Trump's Iran sanctions include hidden message for China, experts say
New sanctions the Treasury Department announced Friday, which the Trump administration framed as its first salvo in putting Iran "on notice," also served as a subtle message to a world power whose influence the president has pledged to undermine, experts say.
Included in the list of 13 new targeted individuals and 12 trading, pharmaceutical and engineering companies is at least one Chinese citizen and two organizations that appear to be based in China.
"This may be a shot across China's bow as well," says Gary Samore, President Barack Obama's former coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, now with Harvard University's Belfer Center, "which would be consistent with President Trump's stated hostility toward China."
New sanctions like the ones unveiled on Friday commonly include citizens and entities from multiple countries. Chinese actors would serve as a logical target for undermining Iran's ballistic missile tests due to a documented history of disguising and shipping equipment to Iran that bolsters its missile program and which under current international restrictions Tehran cannot acquire on its own.
But there are many other entities and nations the new president could have approved to target in his first weeks in office.
"There is something to the fact there were probably other targets that were teed up, and the administration is making it clear they were going to designate additional targets," says Matt Levitt, a former senior counterterrorism and intelligence official at the Treasury Department. "The fact that they chose this is telling: We're not going after China, but we're going to go where the events take us, and we're not being dissuaded to take actions against Iran or others tolerant of [its] ballistic missile program."
White House spokesman Sean Spicer confirmed this week that the sanctions were first compiled under the Obama administration. Instituting sanctions requires significant time to prepare and vet, and that this latest list – including the Chinese additions – was likely compiled well before the current administration took office, says Levitt, now with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Trump's choice of targeting Iran specifically represents a slight escalation compared to the Obama administration, which in the wake of establishing the deal limiting Tehran's nuclear ambition prefered to target Iranian proxies and allies like Hezbollah or Syria rather than Iran itself.
The potency of these new sanctions themselves do not represent a marked increase in U.S. effort to undermine malicious foreign actors, says Christopher Swift, a former official in the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control who now teaches national security studies at Georgetown University and the University of Virginia's Center for National Security Law. But, he says, it does send a subtle signal to China.
"Someone's turned up the volume by one notch. It is an incremental and a logical extension," Swift says.
China is one of the biggest international forces in what the U.S. government calls "export diversion" or knowingly shipping equipment to a country that cannot legally purchase that equipment for itself, Swift says.
Trump has indicated he plans to start a trade war with China to curtail its regional influence, for the treasury secretary to label it a currency manipulator and for the U.S. trade representative to "bring trade cases" against it, according to his economic policy posted to WhiteHouse.gov. One of his first official acts after winning the presidency included speaking with the Taiwanese president by phone, which China said was a cause for "serious concern."