US unveils fresh sanctions against top Iranian commanders, officials

New restrictions come on 40th anniversary of attack on US embassy, and as Iran ups enrichment, targeting senior military officers, chief justice, and advisers to Khamenei

A new giant billboard, designed to to mark the 40th anniversary of the Iran hostage crisis, covers the facade of a building in the Iranian capital Tehran, on November 4, 2019. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)
A new giant billboard, designed to to mark the 40th anniversary of the Iran hostage crisis, covers the facade of a building in the Iranian capital Tehran, on November 4, 2019. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

The United States on Monday announced sanctions against Iranian military commanders and officials, on the 40th anniversary of the 1979 US embassy takeover.

The sanctions, announced on the US Department of the Treasury’s website, target nine people, including top Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Bagheri, the country’s chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, and Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Velayati, who served as Iran’s foreign minister from 1981-1997, is wanted in Argentina, in connection with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center blamed on Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group with close ties to Tehran.

Also targeted by the sanctions was Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff, which is under Khamenei’s command.

Iranian presidential candidate Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister, walks past a portrait of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the conclusion of his press conference in Tehran, Iran, Monday, June 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

The sanctions mean that any US assets held by the individuals will be blocked and make financial dealings with them a crime for anyone under US jurisdiction.

“This action further constricts the supreme leader’s ability to execute his agenda of terror and oppression,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

The sanctions came as Iran announced it was further ramping enrichment in its latest pullback from the 2015 nuclear pact, and as Iranians gathered at the former embassy compound chanting anti-American slogans to mark the anniversary.

Zealots held the diplomats for 444 days, leading the United States to break off ties and souring relations to this day.

“Forty years later, the revolutionary regime in Tehran has proven, time and again, that its first acts after gaining power were a clear indication of its evil character,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

“The regime continues to unjustly detain Americans and to support terrorist proxy groups like Hezbollah that engage in hostage taking,” he said.

But he said that the United States sought “friendship” and a “truly representative government” with Iran’s people.

“While the Iranian regime’s decision to jail our diplomats has cast a 40-year shadow over our relations, the United States knows that the longest-suffering victims of the Iranian regime are the Iranian people,” Pompeo said.

A statement from the White House accused said the “Iranian regime continues to target innocent civilians for use as pawns in its failed foreign relations. Until Iran changes this and its other hostile behavior, we will continue to impose crippling sanctions.”

“The Iranian regime has a choice. Instead of being the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, it can put the Iranian people first. It can choose peace over hostage taking, assassinations, sabotage, maritime hijacking, and attacks on global oil markets,” it added.

The administration also issued an up to $20 million reward for information about missing former FBI agent Robert Levinson. He disappeared in Iran in 2007 but the Iranian government has never acknowledged arresting him.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a meeting in Tehran, Iran, September 17, 2019. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Earlier Monday, Iran broke further away from its collapsing 2015 nuclear deal with world powers by announcing it was doubling the number of advanced centrifuges it operates, calling the decision a direct result of US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement.

The announcement also said Iran now has a prototype centrifuge that works 50 times faster than those allowed under the deal. By starting up these advanced centrifuges, Iran further cuts into the one year that experts estimate Tehran would need to have enough material for building a nuclear weapon — if it chose to pursue one. Iran long has insisted its program is for peaceful purposes, though Western fears about its work led to the 2015 agreement that saw Tehran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Tehran has gone from producing some 450 grams (1 pound) of low-enriched uranium a day to 5 kilograms (11 pounds), said Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will announce further steps away from the accord sometime soon, government spokesman Ali Rabiei separately said Monday, suggesting Salehi’s comments could be followed by additional violations of the nuclear deal. An announcement had been expected this week.

Meanwhile Monday, demonstrators gathered in front of the former US Embassy in downtown Tehran as state television aired footage from other cities across the country making the anniversary.

A technician at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, February 3, 2007. (AP/Vahid Salemi/File)

“Thanks to God, today the revolution’s seedlings have evolved into a fruitful and huge tree that its shadow has covered the entire” Middle East, said Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi, the commander of the Iranian army.

This year’s commemoration of the embassy seizure comes as Iran’s regional allies in Iraq and Lebanon face widespread protests. The Iranian Consulate in Karbala, Iraq, a holy city for Shiites, saw a mob attack it overnight. Three protesters were killed during the attack and 19 were wounded, along with seven policemen, Iraqi officials said.

Trump retweeted posts by Saudi-linked media showing the chaos outside the consulate. The violence comes after the hard-line Keyhan newspaper in Iran reiterated a call for demonstrators to seize US and Saudi diplomatic posts in Iraq in response to the unrest.

The collapse of the nuclear deal coincided with a tense summer of mysterious attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities that the US blamed on Iran. Tehran denied the allegation, though it did seize oil tankers and shoot down a US military surveillance drone.

The US has increased its military presence across the Mideast, including basing troops in Saudi Arabia for the first time since the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Both Saudi Arabia and the neighboring United Arab Emirates are believed to be talking to Tehran through back channels to ease tensions.

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