Photographer: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Editorial Board

Trump's Chance to Act on Iran

The U.S. can’t ignore Tehran’s latest missile test, even if it has to go it alone on sanctions.

Iran’s recent test of a medium-range ballistic missile is an early indicator that it doesn’t fear the bellicose rhetoric of Donald Trump any more than it did the passive approach of Barack Obama. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s immediate response -- National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said the U.S. is “officially putting Iran on notice” -- seems straight out of the Obama playbook.

The president needs to get beyond his vague campaign statements about standing up to Iran. When the regime breaches its obligations under the 2015 nuclear pact -- or even tests its boundaries -- the U.S. needs to be ready with specific penalties.

Iran says its ballistic testing doesn’t violate U.N. strictures because the missile is not capable (for now) of carrying nuclear warheads. The Iranians also point out that the U.N resolution passed in tandem with the nuclear pact only “called upon” them to stop such tests for eight years, as opposed to banning them outright. They may be correct, but the test certainly violates the spirit of the deal.

At any rate, the U.S. is free to interpret the matter differently and employ unilateral sanctions over what it considers violations. These might not only dissuade Tehran from more missile tests, but also avert future Iranian miscalculation and a potential military crisis.

One possible step is delaying the sale of 80 passenger jets and parts by Boeing. These planes are not just vital to resurrecting Iran’s commercial airline industry; they could be used to ferry military supplies to Tehran’s proxy forces such as Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group.

The U.S. could also levy more sanctions on people and entities -- Iranian and from other countries -- involved with the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite military force that has gradually become the state’s biggest industrial conglomerate. The message would be clear: Do business with Iran’s military, and lose access to the U.S. banking system. And Washington’s best leverage continues to be the financial measures that have kept Iran from getting its hands on much of the formerly frozen global money that was theoretically freed up by the nuclear pact. Trump should warn them that future missile tests will make the U.S. increasingly less willing to cut a deal.   

The Obama administration tended to look the other way at Iran’s missile testing. So it was a refreshing contrast to see the new U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, call the test “absolutely unacceptable” and promise strong countermeasures.

But such a response isn’t likely to come via the Security Council, where the U.S. called for an emergency meeting and where Iran’s new ally Russia holds veto power. The Trump administration has another option: working with the U.K. and other allies on potential bilateral punishments, or -- more likely -- on steps to keep their corporations from rushing into the Iranian economy.

Iran has frightening goals: creating a so-called “Shiite crescent” from Tehran to Beirut, destabilizing its Middle Eastern rivals, and becoming a global geopolitical player. The U.S. can do more to counter these ambitions, but it shouldn’t have to act alone.

    --Editors: Tobin Harshaw, Michael Newman

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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