Trump's Iranian Irony

(Bloomberg View) -- Iran got a good-conduct award this week from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who certified that the Tehran government is in compliance with the nuclear deal it reached with six world powers in 2015. This verdict was expected, and within the terms of that agreement, probably correct. Next question: What does the White House intend to do about Iran’s blatant human-rights violations and support of terrorism?

As a candidate, Donald Trump talked of ripping up the nuclear accord, but as president, he has taken a much softer tone. Despite the scaremongering about a “breakout” ability to create a bomb or two in a matter of months, Iran is most likely in compliance. It sees itself as a great and ancient civilization that should dominate the region, and for that it needs a complete nuclear arsenal and a much stronger military, not a slapdash weapon to threaten Israel. If it has to, it can wait 10 years to start work on that dream.

The more immediate threats from Iran are what Tillerson called “alarming ongoing provocations”: Its ability to destabilize the Middle East, its backing of the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria, its ferrying of weapons and troops to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, its support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and its hassling of the U.S. Navy vessels and other ships in the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. would in no way violate the nuclear deal if it leveled new sanctions on Iranian individuals and companies for any of this behavior. Trump was right to request a review of whether lifting more sanctions would endanger national security.

The Iranians will cry foul over any new punishments -- as they did last week when the U.S. sanctioned the brother of Qassem Soleimani, the savvy Iranian general who has been coordinating his nation’s assistance to Assad. But they have too much to gain to withdraw from the nuclear deal.

A good place for the U.S. to start would be issuing more sanctions against the airlines that ferry military aid to Damascus and Lebanon. Over the past 15 months, some 700 flights from Tehran to Syria are suspected of shipping weapons and troops rather than civilians. The White House and Congress could put additional sanctions on the company behind most of them, Mahan Air. Iran Air, the nation’s flagship carrier, is keen to buy $3 billion worth of planes from Boeing, one of several potential deals Trump could derail as punishment for Iran’s meddling in the region.

But the U.S.’s greatest leverage comes from its dominance of the global financial system. The billions of dollars that were supposed to flood into Iran after the nuclear deal have turned out to be a mere trickle, mostly because international banks are worried that if they do business with Iran they could be banned from the U.S. banking system. Trump should use that leverage to change Iran’s behavior.

The previous administration went easy on Iran for non-nuclear misbehavior out of a fear the nuclear pact would collapse. Even as it confirmed Iran’s compliance, the Trump administration showed that this kind of coddling is over.

--Editors: Tobin Harshaw, Clive Crook.

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