Washington - In the latest ratcheting up of pressure on Iran, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday imposed new financial sanctions against Iranian and other companies whose operations allegedly support the country's nuclear and ballistic-missile programmes.
The Treasury Department said it was blacklisting 11 companies and several individuals associated with Iran's defence ministry, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as Iran's national shipping line.
It also blacklisted several companies in Hong Kong, Switzerland and Malaysia, as well as the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC), which the treasury alleged have been used by the national oil company to evade existing sanctions against Iranian oil experts.
"Iran today is under intense, multilateral sanctions pressure, and we will continue to ratchet up the pressure so long as Iran refuses to address the international community's well-founded questions about its nuclear programme," said treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence David Cohen.
"Today's actions are the next step on that path, taking direct aim at disrupting Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, as well as its deceptive efforts to use front companies to sell and move its oil," he added.
While the new sanctions were described by the State Department as part of the administration's "dual-track approach" to both increase pressure on Tehran and engage it diplomatically, a number of observers said the latest escalation carried risks.
"The question is how much escalation can be tolerated before the whole diplomatic process falls apart, and, if it falls apart, what comes next," noted Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the author of two highly-regarded books on U.S.-Iranian diplomacy.
The latest sanctions follow the application late last month of other U.S. sanctions – approved by Congress last December – punishing foreign financial institutions that do business with Iran's central bank. On Jul. 1, a European Union (EU) ban on all oil imports from Iran to its member states also took effect.
The sanctions come amidst a much-ballyhooed U.S. military build-up in and around the Gulf.
Ten days ago, the New York Times ran a front-page feature article – embroidered by tough talk by unnamed "senior" Pentagon officials – detailing the deployment to bases of friendly countries of dozens of attack aircraft, including F-22 "stealth" warplanes, to bolster the fleet of combat jets aboard carrier strike groups already stationed in the region.
On Thursday, the Times reported the arrival late last week in the Gulf of a converted amphibious transport ship designed to serve as a floating forward staging base for helicopters, Special Operations Forces, and other assets in the event hostilities break out.
Also Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Navy is "rushing tiny underwater drones to the Persian Gulf" that, once deployed, would be used to find and destroy sea mines in the event that war breaks out, and Iran follows through on its threats to close the Strait of Hormuz.
For its part, Iran last week carried out three days of military exercises designed to show that its missiles were capable of striking U.S. bases in the region, as well as targets in Israel whose government has recently revived speculation that it may carry out attacks against Iran's nuclear facilities before the U.S. elections in November.
The increase in tensions and bellicose talk comes in the wake of three high-level rounds of negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 – the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany – since March, as well as a low-level technical meeting in Istanbul that concluded last week with agreement to meet at a sub-ministerial level again in Istanbul Jul. 24 to test whether existing gaps can be narrowed.
When the talks began in March, many observers believed that an interim confidence-building accord could be reached fairly quickly.
Its basic elements would include Tehran's agreement to freeze all of its uranium enrichment above five percent and to ship out in stages its existing stockpile of 20-percent-enriched uranium in exchange for formal recognition of its right to enrich uranium under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a delay or easing of some of the sanctions, particularly by the EU.
But the Obama administration, which had previously hinted that such an agreement was possible, appeared to harden its position over the following three months, apparently under pressure from Israel and its powerful backers in both major U.S. parties.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long insisted that Tehran should not be permitted to enrich uranium on its own soil under any circumstances – a position that most Iran experts consider a non-starter.
While Obama has not gone that far, he appears to have adopted – at least for now – a position similar to that of his predecessor, George W. Bush: that Iran should be required to suspend all enrichment, at least until questions raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme dating back a decade or more are fully resolved.
Washington also appears to have endorsed Israel's demand that Iran's underground Fordo enrichment facility be permanently dismantled before any serious sanctions relief can be considered.
"The Obama administration ...would welcome negotiating success but evidently has calculated, perhaps mistakenly, that it would be too politically damaging domestically to bring to the negotiating table what would be necessary to achieve success," noted Paul Pillar, a former top CIA Middle East analyst who teaches at Georgetown University.
As a result, the negotiations seem to have reached an impasse even though none of the parties is prepared to call it that for fear that doing so would likely lead to a war none of them wants.
Pro-Israel hawks, on the other hand, have pronounced the talks dead and are calling for ever-tougher measures – both on the economic front and in making the threat of war more credible.
Thus, Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Likudist Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who has also helped draft much of the sanctions legislation in Congress, called on the administration last week to "step up its economic warfare" against Iran by blacklisting all foreign companies that deal with Iran's energy sector, its central bank, its automotive industry, and IRGC-controlled construction and telecommunications companies.
"(I)f that's insufficient to get (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei to strike a deal ...the president needs to unite the country in moving beyond sanctions and preparing for U.S. military strikes against Iran's nuclear weapons program," he wrote in foreignpolicy.com.
Similarly, Michael Singh, a former Bush official now with the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called in a Washington Post op-ed this week for more pressure on every front.
While hailing Obama's military build-up in the Gulf, he stressed the administration "should make more serious statements about U.S. willingness to employ force and (make) an end to statements exaggerating the downsides of military action."
While Obama has not yet taken Singh's last recommendation to heart, the latest sanctions – not to mention the military build-up – move Washington yet another step in the direction recommended by Dubowitz and other hawks in what one astute commentator, Robert Wright of the Atlantic magazine, described as "Obama's drift toward war with Iran."
"Their objective," according to Pillar in reference to the hawks, "evidently is not success at the negotiating table but instead the indefinite perpetuation of the Iranian nuclear issue for other reasons or the checking off of a box on a pre-war checklist."