With Iran’s recent launch of advanced ballistic missiles, Iranian hardliners are testing the resolve of the U.S. and our partners to confront Iranian aggression that challenges the nuclear agreement that came into effect earlier this year. A forceful U.S. and international response to the Iranian missile tests is not only consistent with the nuclear agreement—it will increase the odds that the nuclear agreement itself remains durable over time. The U.S. Congress, which is currently developing potential sanctions bills, is right to demand action on this issue.

Iran’s decision to test the resolve of the U.S. and our allies is no surprise. Iran has a lengthy history of testing the U.S. and our allies, and it was clear throughout the nuclear negotiations that Iran would continue to test the international community’s resolve after the deal came into force. This is precisely why a forceful sanctions response is so important: A weak response will encourage the Iranians to continue testing the boundaries of the nuclear agreement, setting up a situation where Iran believes it can gradually walk away from its nuclear commitments without meaningful consequences. A forceful response, on the other hand, will send a clear signal that there is zero tolerance for violations and discourage further Iranian cheating.


The Obama Administration has rightly said that it would seek a response to the Iranian ballistic missile test at the U.N. Security Council, but the Russians have already suggested that they will likely block a meaningful U.N. response, arguing that the missile test exists in a legal grey area under the agreement. The U.S. and our allies should make clear that we move forward with sanctions in the near term even if the Russians and other counties block U.N. action.

What should a forceful sanctions response look like?

First, the U.S. and our partners need to impose sanctions with real economic teeth. Some policymakers may be tempted to resolve the current situation by sending a symbolic message to Iran while avoiding antagonizing international partners, for example by imposing a narrow set of sanctions against individual Iranian military officials or small Iranian defense companies involved in the missile program. But these kinds of sanctions rarely have meaningful economic bite, since most Iranian officials and defense companies have few economic ties to the U.S. or our allies. The Iranians would rightly perceive such sanctions as a largely symbolic message that refrained from imposing real costs on Tehran. Such sanctions would be unlikely to deter further Iranian aggression or prevent them from further testing the limits of the nuclear deal.

Second, the U.S. and our allies should refrain from simply re-imposing sanctions on specific Iranian companies or business sectors that had sanctions lifted in January under the terms of the nuclear deal. Under the terms of the nuclear deal, the U.S. and our partners would be within our rights to reimpose sanctions on an Iranian company that actively supported Iran’s missile program, such as an Iranian bank that processed financial payments related to the nuclear program. However, the practical reality is that the nuclear deal remains in its early stages and the Iranians would view re-imposing sanctions on a company that came off the sanctions lists in January as deeply contrary to the spirit of the deal. This situation would create unnecessary tensions with Iran.

Fortunately, U.S. officials and our partners have sanctions options that meet both these criteria. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—the division of the Iranian government behind the missile tests—has important business interests in Iran’s construction and mining sectors, and U.S. officials could significantly expand the number of IRGC-linked companies in these sectors subject to U.S. and international sanctions. U.S. officials could also begin to tee up a set of tougher sanctions, such as financial sanctions, that would be imposed if Iran continues its missile tests, to signal that the U.S. and are partners are prepared to escalate further.

The nuclear deal with Iran was a breakthrough diplomatic achievement and still represents the most credible path to constraining Iran’s nuclear program for the next decade. But for the deal to remain credible, the U.S. and our partners need to make sure Iran understands that the consequences for cheating are severe.

Harrell is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and the former deputy sssistant secretary of State for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions.