On paper, the 16 companies registered to the 15th-floor office-tower suite of a building in Hong Kong appeared indistinguishable from the thousands of humdrum firms operating within the glass-and-steel high-rises of the city. But according to the U.S. Treasury Department, all these firms, with names like True Honour Holdings and Alpha Effort Limited, were front companies for the Islamic Republic—creative attempts by Iran to evade sanctions on the purchase of military equipment, which were imposed on the country over its missile program back in 2011.
On May 8, President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal negotiated by Iran, the United States, and five other nations. That decision set off a scramble by Tehran to stave off the sanctions that would snap back into effect, as the United States began moving to reimpose them and bring other governments to heel. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised that the United States would apply “unprecedented financial pressure” through sanctions if Iran failed to curb its nuclear and weapons programs and rein in its regional meddling.
Going forward, Trump may decide against threatening U.S. allies to force them to abide by restrictions on trade with Iran. Tehran may decide to swallow its pride and agree to reopen negotiations to give Trump the supposedly better deal he has demanded rather than endure heightened sanctions. Hardliners in both Washington and Tehran will do their best to sink both possibilities. Iran’s ability to resist U.S. sanctions, the world’s ability to ignore them, and Washington’s ability to enforce them anyway will each play a key role in the calculations of international leaders over the coming months.