US ramps up Iran sanctions further

The US has warned Iran that the coronavirus pandemic will not induce it to lift sanctions, as Iran and other states under sanctions petition the UN to pressure Washington to do so.

WASHINGTON D.C. - The United States on Thursday blacklisted 20 Iran- and Iraq-based companies, officials and individuals, accusing them of supporting terrorist groups and ramping up pressure on Tehran even as the Islamic Republic battles the coronavirus outbreak.

The move came as Iran published a letter addressed to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, signed by eight states currently facing US sanctions, urging the UN to pressure Washington to lift sanctions amid the global virus pandemic.

The US Treasury Department said in a statement that the individuals and entities sanctioned on Thursday supported Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its elite foreign paramilitary and espionage arm, the Quds Force, as well as transferred lethal aid to Iran-backed militias in Iraq, including Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

The Treasury said the people and entities were involved in smuggling weapons to Iraq and Yemen and selling US-blacklisted Iranian oil to the Syrian government, among other activities.

The sanctions freeze any US-held assets of those designated and generally bar Americans from doing business with them.

"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," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in the statement.

The new raft of sanctions comes as Iran has used the dramatic scale of its coronavirus outbreak - the worst in the Middle East and among the worst in the world - to blame the US for hampering access to badly needed medical supplies.

On Thursday, China and Iran led a group of countries in a joint push to urge the UN to pressure Washington to lift sanctions, which they charged are hindering the global fight against COVID-19.

"We urge you to request the complete and immediate lifting of such illegal, coercive and arbitrary measures of economic pressure (...) in order to ensure the full, effective and efficient response of all members of the international community to the coronavirus," they said in a letter addressed to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Dated Wednesday, the letter was published on Twitter by the Iranian mission to the UN.

The letter does not specifically mention Washington, but all eight signatories currently face US sanctions. The signatories said they want to "reject the politicization of such a pandemic."

In addition to Iran and China, two of the countries most affected by the coronavirus, the signatories include Russia, Venezuela, North Korea, Nicaragua, Cuba and Syria.

Iraq waivers

The US also granted Iraq a 30-day waiver to keep importing Iranian gas despite American sanctions, AFP news agency reported, although it was the shortest extension yet as Washington looks to squeeze Iran even further.

The US slapped tough sanctions on the Iranian energy sector in late 2018 and has granted Iraq a series of waivers, usually for 45, 90 or 120 days. Baghdad relies on gas and electricity imports from its neighbour Tehran to supply about a third of its power grid, crippled by years of conflict and poor maintenance.

"This is the final extension," AFP quoted a source at the Iraqi president's office as saying. The source said Washington had been frustrated that Iran was meddling in the government formation process in Iraq.

In Washington, the State Department confirmed the extended waiver "to meet the immediate energy needs" of Iraq without specifying the duration.

In the sanctions that had been announced earlier, the Treasury had specifically cited the Reconstruction Organization of the Holy Shrines in Iraq. It said the body was under the control of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards and had funnelled weapons to Iraqi Shiite paramilitaries, who have increasingly waged a proxy war with US forces.

Mnuchin accused Iran of "prioritizing terrorist proxies over the basic needs of its people."

Adnan Zurfi, who has had close ties with US officials since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, was nominated for Iraq's premiership on March 17 and has a month to pull together his cabinet. Failure to renew the gas waiver would likely have put Zurfi in a difficult position as he attempts to form a government.

AFP spoke to an Iraqi official who said Baghdad had prepared a checklist at the beginning of the last 45-day waiver period of ways the country could decrease its reliance on Iranian oil.

Iraq has been hit by a cocktail of crises in recent weeks, including stalemate over forming a government, collapsing oil prices and the novel coronavirus pandemic.

OPEC's second-biggest producer relies on crude exports to fund more than 90 percent of its state budget, but the crash to a price of under $30 per barrel has seriously undermined the government's fiscal position.