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US announces new sanctions against Iran despite coronavirus crisis

Washington issues blacklist despite pleas from some Democrats and world powers to ease measures
Iranian Firefighters disinfect streets in the capital Tehran, 13 March (AFP/File photo)
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Washington

The United States imposed a new set of sanctions against Iran on Thursday, targeting individuals and companies allegedly linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The new measures come despite pleas from key members of Congress and world powers that Washington ease its unilateral sanctions, as Iran struggles to cope with the rapidly spreading coronavirus.

The hardest-hit country in the Middle East, Iran has reported nearly 30,000 cases of Covid-19, and confirmed more than 2,200 deaths. 

The new sanctions target Iraqi and Iranian firms that the US Treasury Department accuses of acting on behalf of the IRGC's Quds Force, which coordinates Tehran's foreign military activities with its regional allies.

The companies include the Reconstruction Organisation of the Holy Shrines in Iraq (ROHSI) and the Kosar Company, an Iraqi firm associated with it. The two groups build and maintain Shia holy sites, but Washington says they are controlled by the Quds Force.

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The US Treasury also accused the Quds Force of "likely embezzling public donations" for Shia shrines in Iraq to supplement its budget. 

Moreover, Washington blacklisted Al Khamael Maritime Services, an Iraq-based shipping company said to be facilitating the sale of Iranian oil.

US citizens are now barred from doing business with the targeted companies and the designation freezes their assets in the United States.

The new sanctions also hit several Iraqi and Iranian individuals, including Shaykh Adnan al-Hamidawi, a commander for the Iraqi paramilitary group Kataeb Hezbollah.

Washington accuses al-Hamidawi of intimidating Iraqi politicians who did not support the removal of US troops from the country.

In January, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution urging the prime minister to order American soldiers out of the country after the US military assassinated Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. 

Washington and Tehran came to the verge of an all-out military confrontation following Soleimani's killing, with Iran firing dozens of missiles at Iraqi military bases that house US soldiers. 

Tensions between the two countries had been escalating since President Donald Trump abandoned the multilateral agreement that saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of sanctions.

Sanctions continue

For the past two years, the Trump administration has repeatedly imposed sanctions on Iran as a part of a "maximum pressure campaign".

But with the coronavirus spreading in and from the Islamic Republic, world leaders and rights groups have called on Washington to ease the measures.

However, Thursday's sanctions, which follow two sets of similar measures last week, show that the administration has no intention of changing course.

In a statement on Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stressed that US sanctions do not affect the humanitarian situation in Iran.

"Iran employs a web of front companies to fund terrorist groups across the region, siphoning resources away from the Iranian people and prioritizing terrorist proxies over the basic needs of its people," he claimed. 

"The United States maintains broad exceptions and authorizations for humanitarian aid including agriculture commodities, food, medicine, and medical devices to help the people of Iran combat the coronavirus."