WASHINGTON ― Just hours after President Donald Trump’s bellicose tweet that Iran was “playing with fire,” his administration rolled out narrow financial sanctions, just as the previous administration had done a year ago.

“Today’s sanctions really represent a very, very strong stand against the actions that Iran has been taking,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Friday.

Former Obama administration officials agree ― but wonder what makes them so much stronger now than they had been under the previous president.

“This is not a meaningless action. This is the sort of thing you should do,” said Richard Nephew, who was a State Department Iranian sanctions expert in the Obama administration. “This is also not a dramatic escalation. It’s not really different from what the Obama administration was doing.”

“The question is: Is this it? Or is this the beginning of an escalation?” wondered Ilan Goldenberg, who worked on Iranian issues at the Pentagon during Obama’s first term.

Friday morning, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control released a list of 25 individuals and companies that are now off-limits to Americans for business or banking. According to Treasury, they are involved with Iran’s ballistic missile program or its support of terrorism in the region.

“These designations mark yet another step in our continued effort to aggressively target Iran’s ballistic missile program and terrorism-related activities,” said a senior Trump administration official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.

Potentially, he could be crazy like a fox. Which could be a useful. But he could just be crazy. In which case, we’re headed for conflict.
Ilan Goldenberg, who worked on Iranian issues at the Pentagon under Obama

A second official said “these are just initial steps,” and that the Trump national security team is still studying the situation to explore additional possible actions. The official, however, would not describe what those might entail.

Just over a year ago, then-president Barack Obama was criticized by many Republicans for imposing similar sanctions against 11 individuals and companies for a ballistic missile test, even as he was announcing the lifting of broader sanctions from Iran as a result of its agreement to dismantle its nuclear program.

On Friday, though, senior officials in the Trump administration took pains to point out that the new sanctions were unrelated to the nuclear deal ― just as they did Wednesday, two hours after national security adviser Michael Flynn seemed to suggest the opposite in a statement he read from the White House briefing room.

“President Trump has severely criticized the various agreements reached between Iran and the Obama administration, as well as the United Nations ― as being weak and ineffective,” Flynn said. “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”

Jonathan Ernst/ReutersPresident Donald Trump’s administration Friday announced narrow economic sanctions against 25 individuals and companies in response to a ballistic missile test by Iran.

Later that afternoon, a trio of administration officials ― speaking anonymously and with no cameras rolling ― pointed out that the administration was specifically not accusing Iran of violating the nuclear deal, and that the United States is continuing to honor its obligations under it.

Nephew said the divergent messaging was somewhat perplexing. He said a generous view was that the new administration is still transitioning from campaigning, when statements carry few real-world consequences, to governance, where they do.

The “less generous” interpretation, he said: “The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

He said that while it’s comforting that there appears to be a group of national security staff who are continuing to work deliberately and with an interest in facts, the comments from Flynn and Trump himself are bound to cause problems.

“I think they’re going to find out that Wild West rhetoric doesn’t work so well in international affairs,” Nephew said, adding that using extreme language can limit options in the future. “What happens next time? Things get a lot more complicated if you have to deal with what happens the next day, and the day after that.”

Goldenberg said Trump’s unpredictability could prove an asset ― or an enormous liability. “Potentially, he could be crazy like a fox. Which could be a useful,” he said. “But he could just be crazy. In which case, we’re headed for conflict.”

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