U.S. Sanctions Iran Over Satellite Rocket Launch

Calling the launch "provocative,” the U.S. Treasury Department responded by targeting companies involved with Iran's ballistic-missile program.

President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a cabinet meeting in Tehran on July 19, 2017.
President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a cabinet meeting in Tehran on July 19, 2017. (Iranian Presidency / AP)

The U.S. has imposed a new round of sanctions on six Iranian firms with ties to Iran’s ballistic-missile program, the Treasury Department announced Friday. The sanctions arrived one day after the Iranian state media said Iran had successfully launched an advanced satellite-carrying rocket into space—one that uses much of the same technology as a long-range ballistic missile. Last month, Pentagon experts claimed the rocket used Thursday—known as the Simorgh—could “shorten a pathway” to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

With these concerns in mind, the U.S. State Department said Thursday that Iran’s test launch violated UN Security Council resolutions, as well as the spirit of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S., and five other world powers. Under the agreement, the U.S. administration is required to report to Congress on the status of Iran’s nuclear program every 90 days. A day before the rocket launch, Trump warned Iran that it could face “big, big problems” if it violated the deal.

While announcing the sanctions on Friday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called the rocket launch “provocative,” adding that the U.S. held “deep concerns with Iran’s continued development and testing of ballistic missiles.” All six firms sanctioned on Friday are either owned or controlled by the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, an organization described by Treasury Department as “central” to the Iranian missile program. The department said the firms are responsible for manufacturing missile components—including liquid propellant, airframes, engines, and guidance and control systems—and conducting missile-related research.

While the U.S. has long feared that Iran is using its missile technology to advance its nuclear capabilities, the JCPOA does not expressly prohibit Iran from conducting missile tests. On Friday, the nation’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, defended the actions of the Iranian space program on Twitter, arguing that it does not develop missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons. “Iran—unlike the U.S.—has complied in good faith with the letter and spirit of JCPOA,” Zarif said, adding that the nation “is not and will not be developing nuclear weapons; so by definition cannot develop anything designed to be capable of delivering them.” The United States’s “rhetoric and actions” on Friday “show[ed] bad faith,” he said.

Indeed, the Trump administration carries a number of reservations about whether Iran has been fully compliant with the JCPOA. Earlier this week, Trump certified that Iran had not violated the deal, but suggested to his aides that he might deny the certification in the future. He later told the Wall Street Journal he would be “surprised” if Iran passed its next review, saying: “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago.” Senior U.S. officials recently told the Associated Press that the Trump administration is pushing for inspections of Iranian military sites, but must first obtain convincing evidence of illicit activity. Trump has also expressed interest in extending the JCPOA—which he once called “the worst deal ever”—beyond its expiration date.

In the meantime, the administration has communicated its concern in the form of sanctions. Earlier this month, the U.S. sanctioned a group of 18 Iranian entities and individuals, including two organizations with alleged ties to the nation’s ballistic-missile program. This week, Congress also approved a sanctions bill targeting Iran, Russia, and North Korea. In order to pass the bill, Trump must agree to a large check on his power that prevents him from loosening or rolling back sanctions without Congress’s approval. The bill now awaits the president’s signature, with the White House offering mixed signals as to whether Trump will sign.