Obama administration unveils new Iran economic sanctions

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration unveiled new measures Wednesday to isolate Iran commercially and financially from the rest of the world in hopes of convincing the Persian Gulf nation to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

At a White House briefing, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner detailed new steps, targeting the banking, maritime and insurance sectors and follows last week’s United Nations Security Council decision to impose a new round of sanctions against Iran.

The European Union Thursday is expected to announce even tougher measures. News reports suggested leaders will announce bans on investment in Iran’s oil and natural gas sector, and technology transfer.

A European diplomat in Washington said the additional measures represent a new level of penalties on Iran. The diplomat asked not to be identified to speak freely.

Iran’s FARS News Agency reported Wednesday that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned his nation would reciprocate if U.N. sanctions are enforced.

“If any government in any corner of the world wants to trample on even an iota of the Iranian nation’s rights under the pretext of these resolutions, the Iranian nation reserves the right for itself to take a decisive retaliatory move,” FARS quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. Iran denies Western allegations that its nuclear enrichment program is intended to produce nuclear weapons.

Iran is the second largest oil exporter in the OPEC cartel, and Geithner on Wednesday targeted 20 companies, some in Germany, Singapore and the Isle of Jersey, with alleged ties to Iran’s oil ministry.

“This is something the United States cannot do alone,” Geithner told a White House briefing.

Even more measures “to increase the financial pressure on Iran” can be expected in coming weeks, he said, in order to target Iran’s support of terrorism.

“They are the single greatest challenge we have,” Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, Geithner’s sanctions czar, later said, adding the new measures “significantly broaden” the scope of what has been targeted in Iran.

The steps spelled out by Treasury officials Wednesday included an executive order to freeze the assets of Post Bank, the 16th Iranian bank to be targeted for U.S. sanctions. The Treasury Department accuses Post Bank of taking over the international operations of another sanctioned entity, Bank Sepah, when that institution was isolated by Treasury sanctions.

They also targeted Iran’s national ship line, Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, or IRISL. Treasury wants to prevent IRISL from making port calls or getting insurance for cargo being carried to and from Iran. Last week’s Security Council resolution allowed for the boarding of Iranian vessels on high seas.

Five companies identified as front companies for IRISL were targeted on allegations they help move everything from cargo in containers to grains and other bulk products into Iran. One of these firms is a ship management company, and two Hong Kong-based firms, Seibow Ltd. and Seibow Logistics, are also sanctioned.

Seibow’s website, www.seibow.net, features a logo but no live links to any information about the firm. The Indonesia Shipping Gazette lists four local Seibow offices, and all offer www.irisl.net as their website. Seibow doesn’t show up, however, when using the IRISL site’s search bar.

Also Wednesday, Treasury identified 27 vessels as “blocked property” because of connections to IRISL. Seventy-one vessels were already blocked, and Treasury released a list of new names the vessels now have in an apparent Iranian attempt to hide the identity of its cargo ships. Even with new names these ships face trouble in ports because the sanctions identify their International Maritime Organization number, which works like a vehicle identification number on automobiles.

Iran Insurance Company, the state insurer, was also designated for sanctions on Wednesday, along with Bimeh Iran Insurance Co. (U.K.) Ltd., which Treasury officials said was controlled by the Iranian state insurer.

Twenty companies inside and outside Iran with ties to oil were also targeted. These included petrochemical companies in Germany, Singapore, Dubai and the Isle of Jersey, all of whom were alleged to be front companies for Iran’s oil ministry.

The U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The U.S. steadily has ratcheted up sanctions on Iran’s economy for almost a decade, with mixed success. The sanctions haven’t ended Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium, nor have they halted its support of groups on U.S. designated terror lists. They have, however, forced the Iranian government to work harder to interact with banks and conduct foreign commerce.

“Workarounds can be very time consuming and very expensive,” said Bob Einhorn, a State Department special adviser for arms control.

The Iran sanctions are now a high stakes sort of cat-and-mouse game.

“The standard people often use to judge the sanction is: Will it change nuclear calculations? A more obtainable objective for these sanctions is to delay Iran’s nuclear program. There we’ve had some successes,” said Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of research for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a policy organization.
He added, “The question is can we slow them down … it’s not taken anyone else in the world this long to get where they (the Iranians) are.”