U.S. unveils more sanctions on Iran and sells off Iranian oil
30 Oct 2020

The Trump administration on Thursday unveiled a set of punitive measures against Iran, including sanctions for petrochemical sales, in a pre-election move that analysts say could complicate efforts if a new administration takes office and seeks to rejoin the nuclear agreement with the country.

The Treasury and State departments sanctioned a total of 11 people and entities in Iran, China and Singapore for buying and selling Iranian petrochemical products.

Simultaneously, the Justice Department announced that it had filed a civil forfeiture action for Iranian-made weapons bound for Yemen that were seized by U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. It also said it had already sold 1.1 million barrels of Iranian oil confiscated from four ships headed to Venezuela and would put most of the $40 million in proceeds into a fund for terrorism victims.

“The two forfeiture complaints allege sophisticated schemes by the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] to secretly ship weapons to Yemen and fuel to Venezuela, countries that pose grave risks to the security and stability of their regions,” said John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security. “These actions represent the government’s largest-ever civil seizures of fuel and weapons from Iran.”

The Trump administration has levied sanctions against Iran nearly every week in recent months as part of its maximum pressure campaign, which so far has failed to achieve its goal stopping Iran’s missile development program and support of militant groups in the region. U.S. officials have acknowledged they have very few targets left to sanction.

The measures are likely to be the last announced against Iran before the election, less than a week away.

Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said the unsealing of documents related to the forfeitures was “divorced from politics” and had been initiated during the summer.

Elliott Abrams, the special envoy for both Iran and Venezuela, said the latest sanctions were a logical extension of a policy that by U.S. estimates has deprived the Iranian government of at least $70 billion that could have been used for missiles and support for proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Abrams declined to speculate on the election outcome, but he said the sanctions program is meant to pressure Iran into negotiating a deal that addresses not only nuclear issues but also Iran’s behavior in the region and its missile program.

“Our hope is it would be used wisely and not discarded,” he said. “That would be foolish and tragic.”

Relations between Tehran and Washington have been on a precipitous downslide since 2018, when President Trump withdrew the United States from the multilateral nuclear deal and began imposing a steady stream of sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy. Iran has retaliated by exceeding limits for heavy water and uranium enrichment it agreed to, but it has not walked away from the pact or kicked out international inspectors.

The United States has sanctioned nearly every sector of the Iranian economy in an effort to get Tehran to renegotiate the nuclear pact. The economic punishment has been so severe that national security adviser Robert O’Brien acknowledged this week that “there’s very little left for us to do.”

Democratic nominee Joe Biden has said he would consider reentering the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, if Iran returns to full compliance. Many analysts say that by piling on more sanctions, the administration hopes to deter that.

“Without a doubt, it’s an effort to try to fill it out as much as possible, to make it difficult for a Biden administration to return to the JCPOA,” said Trita Parsi, an Iran expert with the Quincy Institute.

“Both countries have to make a decision if they want to continue be in an antagonistic situation, or move it to better place. Thinking we can have arms control agreements that are durable while we’re at each other’s throats is simply not possible.”

Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the new penalties underscore the difficulty of changing the dynamics of sanctions and the relationship between the two countries.

“The predicate for these sanctions, after all, is continued Iranian bad behavior,” he said. “Should that not change, there is no case to ease the pressure.”

By Carol Morello, The Washington Post, 29 October 2020

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