US announces sanctions against Iran's Revolutionary Guards

Escalating tensions over Iran's nuclear programs culminate in an 'unprecedented package' of economic constraints.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced Thursday morning the harshest set of sanctions against Iran since that country's 1979 revolution, according to the Associated Press.

In the broadest U.S. unilateral penalties on Iran since the takeover ofthe U.S. Embassy in 1979, the administration slapped sanctions onIran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, a main unit of its defense ministry,three of its largest banks and eight people that it said are engaged inmissile trade and back extremist groups throughout the Middle East.
The sanctions target 25 Iranian entities, including individuals and companies owned or controlled by the Revolutionary Guard that play a major role in Iran’s domestic economy and international trade. They are the first of their type taken by the United States specifically against the armed forces of another government

Britain's Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, echoed the US's earlier calls for sanctions on the Iranian government by the United Nations (UN), saying it, too, would push for further sanctions against Iran, NewsDay reports. The Bush administration conceded last month to Chinese and Russian demands that the UN Security Council wait until November before leveling more sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

"We are absolutely clear that we are ready, and will push for, further sanctions against Iran," Prime Minister Gordon Brown said. "We will work through the United Nations to achieve this. We are prepared also to have tougher European sanctions. We want to make it clear that we do not support the nuclear ambitions of that country."

The Iranian government has yet to respond to the announcement, but the Associated Press reports that the Guards' leader made a reference to new sanctions in a speech today.

In Tehran, the Guards’ chief, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, shrugged off increased U.S. pressure on the force.
“Today, enemy has concentrated sharp point of its attacks on the Guards,” Jafari told a military ceremony in Mashhad, east of Tehran, according to the state news agency IRNA. “They have applied all their efforts to reduce the efficiency of this revolutionary body. Now as always, the corps is ready to defend the ideals of the revolution more than ever before.”

The plans also drew a reaction from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who visited Iran's president in Tehran last week, according to the Associated Press.

Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized it, saying new international sanctions are not advisable.
"Why worsen the situation by threatening sanctions and bring it to a dead end?" Putin said in a veiled reference to the U.S. push for harsher international sanctions. "It’s not the best way to resolve the situation by running around like a madman with a razor blade in his hand."

The White House's move comes just days after Iran announced that its chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, had resigned. His resignation sent a strong message that Iran is intent on pursuing a hardened course in refusing to deal with the US and international negotiators. It was expected that Mr. Larijani's departure would elicit a stern response in kind from Washington, and Thursday's announcement seems to be just that.

However, the thrust of the sanctions, which will freeze any assets the Guards have in the US, seems more symbolic than practical, The New York Times reports:

Because Iran has done little business with the United States in more than two decades, the larger point of the designation would be to heighten the political and psychological pressure on Iran, administration officials said, by using the designation to persuade foreign governments and financial institutions to cut ties with Iranian businesses and individuals.

The sanctions are the first time that the US government has singled out the armed forces of a foreign country. But US officials seem to consider Iran's Revolutionary Guards and their elite Quds units, to be more than a conventional military force.

The Revolutionary Guard Corps, which numbers at least 125,000, is the most powerful wing of Iran's military. It controls a growing sector of the economy, including construction companies, aspects of the oil industry, pharmaceutical plants, telecommunications and ordinary commerce. US officials said it also operates the front companies that procure nuclear technology.

Syria, meanwhile, is coming under fire this week as evidence mounts of its own alleged pursuit of nuclear facilities and its support of Hizbullah. The Associated Press reports:

Commercial satellite images show construction in Syria that resembles the early stages of a small North Korean-model nuclear reactor, a report said Wednesday, speculating that it was the site hit last month by an Israeli airstrike.

The photos, taken nearly a month before the Sept. 6 strike, show a tall box-like building near the Euphrates River that the report said was similar in shape to a North Korean five-megawatt reactor building in Yongbyon.
It cautioned that the Syrian building was "not far enough along in its construction to make a definitive comparison." The photo also shows a smaller building that the report says appears to be a pump station, which would be needed to provide water to cool a reactor.
The report was written by David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear inspector and now head of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, and researcher Paul Brannan.

For their part, Syrian officials denied that the satellite images showed nuclear facilities and characterized the report as "part of a continuing campaign of accusations against Syria." The Independent of Britain added that:

Syria admits co-operating with North Korea but says the two countries have no nuclear co-operation. The site is 100 miles from Syria's border with Iraq and close to an airstrip that would allow for easy transportation of personnel. "I'm pretty convinced that Syria was trying to build a nuclear reactor," Mr Albright told The Washington Post yesterday. However the Isis report said the images "raise as many questions as they answer".

Syria has denied the presence of a nuclear reactor, but The Jerusalem Post, citing evidence from US officials, says Syria has begun dismantling the remains of the building to hide any further evidence:

The dismantling of the damaged site, which appears to be still underway, could make it difficult for weapons inspectors to determine the precise nature of the facility and how Syria planned to use it, the [Washington] Post reported.
Meanwhile, UN experts were reported to have received satellite imagery of the site struck and were analyzing it for signs that it might have been a secret nuclear facility, diplomats said Friday.

The report comes amid increasing international accusations against Syria. The Washington Post reports that UN General-Secretary Ban Ki Moon released a report Wednesday "strongly suggesting that Syria has helped smuggle weapons to the Shiite movement Hizbullah and other armed groups, and that it sponsored Islamic militants involved in a military confrontation with the Lebanese Army earlier this year."

Responding to growing accusations against Syria, Walid Jumblatt, a political leader in Lebanon, has called on the US to impose sanctions, according to the Associated Press.

Jumblatt's accusations against Syria for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and a string of political killings since then are not new, but leveling the blame against Hezbollah ups the ante between the anti-Syrian leader and the guerrilla group.
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