The United States plans to impose sanctions on those who violate a UN arms embargo on Iran, which Washington says will now stay in place instead of expiring in October as agreed under a 2015 nuclear deal.
US Special Representative for Venezuela and Iran Elliott Abrams said Washington could deny access to the US market to anyone who trades in weapons with Iran, which President Donald Trump’s administration accuses of seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
“It’s like pulling a trigger and no bullet comes out,” a senior UN Security Council diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “There will be no snapback, the sanctions will remain suspended, the JCPOA (nuclear deal) will remain in place.”
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Elliott Abrams, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela.
Special Representative Abrams: Thank you. Today under the leadership of President Trump the White House and the Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce took significant action to counter Iranian nuclear threats, as well as missile and conventional arms proliferation. Across each of these areas, the Islamic Republic of Iran poses a unique threat to the world.
The regime uses its nuclear program to extort the international community and threaten regional and international security. Iran possesses the largest ballistic missiles force in the Middle East, and it has exported both missiles and missile production technology to violent, non-state actors such as the Houthi militias in Yemen and Hizballah terrorists in Lebanon and Syria. The U.S. and partner forces have repeatedly interdicted Iranian weapons en route to the Houthis in the last year, demonstrating that the regime continues to use its arsenal of conventional weapons to destabilize the Middle East and foment sectarian violence and terrorism across the region.
These actions underscore that the U.S. will not hesitate to counter Iranian nuclear, missile, and conventional arms threats that led the Security Council to unanimously impose sanctions on Iran in the first place beginning in 2006. These measures are now again in force against Iran thanks to the return of sanctions pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2231.
The actions we’ve taken include the following: First, a new executive order by President Trump targeting conventional arms transfers, and one of my colleagues will comment on that; designation by the Department of State of MODAFL, the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, and Iran’s Defense Industries Organization and its director, as well as Nicolas Maduro, the illegitimate dictator of Venezuela, for conventional arms-related activities pursuant to the new Iran conventional arms executive order.
State and Treasury have also designated six individuals and three entities associated with the AEOI, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, pursuant to Executive Order 13382, that deals with weapons of mass destruction proliferators. Five more individuals who are affiliated with AEOI have been designated by Commerce today and put on the entity list which will impose export control restrictions on them.
Treasury today designated three individuals and four entities associated with Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, SHIG, which is the organization that deals with Iran’s liquid propellant ballistic missiles. This is also pursuant to Executive Order 13382 and updates some existing sanctions.
The administration is dedicated to keeping Americans and citizens across the Middle East and in Europe safe by taking these actions against the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and anti-Semitism. We will continue and we will expand our sanctions until Iran is willing to conclude a comprehensive negotiation that addresses the regime’s malign behavior. We’re always open to diplomacy with Iran, but Iran must respond with diplomacy, not with more violence, bloodshed, and nuclear extortion. And until then, maximum pressure will continue.
Question: Javad Zarif was just on CFR and basically shrugged off the sanctions, but also said that Iran is still very much looking for retribution for the killing of Qasem Soleimani. So how seriously do you take that threat in terms of the security of your officials overseas? Are there active plots against them?
Special Representative Abrams: As you can understand, I’m not going to reveal classified information about what we may or may not know. What we do know is that Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, and we do know that there have been Iranian plots, well, literally, for decades, including in recent years in the U.S., in Europe, and in the Middle East. So Iranian threats of acts of terrorism need to be taken seriously. It is a little bit surprising that such threats of acts of terrorism come from a foreign minister, but I gather from what you said that it was he who delivered those threats. We are concerned every day to protect Americans overseas, including of course, the American official family: our diplomats and their families, our service members and their families. And should Iran commit acts of terrorism against Americans, you can be sure that they will pay a very heavy price.
Question: How will the new leader introduce U.S. sanctions that affect the European partners? Will they be sanctioned by the U.S. if they continue working with Iran?
Mr. Abrams: These are sanctions against, potentially, individuals, companies, banks, that assist Iran in the violation of these very wide UN sanctions. In some cases there are actually additional European sanctions still in place. But really, the answer to your question is the answer we gave in 2018: People who violate these sanctions will be investigated by the United States, and if we have the facts, then the provisions of all of these sanctions will be put into effect.
Just to give you an example, if a European bank were to finance an arms sale to Iran or by Iran, absolutely it would be sanctioned. That is what’s called for by the U.N. arms embargo on Iran.
Question: This are these executive orders mean that we are back before the nuclear agreement, which is what about the Section 7 from the – from the existive orders? I need more elaboration on that ?
Mr. Abrams: Well, as to what the executive order says, maybe I will call upon my colleague, another senior official, to talk about what the president said today.
