Be smart, strategic, limited as possible, Blinken said to urge

US, Europe to up Iran sanctions as Israel pressed to ditch threatened retaliation

EU foreign police chief says request to add IRGC to blacklist impossible without evidence of terror activity; top German, UK diplomats head to Israel to discuss lowering tensions

A banner depicting the mythical Persian hero Arash the archer firing a missile from his bow, with text in Persian reading 'I will not abandon my homeland,' hangs on a suspended pedestrian bridge crossing in central Tehran on April 15, 2024. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
A banner depicting the mythical Persian hero Arash the archer firing a missile from his bow, with text in Persian reading 'I will not abandon my homeland,' hangs on a suspended pedestrian bridge crossing in central Tehran on April 15, 2024. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

The United States and European allies redoubled efforts Tuesday to press Israel for restraint following Iran’s unprecedented weekend bombardment, promising to levy tough sanctions on Tehran’s ability to sell oil and build attack drones.

Western powers fear an Israeli retaliation could plunge the region into a wider war that could draw them in while further eroding international support for Jerusalem. Senior Israeli officials have vowed to respond while promising to take the position of the US and other allies into account.

“Further significant escalation will only deepen instability in the region,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he told Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call Tuesday evening. “This is a moment for calm heads to prevail.”

In the US, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the US would work with allies and pass sanctions in the coming days to keep disrupting Iran’s “malign and destabilizing activity.”

“We don’t preview our sanctions tools. But in discussions I’ve had, all options to disrupt terrorist financing of Iran continue to be on the table,” Yellen said.

A senior Treasury official told reporters the department was working to enlist the aid of China, G7 partners and other major global suppliers to erode Iran’s ability to continue to export oil and to get the microelectronics needed for the drones it used to attack Israel and was selling to Russia.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addresses the media at Downing Street in London, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

Yellen said that the Treasury and State Department have taken previous action to contain Iran’s “destabilizing” behavior by diminishing its ability to export oil.

“Clearly, Iran is continuing to export some oil. There may be more that we could do. I don’t want to preview our actual sanctions activities, but certainly that remains in focus as a possible area that we could address.”

Some analysts said the Biden administration was unlikely to seek to sharpen sanctions on Iran’s oil exports due to worries about a big spike in oil prices and angering top buyer China.

Sunak said Monday the Group of Seven major democracies were already working on a package of coordinated measures against Iran. Italy, which has the G7 presidency, suggested any new sanctions would target individuals.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell later said the 27-nation bloc was also looking to expand sanctions against Iran in response to requests from some member states, following an informal meeting with other foreign ministers.

“I will send to the External Action Service the request to start the necessary work related to these sanctions,” he said.

The European Union’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, talks during a press conference after a meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on March 5, 2024. (John Thys/AFP)

Borrell said the proposal would expand a sanctions regime that seeks to curb the supply of Iranian drones to Russia so that it would also include the provision of missiles and could also cover deliveries to proxies in the Middle East.

Germany, France and several other EU members have publicly backed such a proposal.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Tuesday that aside from pushing for sanctions, she was also set to head to Israel Tuesday to discuss how to prevent an escalation.

Also traveling to Israel Tuesday was British Foreign Minister David Cameron, who was set to meet Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, and possibly war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, a British official said.

While the Iran attack would be on the agenda for the meetings, Cameron planned to focus on efforts to increase aid into Gaza, according to the official.

The sanctions announcements came after Katz said he was “leading a diplomatic attack” to isolate Iran, writing to 32 countries to ask them to place sanctions on Iran’s missile program and follow Washington in proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group.

A woman walks across a pedestrian crossing near a billboard depicting named Iranian ballistic missiles in service, with text in Arabic reading ‘the honest [person’s] promise’ and in Persian ‘Israel is weaker than a spider’s web,’ in Valiasr Square in central Tehran on April 15, 2024. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
Borrell said the move had come up in discussions, but could not go forward without evidence from a “nation of authority” that the IRGC was involved in terrorist activity.

However, he said he would ask the EU’s legal team to see if there was any other way to slap sanctions on the dominant military force.

The EU foreign affairs czar said the sanctions push was designed to pull Israel and Iran back from “the edge of an abyss.”

“The region doesn’t need a full war embracing the whole region, and the world neither and the people of Gaza neither,” he said.

The message was echoed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a meeting with American Jewish leaders, who told them that an escalation of the conflict is not in Washington or Jerusalem’s interests, Axios reported, citing meeting attendees.

IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari next to an Iranian ballistic missile that fell in Israel over the weekend, at the Julis military base in the south, April 16, 2024. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

The Biden administration has avoided publicly telling Israel not to strike back against Iran over the attack, but privately has urged Israel to ensure that its response doesn’t spark a regional war, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Blinken told attendees that the US was not telling Israel not to respond, and that it is ultimately Israel’s decision. “Be smart, strategic, and limited as possible,” one participant said, describing Blinken’s message.

Iran fired over 300 attack drones and missiles at Israel on Saturday, in retaliation for a deadly April 1 strike on what it said was a building in Tehran’s embassy compound in Syria, in which several commanders of Iran’s IRGC were killed, which it blames on Israel.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, Iran’s attack comprised 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles, and 120 ballistic missiles — 99 percent of which were intercepted by air defenses.

Most of the projectiles were intercepted before they reached Israel, with the help of the US, Jordan and other allies, and the sole injury was a Bedouin girl, who was struck and seriously wounded by falling shrapnel in the Negev desert. The IAF’s southern Nevatim base suffered minor damage to infrastructure, the IDF said, but continued to function during the attack.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (C) and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Tamim (R) arrive for remarks at the State Department, April 15, 2024, in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi promised Monday that the attack “will be met with a response,” but gave no details.

An Israeli source told The Times of Israel that a majority in the three-man war cabinet were in favor of a forceful retaliation, but for now, is happy to keep Iran guessing.

“Let them be anxious,” the source said.

Iran has vowed to launch an even larger attack should Israel respond, claiming it does not seek an escalation.

A US official told Axios that the US believes that if Iran attacks again, “it will be very hard to replicate the huge success we had on Saturday… and the Israelis know it.”

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