The US has imposed sanctions on nine people close to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, including his cleric son Mojtaba Khamenei who is thought by some observers to be a likely successor to his father, who serves as the county’s highest political authority.
There are doubts over whether the sanctions will have much impact beyond the symbolic value of the US signalling it is not retreating from its “maximum pressure” campaign to force Iran into a role in the Middle East which the Trump administration will tolerate—the measures freeze any US-controlled property or interests held by those targeted, and prohibit anyone or any entities in the USfrom dealing with those sanctioned.
The latest US sanctions move came the day after the 4 November 40th anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran and the ensuing hostage crisis. The day of the anniversary also saw Radio Farda report that hardline Iranian newspaper Kayhan, regarded by some observers as the mouthpiece of Khamenei, had suggested seizing the US embassy in Baghdad. The move was put forward as a possible response to attacks on the Iranian consulate in Karbala, Iraq, over the past couple of days that led to the deaths of at least five people as security forces fired live rounds to disperse assailants. Several people attempted to scale the consulate’s 20-metre blast walls. The protesters were demanding that Iran stop interfering in Iraq's internal affairs. Iranian officials have circulated the theory that the attackers, who ripped down an Iranian flag, were paid agents of the US and Israel, according to the Kayhan, which is often cited as being conspiratorial.
In detailing the new sanctions, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement: “Today the Treasury Department is targeting the unelected officials who surround Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and implement his destabilizing policies.”
He added: "These individuals are linked to a wide range of malign behaviors by the regime, including bombings of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association in 1994, as well as torture, extrajudicial killings, and repression of civilians. This action further constricts the Supreme Leader’s ability to execute his agenda of terror and oppression."
Those newly sanctioned include Ebrahim Raisi, appointed by Khamenei in March to head the country’s judiciary and also pegged as a possible successor to the supreme leader, and Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, the supreme leader’s chief of staff.
Vahid Haghanian, whom US officials say is seen as Khamenei’s “right hand”, has also been slapped with sanctions.
The US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) added that it is designating Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to the Supreme Leader. It claimed he helped the Iranian regime extend credit lines to Syria’s Assad regime.
Other people included in the new round of sanctions include top military brass and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Brigadier Hossein Dehgan.
Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi described the sanctions "a sign of the desperation and inability of this regime to benefit from a diplomatic and logical approach" to the nuclear deal dispute between Tehran and Washington.
The sanctions were announced on the same day that Iran declared it will take the next step in its stage-by-stage move away from the nuclear deal by injecting gas into 1,044 centrifuges at its Fordow fuel enrichment plant. The centrifuges have spun empty under the terms of the 2015 deal, under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities to prevent any possible move towards the making of a nuclear weapon in return for the lifting of international economic sanctions.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the centrifuges step was reversible. He also did not specifically say if the injection of gas would be used to speed the enrichment of uranium. However, Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, later said Iran had informed the IAEA over “the start of injecting UF6 [uranium hexafluoride] into centrifuges at Fordow”.
The nuclear accord states that Iran must only use the Fordow plant for the production of stable isotopes, which have applications in industry, agriculture and medicine.
The US has always seen Fordow as a highly secret and fortified facility intended for the production of enough uranium for the making of one or two nuclear weapons per year. Iran insists that it has never adopted a policy of pursuing the creation of a nuclear bomb.
On November 4, the day before the Fordow announcement, Iran said it was going ahead with a 10-fold increase in its enriched uranium production at its Natanz facility.
Rouhani said the steps taken away from nuclear deal compliance so far could be reversed if Europe offered a way to avoid the heavy US sanctions. Iran is particularly angered that the level of sanctions deployed has since May been choking off its lifeline crude oil sales abroad.
“All of the steps Iran has taken to reduce its commitments to the nuclear deal are reversible and Iran will uphold all of its commitments under the deal when the remaining signatories – France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China – do the same,” he said.
He added that Iran would continue to talk with European powers behind the scenes to strike an agreement on how Europe could build trade with Iran and circumvent US secondary sanctions. “We can’t unilaterally accept that we completely fulfil our commitments and they don’t follow up on their commitments,” he said.
Meanwhile, Rouhani’s chief of staff told the Iranian Mehr news agency that the nuclear deal was still in place and that “there’s a long way before our complete withdrawal”.
Iran states that it presently produces uranium enriched at 4.5% U-235. That’s in breach of the 3.67% limit set by the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but nowhere near the 20% level needed for research reactors.
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