Senior Administration Official: The action today is the broadest interagency action with regard to counter–proliferation that we have taken so far. On the conventional arms executive order, the president signed it today. It is the first major new Iran-specific counterproliferation authority since 2012. It targets proliferators of conventional weapons to and from Iran and their supporters. The executive order authorizes the State Department and the Treasury Department to impose financial blocking sanctions on certain persons involved in transfers to and from Iran of conventional weapons, which we define broadly as any item with a military end use.
In this sense, it’s more expansive than the U.N. arms restriction, which only applies to arms or items listed on the U.N. register of conventional arms or are considered arms and related materiel. For example, the authority would allow us to target speedboats that the IRGC buys and retrofits into attack crafts or harass vessels in international shipping lanes, or circuit boards that missile organizations incorporate into ballistic missile guidance and control systems.
And, just to follow up with what Special Representative Abrams said, our intent with this rollout is to demonstrate our seriousness with implementing the reimposed U.N. restrictions and convince foreign governments, and even more significantly, private sector companies, to take action under the U.N. Security Council resolution to counter Iran. We expect that even if countries do not agree, that they will adhere to snapback and that both governments and the private sector will not seek to expose themselves to U.S. sanctions.
Question: They cited a U.S. official saying Iran could have enough fissile materials for a nuclear weapon by the end of this year. Could you elaborate a little bit on this? And can you tell what’s the evidence for it? Have you also seen Iran and North Korea resuming cooperation on the long-range missile project?
Mr. Abrams: As the exact views of the U.S. intelligence community of timelines for various pieces of Iran’s nuclear program, fissile material is one aspect but not the only aspect. But, you know, this is really what the JCPOA ultimately allows and it is why the United States decided to pull away from the JCPOA. The JCPOA is a path to a nuclear weapon for Iran.
It gives you the years as markers, “Here is what Iran can do after five years. Here is what Iran can do after eight and a half years. Here is what it can do at the 10-year mark.” Of course, we are already at the five-year mark.
“And here is what it can do at the 15-year mark.” So Iran is under the JCPOA, would be moving in that direction, and it would be doing so to begin with $70 billion that our sanctions in the last couple of years have deprived the government of Iran from having. So I won’t get into detail about the timelines, but that is clearly the direction in which Iran wishes to move and in which under the JCPOA, it would have been able to move.
We are very concerned about Iran’s cooperation with North Korea, again not too much I can really say about it here. Maybe there are colleagues on the line who would like to add, but the Iranian ballistic missile development is really a dangerous thing for the region. And we have seen, for example, the Houthis using those missiles to attack Saudi Arabia. We will be watching the cooperation with North Korea very carefully and doing what we can to prevent it.
Question: I want to ask about Iran said that it is ready to exchange prisoners with the U.S., how the U.S. will deal with this? And the Iranian regime says that it will continue to export its oil products to Venezuela and other countries. How the U.S. will deal with that?
Mr. Abrams: let me just say that the United States has managed in the last two years to reduce by something like 90 percent Iran’s oil exports, and they continue to fall. And most countries have gotten out of the Iran-Venezuela trade. Most recently, Greek ship owners have gotten out of that trade.
It may be relegated, it looks as if it will be relegated, just to a few Iranian-owned ships that can make that voyage maybe a couple of times a year. But we will continue to pursue these sanctions, and they have been extremely effective in getting countries around the world out of that trade.
And, just to give you an example, there are many, many countries because demand is low now for gasoline, that have gasoline. Why aren’t they selling it to Venezuela? And the answer is they don’t want to have to deal with U.S. sanctions. So the ships, the insurers, the banks, the ship captains, the ship owners are all saying, “We don’t want to have anything to do with that trade.”
Question: I wanted to ask you a question on the policy options that are left to the U.S. in light of the rejection of a lot of other countries of the legal interpretation about Resolution 2231. So what can the U.S. do to persuade other countries to adhere to its own interpretation of the resolution?
Mr. Abrams: First, there are a number of countries who certainly agree that Iran is extremely dangerous. Many countries, including European countries, have said to us that they were seeking some way to extend the U.N. arms embargo on Iran. What can the United States do? Precisely what we have done.
First, 30 days ago this past Saturday, we gave notice to the Security Council in exact compliance with Resolution 2231. Thirty days later, snapback occurred. That was this past Saturday 8:00 p.m. Washington time. Today, we have announced what we mean by the return of U.N. sanctions and our enforcement of those sanctions.
I remember the debate two years ago about how, “Oh, U.S. unilateral sanctions will really not have an impact. What’s the point?” We have seen it.
