By Ian Talley
WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration on Thursday levied another round of sanctions against Iran, targeting 20 companies, officials and business executives it says have helped U.S.-designated terror groups attack American forces in Iraq.
The action follows a series of deadly strikes by Iranian-backed forces in Iraq in an escalation of hostilities between Tehran and Washington, and comes as the administration faces increasing pressure to ease its sanctions campaign while Iran struggles to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. Treasury Department said several of the blacklisted entities provided support for, or on behalf of, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, the elite Iranian militia that funds, arms and directs Tehran's proxies abroad and is designated a terror group by the U.S. and other countries.
Others targeted by the U.S. transferred aid to Iraq-based militias directed by the Quds Force and responsible for the deaths of U.S. and allied forces, including Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Treasury said.
The sanctions -- which freeze any assets held in the U.S. and prevent U.S.-based companies or people from doing business with the blacklisted entities -- are unlikely to significantly deter the targets' operations given that they work largely outside of the administration's reach. Rather, they are intended to call attention to Tehran's activities. Such exposure, U.S. officials say, should help undermine any political support the regime maintains both within the country and outside of it.
By continuing to fund the groups, Iran was "siphoning resources away from the Iranian people and prioritizing terrorist proxies over the basic needs of its people," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.
Tehran blames the U.S. for its coronavirus crisis, calling the sanctions "medical terrorism."
"Imposing new sanctions while Iranians are fighting the Covid19 pandemic...is simply another example of an inhuman U.S. policy, driven by 'Secretaries of Hate' toward Iran," Alireza Miryousefi, the spokesman for Iran's mission to the United Nations, said in an email.
The U.S. sanctions have forced an already-hobbled Iranian economy into a sharp contraction. But Trump officials say Iran's coronavirus pandemic woes are the result of the regime's own incompetence and failure to favor the welfare of its people over a conflict-fueling foreign policy meant to secure regional hegemony.
The administration, responding to calls to relax sanctions, has reiterated that it maintains broad exceptions for humanitarian aid and has set up a special financing channel to facilitate such trade.
Among those blacklisted on Thursday are the Reconstruction Organization of the Holy Shrines in Iraq, an institution Treasury officials said is controlled by the Quds Force and whose leadership was appointed by the late commander of the Iranian militia killed by the U.S. last year, Qassem Soleimani.
The administration said that while it purports to be a religious institution, the organization has sent millions of dollars to another company sanctioned Thursday, Bahjat al Kawthar Company for Construction and Trading Ltd. That firm is allegedly used as a base for Intelligence operations in Iraq and for shipping weapons to the militias attacking U.S. forces, Treasury said. Several of its top officials and owners were also blacklisted.
Neither the organization or the company immediately responded to requests for comment.
Treasury said the blacklisted companies and men smuggled weapons to Iraq and Yemen and sold Iranian oil to the Assad regime in Syria, where a brutal civil war has created a humanitarian crisis as millions of refugees flee the conflict.
Write to Ian Talley at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
March 26, 2020 14:56 ET (18:56 GMT)
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