US slaps sanctions on Iran shipping network over Syria oil

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The United States on Wednesday sanctioned an “oil for terror” network of firms, ships and individuals allegedly directed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that supplied Syria with oil worth hundreds of millions of dollars in breach of US sanctions.

The US action intensified a “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at driving to zero Iran’s oil exports, the country’s main source of income, and almost certainly will increase tensions that erupted when President Donald Trump withdrew last year from an international accord designed to stop Tehran from producing nuclear weapons.

Iran has been gradually reducing its compliance with the 2015 agreement in a bid to pressure European countries to compensate it for the severe damage done to its economy by multiple rounds of US sanctions. Tehran was expected to announce further breaches sometime this month.

The 10 individuals blacklisted on Wednesday included Rostam Qasemi, a former Iranian oil minister, and his son, the US Treasury Department said in a statement.

Also hit were subsidiaries of an Indian company with an interest in the Adrian Darya, the Iranian tanker suspected of carrying oil for Syria that has been cruising the Mediterranean since its release from detention by British authorities off Gibraltar in July, it said.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control action froze any assets in the United States of the designated entities and generally prohibited US citizens or companies from doing business with them.

US officials said that the Quds Force (IRGC - QF), the IRGC’s elite foreign paramilitary and espionage arm, and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia movement, profited financially from the sales of Iranian oil and petroleum products, mostly to Syria, that this spring alone were worth more than $750 million.

“Treasury’s action against this sprawling petroleum network makes it explicitly clear that those purchasing Iranian oil are directly supporting Iran’s militants and terrorist arm, the IRGC - Quds Force,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in the statement.

US officials said that the Quds Force used the network to hide its involvement in the oil sales to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and other unidentified “illicit actors” and relied heavily on Hezbollah officials and front companies to broker the contracts.

The Quds Force and Hezbollah have been major backers of Damascus in the civil war that erupted in 2011 against decades of Assad family rule. The Quds Force and Hezbollah are on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations.

“This vast oil-for-terror shipping network demonstrates how economically reliant Tehran is on the IRGC-QF and Hezbollah as financial lifelines,” said Sigal Mandaker, the senior Treasury official who oversees sanctions.

On Tuesday, the United States imposed sanctions on the three Iranian space agencies, the Treasury Department said, as Washington ramps up pressure over Tehran's nuclear program.

ALSO READ: Rouhani: Iran will give EU countries two-month deadline to save nuclear deal

The Treasury targeted the Iran Space Agency, Iran Space Research Center and the Astronautics Research Institute, according to a statement on its website.

“The United States will not allow Iran to use its space launch program as cover to advance its ballistic missile programs,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

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