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The international implications of new U.S. sanctions on Iran

The Trump administration announced additional sanctions on Iran Monday, after declaring over the weekend that all United Nation sanctions initially lifted by the Iran nuclear deal had been reimposed. But that “snapback” of UN sanctions was rejected by much of the international community. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special representative for Iran.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the Trump administration announced additional sanctions on Iran, after declaring over the weekend that all U.N. sanctions initially lifted by the Iran nuclear deal had been reimposed.

    But that snapback of U.N. sanctions was rejected by much of the international community.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, the administration calls its policy on Iran maximum pressure, and, today, it's trying to increase that pressure, but it also increased a showdown with its European allies.

    An executive order imposes sanctions on Iran if it sells weapons and on anyone selling weapons to Iran. And the Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce sanctioned Iranians affiliated with Iran's nuclear and missile industries.

    That follows what the U.S. calls the snapback of U.N. sanctions over the weekend. These were the sanctions that were lifted by the signing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. says U.N. sanctions are now reimposed on Iranian weapons sales, ballistic missile tests, and enrichment.

    But the other members of the Security Council and the other signatories of the Iran nuclear deal say the U.S. did not have the legal authority to do that because it left the Iran nuclear deal.

    To talk about all of this, I'm joined by Elliott Abrams, recently named as the State Department's special representative for Iran.

    Elliott Abrams, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    It is not just the Europeans, the Chinese and the Russians who say sanctions have not snapped back at the U.N. The U.N. secretary-general has written a letter saying that he doesn't recognize that the sanctions have snapped back.

    Does that isolate the U.S. and reduce your ability to enforce these sanctions?

  • Elliott Abrams:

    I doubt it.

    Sanctions enforcement really doesn't depend on what spokesmen in foreign ministries or, for that matter, what the secretary-general say.

    It depends on thousands of individual decisions by lawyers, bankers, company executives around the world, who won't want to fall into the trap of U.S. sanctioning.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let me ask about the other part of my question, which is isolation.

    Your critics point out that the E.U. has an arms embargo on Iran, the U.S. has an arms embargo on Iran, and that the practical impact of snapback was minimal, and it wasn't worth breaking with European allies.

  • Elliott Abrams:

    I think, if you look at the executive order that the president signed today, it is even broader than the U.N. arms embargo that did snap back.

    It covers more weapons and weapons systems, and allows us to impose sanctions earlier in the process. They don't have to wait until a weapon is actually delivered.

    You know, when I looked last week at the foreign ministers of Bahrain and the UAE and the prime minister of Israel with the president, we didn't look very isolated, and we don't feel isolated. And we think that, in fact, these sanctions are going to have a very significant impact.

    And what we hear from an awful lot of people, including from the Europeans, for that matter, is that they wish the U.N. arms embargo had been extended. It was the failure of the Security Council and the E.U. 3 to extend the U.N. arms embargo that led us to snap back all of the sanctions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Since the U.S. left the nuclear deal, Iran has stockpiled more uranium and is enriching uranium at a higher rate, which means the time that Iran would need to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon has dropped from 12 months to what experts say is three to four months today.

    If Iran is today closer to a nuclear weapon than it was before the administration left the nuclear deal, how is that achieving your goals?

  • Elliott Abrams:

    If you look at the JCPOA, it is a pathway for Iran to get a nuclear weapon.

    Here is what it can do after five years. And we are, of course, five year in. Here's what it can do after eight-and-a-half years. More. Here's what it can do after 10 years. Here's what it can do after 15 years. It is a pathway to a nuclear weapon.

    And we're saying is, we're going to keep this pressure on until Iran is willing to negotiate a comprehensive deal that actually closes the door to a nuclear weapon for Iran.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I want to take you back to this summer.

    What is the message that Iranian leaders should draw from explosions across Iran, including at the Natanz nuclear facility? Do you believe that those explosions were accidental or deliberate?

  • Elliott Abrams:

    You're asking me to comment on stuff that gets us close to classified information.

    I think, though, that what they should conclude is that there is a fierce determination on the part of many people around the world to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.

    And a series of U.S. presidents, including President Trump, have said, we will not permit them to get to a nuclear weapon. Now, these sanctions are another way of delivering the same message. We are very serious about it, and others in the world are very serious about it. They will not get to a nuclear weapon.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Does that suggest the U.S. or perhaps its ally Israel were behind some of these explosions?

  • Elliott Abrams:

    No, it doesn't suggest anything, except that the Iranians are going down a path that leads nowhere for them or for the Iranian people.

    They will not be permitted to get a nuclear weapon. And everything they're doing down that path only punishes them and the Iranian people, because this is something that, again, a series of presidents from both parties have said with the greatest possible clarity, this will not be permitted.

    They're not acting like a country that's given up on its nuclear ambitions, not at all.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, finally, in the time I have left, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif today said that the book wasn't closed on the chapter of the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.

    The U.S. has said that that killing reestablished deterrence. Does Zarif's line mean that deterrence has not been reestablished?

  • Elliott Abrams:

    I took Zarif's comment as a direct threat, which is a remarkable thing to have coming from the foreign minister of any country.

    I mean, the president has already responded to their threats. And I think what it shows you is that even the foreign minister of Iran is actually now in the business of threatening terrorist attacks. It's pretty disgraceful.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Elliott Abrams, special representative for Iran, thank you very much.

  • Elliott Abrams:

    Thank you.

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