US Ratchets Up Tehran Tensions With New Round of Sanctions

WASHINGTON (CN) — Spurning calls to de-escalate tensions as Iran’s death toll from Covid-19 rises daily, the U.S. leveled sanctions Thursday against at least 12 people and five companies linked to the country’s Revolutionary Guard.

The State Department in a statement said Tehran faces the latest round of sanctions for subverting the U.S.-backed push by Iraq to achieve energy independence.

Iran is said to have initially downplayed its confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but data culled by Johns Hopkins University show that the pandemic there has so far claimed at least 2,234 lives, with total cases approaching 30,000.

A man shelters from the rain with an umbrella a he walks past an old building decorated with replica of Iranian old paintings in a mostly empty street in a commercial district in downtown Tehran on Sunday. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Critics say the sanctions are slowing the delivery of urgently needed medical supplies to Iran. While the Trump administration has not sanctioned medicine or humanitarian assistance, banks and companies fearful of getting caught up in U.S. secondary sanctions have held back from efforts to aid Iran, now a major epicenter in the pandemic.

“To help stem the continued spread of the virus inside Iran and beyond, we urge you to issue a time-bound suspension of those U.S. sanctions that make it harder for ordinary Iranians to secure basic goods and services to weather the crisis,” more than 30 nonprofits, civil rights groups and think-tanks said last week in a letter to President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Congressional Democrats have also called for an easing of sanctions. “We need to suspend these sanctions before more lives are lost,” Representative Ilhan Omar tweeted earlier this month. The Minnesota Democrat is one of the two Muslim-American women elected to Congress, the first woman of color to represent her state, and the first Somali-American congressperson.

In its statement Thursday, the State Department detailed its claim of how the sanctioned entities exploited Iraq’s dependence on Iranian electricity imports for the benefit of the Revolutionary Guard, enabling the terrorist group to transfer lethal aid to Iranian-backed terrorist groups, like Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

“Under a U.S.-issued sanctions waiver, Iraq is permitted to engage in financial transactions related to the import of electricity from Iran.  The purpose of this waiver, which the United States is renewing today, is to meet the immediate energy needs of the Iraqi people,” the State Department said.

A 2012 FBI poster showing a composite image of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, right, of how he would look like now, left, taken from the video, released by his captors in Washington during a news conference. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

The sanctions are meant to counter what the State Department labeled as an exploitation of the U.S. sanctions waiver allowing Iraq to keep up electricity exports from Iran.

“Today’s designations underscore that the United States will not tolerate profiteering by malign Iranian actors from transactions that take place under the sanctions waiver, and we will remain focused on sanctioning those who do so for the benefit of the IRGC-QF or other designated terrorist groups,” the State Department said.

The sanctions come just a day after the family of Bob Levinson, the longest-held American captive, announced that U.S. authorities have informed them the former FBI agent likely died in Iran.

Levinson disappeared in Iran while on a 2007 mission for the CIA. Iran has repeatedly denied involvement, but White House security adviser Robert O’Brien called Wednesday for Tehran to provide a complete accounting of Levinson’s fate.

“While the investigation is ongoing,” O’Brien said in a statement Wednesday, “we believe that Bob Levinson may have passed away some time ago.”

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