WASHINGTON — The United States announced harsh new penalties on the Iranian military and state-owned banking systems Thursday, raising pressure on the world financial system to cut ties with a regime the West accuses of bankrolling terrorism and seeking a nuclear bomb.
The U.S. sanctions on elements of Iran’s vast armed forces and its largest bank are the most sweeping since 1979, when the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran ruptured diplomatic, business and military ties.
The sanctions are the first of their type imposed by the United States specifically against the armed forces of another government. They are part of the Bush administration’s two-track approach to its chief adversary in the Mideast that offsets diplomatic overtures with sanctions, bellicose rhetoric and the implicit threat of military action.
U.S. officials insisted Thursday that the new moves do not hasten war and that the United States remains committed to finding a way to talk Iran out of a nuclear program the U.S. claims is hostile.
The punitive moves directly target Iranian organizations and people the U.S. accuses of supporting terrorism or spreading weapons of mass destruction, but the main effect is likely to fall elsewhere — on European and other overseas banks and firms that do business with oil-rich Iran.
“As awareness of Iran’s deceptive behavior has grown, many banks around the world have decided as a matter of prudence and integrity that Iran’s business is simply not worth the risk,” Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said.
There has been grumbling, mainly in Europe, about earlier U.S. financial sanctions on Iran that overseas bankers found heavy-handed, but Paulson is right that some of Iran’s former financial partners have already distanced themselves from Tehran under hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Paulson and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the penalties together, a recognition that a year-old effort to levy unilateral Treasury sanctions has had far greater effect than the diplomatic channels Rice has pursued with Iran.