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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

US imposes fresh sanctions on Iran individuals and companies

The move came hours after the White House grudgingly said Tehran was complying with the terms of an international deal to dismantle its nuclear programme but was breaching the spirit of the agreement by continuing to destabilise the Middle East

US president Donald Trump has been a critic of the nuclear deal with Iran, which he says was not tough enough. Alex Brandon / AP
US president Donald Trump has been a critic of the nuclear deal with Iran, which he says was not tough enough. Alex Brandon / AP

The Trump administration is imposing fresh sanctions on Iranian individuals and companies it says are involved in the country’s ballistic missile programme, the procurement of drones and in international criminal conspiracies.

The move came hours after the White House grudgingly said Tehran was complying with the terms of a deal to dismantle its nuclear programme but was breaching its spirit by continuing to destabilise the Middle East.

On Tuesday morning the State Department said it was blacklisting two groups linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – The IRGC Aerospace Force Self Sufficiency Jihad Organisation and the IRGC Research and Self Sufficiency Jihad Organisation - for their alleged role in developing ballistic missile technology.

At the same time, the US Treasury Department said it was targeting 16 entities and individuals for supporting what is said was "illicit Iranian actors or transnational criminal activity”.

Steven Mnuchin, Treasury Secretary said: “This administration will continue to aggressively target Iran's malign activity, including their ongoing state support of terrorism, ballistic missile programme, and human rights abuses.

“These sanctions target procurement of advanced military hardware, such as fast attack boats and unmanned aerial vehicles, and send a strong signal that the United States cannot and will not tolerate Iran’s provocative and destabilising behaviour.”

The State Department also demanded the release of Americans detained in Iran, including Xiyue Wang, a Princeton graduate student this week sentence to 10 years in prison for spying.

The moves show the contradiction at the heart of the administration.

Donald Trump has been an outspoken critic of the nuclear deal with Iran, which he says was not tough enough, but knows he cannot walk away from it.

As a result, his White House has offered reluctant certification of the deal accompanied by harsh rhetoric and sanctions.

Jim Phillips, Middle East analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the latest sanctions were symbolic in nature, designed to ensure that certification was not interpreted as a green light for Iranian aggression.

“They are a signal that the administration remains determined to push back on Iran on regional issues – its aggressive policies in Syria and Yemen, as well as support of terrorism,” he said. “The administration sees that as very important.”

He added that a more decisive move might be made on the next renewal date in 90 days after the White House completes its review of Iran strategy. That could even include refusing to say Iran is complying with the deal.

For now, an unsteady balance remains. On Monday night Mr Trump’s administration waited until almost the last moment before the deadline to formally notify Congress that Tehran had kept its side of the bargain.

The eleventh hour notification and a stop-start day highlighted unhappiness at the highest level. Talking points sent to sympathetic policy experts were suddenly recalled, and a briefing for journalists was postponed before going ahead on condition that nothing was reported until Congress had been notified of the White House decision.

That finally arrived a little over an hour before the midnight cut-off.

However, officials said that although Iran was abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal, which established the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2016, it remained a threat to regional stability. They listed a string of concerns including testing of ballistic missiles, support for Syria, backing for terrorist groups and threats to Gulf waterways.

“As a result, the president, the secretary of state and the entire administration judge that Iran is unquestionably in default of the spirit of the JCPOA,” said one official.

The deal between Iran and the US, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany aims to prevent Tehran developing a nuclear weapon. It lifted a string of economic sanctions in return for Iran reducing numbers of gas centrifuges and limiting stockpiles of enriched uranium.

Under its terms, the administration is required to notify Congress every 90 days of Tehran’s compliance.

Hours before the latest certification, Mr Trump’s spokesman said the president remained unconvinced by the deal.

In an off-camera briefing to journalists, Sean Spicer said: “I think you all know that the President has made very clear that he thought this was a bad deal - a bad deal for the United States.”

This time around, The New York Times reported that the president took plenty of convincing to sign off on Iran’s compliance. An official told the newspaper that Mr Trump spent 55 minutes of a one-hour meeting last week telling his secretary of state, defence secretary, national security adviser and others that he did not want to go ahead with certifying Iran’s compliance.

The air of uncertainty was echoed by Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, earlier on Monday evening.

He spoke before an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York where he said Iran had received “contradictory signals” from the US.

He added that he had yet to speak to his American counterpart Rex Tillerson.

“It’s not like the situation with the previous administration where probably Secretary Kerry and I spent more time with each other than we spent with anybody else,” he said.