include fines, loss of presence in the American economy, asset freezes and travel bans. Officials said the threat of such sanctions will significantly limit the ability of those designated to travel outside of Iran, participate in research conferences or be hired for other jobs.
“Individuals working for Iran's proliferation-related programs — including scientists, procurement agents, and technical experts — should be aware of the reputational and financial risk they expose themselves to by working for Iran's nuclear program,” the State Department said in a statement.
The move is unusual because the sanctions are not being imposed based on what those targeted are currently doing.
Instead, they were imposed because of their past work on nuclear weapons development and the potential that they would be at the forefront of any Iranian attempt to restart that program. Iran pledged not to resume atomic weapons work under the 2015 nuclear deal and the U.N.'s atomic watchdog says Iran continues to comply with the agreement.
The U.S., however, pulled out of the agreement last year, saying it was fatally flawed and allowed Iran to gradually begin advanced atomic work over time. The Trump administration has re-imposed U.S. sanctions that were eased under the terms of the deal and is continuing to impose new ones as part a pressure campaign to force Iran to renegotiate the agreement.
Officials said the decision to move ahead with the sanctions was in part based on Israel's recovery of what it and the U.S. call a “secret archive” of documents from Iran that they say shows Iran deliberately preserved and stored its early nuclear weapons work, known as the “Amad plan,” with the intent to someday resume development of a bomb.
“As the world has learned from the recently-discovered secret Iranian nuclear archive — which revealed the names of some of the individuals sanctioned today — unanswered questions remain regarding Iran's undisclosed past nuclear-related activities under the Amad plan, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile,” the State Department said in a statement.
The announcement came as Pompeo was in Beirut warning Lebanese officials to curb the influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement. He says Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and should not be allowed to set policies or wield power despite its presence in Lebanon's parliament and government.