I would just point out one thing to you, which is, obviously, we knew last week that snapback was coming. And it came on Saturday. And the Iranian rial has fallen to its lowest position ever. So people in business in Iran know that snapback will have an enormous effect. And through the announcements today, I believe we are telling governments and we are telling businesses, individuals, banks, companies that it has occurred and that if they do not abide by these sanctions, there will be penalties to pay.
Question: Could you expand a little bit, please, on your comments regarding the designation of the Iranian Ministry of Defense I think it was – I am afraid the line was not very good at my end – and its director and Mr. Maduro of Venezuela for conventional arms-related activity? Can you just expand on what that means in practice, please?
Mr. Abrams: It should mean to people who are contemplating arms sales to Iran or contemplating dealing with in this case MDAFL, the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, and its director, that there can be sanctions, there can be penalties to pay for those agreements.
And, by the way, we are under the executive order not required to wait until, let’s say, combat jets or tanks or speedboats are actually physically shipped. The agreements themselves can lead to sanctions of the individuals involved. So the message to people who are contemplating deals with that ministry is think twice, penalties are right around the corner.
Question: One question on the arms embargo and then another on Iranian uranium stockpiles. One, I wondered if, you know, have European allies identified any areas in which they can cooperate to impede arms sales by Iran, notwithstanding the dispute over the U.N. Security Council? And do you have a sense of what prospective customers the Iranians have in mind for arms sales and whether your sanctions can deter those deals? And then a little more big picture, Iran deal proponents have long argued that the deal postpones the day when, as the saying goes, Western governments would have to choose between bombing Iran or an Iranian bomb. The most recent IAEA report, if I am not mistaken, pegged the Iranian low enriched uranium stockpile north of 3,100 kilograms, which drew up some of the breakout time estimates of three and a half months. So I wonder, has that day moved up? Does the snapback decision diminish Iran’s incentive to abide by those terms of the deal that they are still abiding by? And if process disputes, such as what we have seen over the arms embargo, can impede U.S.-European cooperation on security matters, you know, in conventional arms terms, how worried are you about whether the U.S. and Europe would be able to be on the same page in a potential breakout scenario to enforce deterring Iran’s development of nuclear weapons?
Mr. Abrams: I feel like saying thank you for your twelve questions. On the first part, there is an EU arms embargo. You know, the EU imposed an eight year arms embargo five years ago. There remains an EU arms embargo on Iran. And I would hope not only will the EU maintain and enforce that arms embargo.
Obviously we hope they would extend it, and we hope for very good cooperation from the EU in preventing anyone else from engaging in arms trade with Iran. We certainly look forward to good cooperation on that. Who are Iran’s customers? Well, one obvious customer potentially is Venezuela. That’s one of the reasons why Venezuela and its illegitimate former President Maduro is included here. The Houthis we know, and Hizballah and other terrorist groups, for example in Iraq, are customers as well.
One of the things we’re doing here is saying to countries around the world who might be approached by Iran to say, look. We have the following on our list that we would be prepared to sell you. And the economic situation in Iran being as poor as it is, the regime probably will be thinking about trying to raise revenue by selling arms.
Our message to anybody who’s considering buying is, again, don’t do it because the price you will pay will be quite elevated. Does – you asked about a diminished incentive for Iran to abide by strictures of the JCPOA or 2231. They’re not abiding.
There is a UN arms embargo for the last five years on Iran that we have now extended, which would have – would have disappeared on October 18th.
In those five years, does anybody actually think Iran abided by that UN arms embargo, that it did not, for example, ship arms to the Houthis? We have proved that they have shipped arms to the Houthis. We have interdicted shipments of arms to the Houthis.
We have seen in the archive that the Israelis recovered that while it was negotiating and while it was theoretically abiding by the JCPOA, Iran was hiding information from the IAEA.
And Iran was keeping this archive of material about building a nuclear weapon, and it was maintaining the teams that have engaged in that project intact, preparing for the day that – in which they could start again.
So I don’t accept the notion that Iran was abiding by the letter and spirit, and now won’t abide. You may remember that the 2231 calls upon Iran to stop its missile program. Does anybody believe they stopped the missile program? So I don’t accept that Iran was abiding, and that there will now be a diminished incentive. The only thing that is going to lead Iran to keep those commitments is, in our view, more pressure.
You’re right that we had a process dispute with the EU. Final point. We were a little surprised by it. We were certainly disappointed by it, that EU countries would say, “We want the UN arms embargo extended,” but then not really take any action to extend it.
And it is their failure to take action to get the UN arms embargo extended that was a main contributor to our decision that the only way to do it was to snap back, in accordance with 2231, all the UN sanctions.