Trump Admin's Last-Minute Iran Sanctions Meant to Boost Biden Policy Options, Official Says

Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei
Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei / Getty Images
January 14, 2021

The Trump administration is waging a last-minute effort to slap wide-ranging sanctions on Iran, an effort that one current U.S. official said is beneficial to the incoming Biden administration as it formulates its policies toward the Islamic Republic.

The latest salvo came Wednesday, when the Treasury Department announced a range of new sanctions on Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei's vast financial empire. A senior U.S. official familiar with the matter told the Washington Free Beacon that more sanctions are in the works and are likely to be announced in the coming days. The actions, the source said, are not meant to hamstring the incoming Biden administration, as some in the media have speculated, but provide it with a range of bargaining chips to play as it pursues renewed negotiations with Tehran. Trump officials believe the more individual sanctions for the Biden administration to use as leverage, the better.

"If people are violating U.S. sanctions you should go after them. The dates should be irrelevant," said the senior U.S. official, refuting claims the measures are meant to make diplomacy more difficult for the next administration. "We do not believe we are tying the hands of the Biden administration."

As Iran continues its support for regional terror groups and charges forward with the enrichment of uranium, the key material in a nuclear weapon, the Trump administration says its sanctions create room for the Biden administration to reengage in diplomacy. Many of these measures could be wound back by the next administration if it is able to convince Iran to scale back its nuclear work and recommit to promises made under the 2015 nuclear agreement. The last-minute barrage of sanctions is just one tool to pressure Iran into returning to the bargaining table, the official said. The Trump administration has always maintained that its tough sanctions campaign is meant to force Iran into negotiating a revamped nuclear deal.

Four rounds of Iran sanctions have been implemented in just the past month, according to the State Department. They targeted at least 35 individuals and entities tied to Iran's support for terrorism, human rights abuses, nuclear proliferation, and other malign activities. The most recent sanctions hit two of Iran's most visible conglomerates, both of which are controlled by Khamenei and used as a slush fund for him and his senior leadership. Through sanctions, the United States can pressure Iran into making serious concessions—a goal shared by Joe Biden and his foreign policy team.

"That doesn't tie their hands and it doesn't box them in. It gives them cards to play," the current U.S. official said. "We think we're actually helping a future administration."

Iran is playing a similar game with its very public nuclear moves that have created panic among Western nations, most notably European powers that still remain party to the deal. Tehran desires sanctions relief and is using its revamped nuclear program to pressure the United States and its allies into granting it. Iran is "trying to create chips for itself for the negotiating game that's about to start," the official said. "From our view, we've been creating chips for the Biden administration in that negotiation that it obviously seeks."

A State Department spokesman told the Free Beacon the new sanctions are "aimed at denying the regime the money and resources needed to fund its malign activities."

"Sanctions relief, the reestablishment of full diplomatic and commercial relations with the United States, and U.S. economic cooperation can only begin when we see that the regime is serious about changing its behavior and ending its aggressive and subversive activities in the region," the State Department spokesman said. "Our sanctions force Iran to choose between ceasing its destabilizing policies or facing greater economic pressure and isolation, and increased opposition from its own population."

Foreign Policy magazine recently claimed the administration's last-minute foreign policy push is about "boxing in the incoming Biden administration." A senior administration official quoted in the piece referred to the actions as "fire sale diplomacy." The report, however, conceded the actions "won't outright prevent President-elect Joe Biden from rolling back President Donald Trump's foreign policies."

One veteran foreign policy hand described the hand-wringing as laughable.

"The second you put your hand on the Bible you have all the political power of the U.S. government," said James Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation. "On foreign policy, you have way more leeway than you do on domestic issues. On day one, it's your game, baby."

Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury Department official and sanctions expert, said that the Biden administration won't want to lift all sanctions on Iran immediately.

"Trying to deny that Iran supports terrorism for sanctions that are built on terrorism grounds, it's very hard to prove that they're not," said Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. "It's hard to deny that Iran is involved in supporting various terror groups and that's not going to change."

Published under: Iran , Sanctions