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US targets Iran missile program with sanctions after strikes on regional rivals

Announcement comes a day after Blinken’s meeting with Abu Dhabi crown prince, two days after call with Saudi FM as US seeks to calm their frustrations over lack of support

A house damaged by an Iranian ballistic missile attack is seen in Irbil, Iraq, March 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Ahmed Mzoori, Metrography, File)
A house damaged by an Iranian ballistic missile attack is seen in Irbil, Iraq, March 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Ahmed Mzoori, Metrography, File)

The United States on Wednesday announced sanctions against Iranian defense companies after a spate of ballistic missile attacks on targets in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates

The US and Iran’s neighbors blame Tehran for a March 13 strike on Erbil, Iraq, and for repeated missile strikes into Saudi Arabia and the UAE by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

On Friday, a Houthi missile strike set ablaze a Saudi Aramco oil storage site, prompting warnings from angry Saudi leaders that the attacks threatened the stability of the world oil market.

Even as the US carries out indirect negotiations with Iran to revive limits on Iran’s nuclear program, it will keep up penalties against those involved in Iran’s ballistic missile production, Treasury Undersecretary Brian Nelson said in announcing the sanctions.

“We will also work with other partners in the region to hold Iran accountable for its actions, including gross violations of the sovereignty of its neighbors,” Nelson said in a statement.

The move “reinforces” Washington’s commitment to prevent Iran from developing ballistic missiles, he added.

Smoke billows from an oil storage facility in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah after airstrikes by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, March 25, 2022. (Andrej Isakovic/AFP)

The US Treasury Department said the sanctions target an Iran-based procurement agent — Mohammad Ali Hosseini — and his companies, which helped acquire propellant-related materials for the missile research program of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); an Iranian defense company; and an Iranian intermediary who also helped in the development of missile propellant.

The sanctions were authorized under an existing executive order targeting producers and supporters of weapons of mass destruction. The penalties allow the US to block the assets of the sanctioned people and entities, and to prosecute others who do business with them.

The announcement came a day after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Rabat and two days after the top US diplomat spoke on the phone with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan — both part of US efforts to calm Emirati and Saudi frustration over what they feel has been a lack of support from the Biden administration amid the Houthi attacks.

Both Gulf states have pressed the US to put the Houthis back on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terror Organizations, which Biden has said he’s weighing against concerns of the impact such a move would have on the humanitarian situation in Yemen.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at his residence in Rabat, Morocco, Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been at war against Iranian-backed Houthi fighters who have seized much of northern Yemen. The IRGC claimed responsibility for the March 13 strike on Erbil, and alleged it was targeting an Israeli strategic center there.

The sanctions were announced as the US and Iran are nearing an agreement on a joint return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) after nearly a year of intermittent negotiations in Vienna.

The agreement that traded sanctions relief for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program fell apart in 2018 when then-president Donald Trump withdrew and Tehran began accelerating its enrichment activities, in violation of the JCPOA.

While the sides have acknowledged significant progress in recent weeks, an Iranian demand that the US delist the IRGC is believed to be a final sticking point.

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