WASHINGTON — The Trump administration ordered sanctions against more than two dozen people and companies from the Persian Gulf to China Friday in retaliation for Iran's recent ballistic missile test, increasing pressure on Tehran without directly undercutting a landmark nuclear deal with the country.
Those targeted by the Treasury Department include Iranian, Lebanese, Emirati and Chinese individuals and firms involved in procuring ballistic missile technology for Iran. They are now prohibited from doing any business in the United States or with American citizens. The overall impact is likely to be minimal on Iran's economy, though some of the people and companies have relationships with Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guard military forces.
"We acted swiftly and decisively today," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. Although he acknowledged that much of the legwork occurred under President Barack Obama, he said the action serves as punishment to "what we've seen in the last couple of days" from Tehran.
It is the first package of penalties against Iran of Donald Trump's new presidency, reflecting Trump's insistence on a tougher stance toward Tehran. Throughout his election campaign, Trump accused the Obama administration of being weak on Iran, and he vowed to crack down if elected.
Iran has acknowledged that it conducted a missile test. But it insists the test didn't violate the 2015 nuclear accord it reached with the United States and five other world powers, or a subsequent U.N. Security Council resolution extending an eight-year ban on ballistic missiles "designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons." Washington, under Obama and Trump, and its Western allies agree the matter is separate from the nuclear pact, but maintain that the missile tests violate the U.N. ban.
Iran already has a formidable arsenal of thousands of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel and other U.S. allies in the Middle East, as well as American bases, and has undertaken a series of tests in the year-and-a-half since the nuclear agreement. The U.S. said the latest launch was of a medium-range missile, and an American defense official described it as failing re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
In a tweet Friday morning, Trump tweeted, "Iran is playing with fire — they don't appreciate how 'kind' President Obama was to them. Not me."
Despite the tough talk, the new sanctions represent a continuation of the Obama administration's limited punishment for Iran's ballistic missile activity and avoid a direct showdown with Tehran over the nuclear deal itself. The sanction targets were drawn up before Obama left office and don't affect Iran Air, a big Iranian bank or any major government entity, making it unclear how effective they'll prove as deterrents.
None of the new penalties reversed Obama's suspension of sanctions under the nuclear pact. Obama himself promised after the deal to continue going after Iran with non-nuclear penalties in response to missile launches, terror support or human rights abuses, and did so in January and March of last year.
"This is part of a much broader strategy and merely a sign of coming attractions," said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who advises the administration and Congress on Iran-related issues. "The focus is clearly on missile procurement networks and represents a first step in the administration's escalation against Iran's missile program support for terrorism and other malign activities."
Iran said it would be undeterred.
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted Friday that his country was "unmoved by threats as we derive security from our people. We'll never initiate war, but we can only rely on our own means of defense."
"Our missile drills are a show of our might," added Tehran Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami. "We are living in a world of wolves — wolves such as the arrogant government of America. In this world of wolves, should we remain unarmed and they do whatever damn things they want? No way! This will never happen!"
At times, Tehran's leaders have argued that any new U.S. sanctions would violate the nuclear deal.
The agreement compelled Iran to curtail its enrichment of uranium, a material that can be used in atomic bombs, and other nuclear-related activity. In exchange, Iran received broad relief from U.S. and international sanctions that were crippling its economy. Trump has ridiculed the arrangement as a terrible deal, but America's closest allies in Europe as well as Russia and China are committed to it.
In the final days of the nuclear negotiations, Tehran agreed to an eight-year extension of a ban on ballistic work. That understanding was codified in a U.N. Security Council resolution passed in parallel, but separately, to the nuclear accord.
In Washington, lawmakers who have sought a sterner policy toward Iran applauded Trump's decision.
"It is a new day in U.S.-Iran relations," Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Republican chairman.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said the "swift and decisive response proves that our new administration is serious about holding the Iranian regime accountable for its illicit behavior."