Simultaneously, the Justice Department announced that it had filed a civil forfeiture action for Iranian-made weapons bound for Yemen that were seized by U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. It also said it had already sold 1.1 million barrels of Iranian oil confiscated from four ships headed to Venezuela and would put most of the $40 million in proceeds into a fund for terrorism victims.
“The two forfeiture complaints allege sophisticated schemes by the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] to secretly ship weapons to Yemen and fuel to Venezuela, countries that pose grave risks to the security and stability of their regions,” said John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security. “These actions represent the government’s largest-ever civil seizures of fuel and weapons from Iran.”
The Trump administration has levied sanctions against Iran nearly every week in recent months as part of its maximum pressure campaign, which so far has failed to achieve its goal stopping Iran’s missile development program and support of militant groups in the region. U.S. officials have acknowledged they have very few targets left to sanction.
The measures are likely to be the last announced against Iran before the election, less than a week away.
Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said the unsealing of documents related to the forfeitures was “divorced from politics” and had been initiated during the summer.
Elliott Abrams, the special envoy for both Iran and Venezuela, said the latest sanctions were a logical extension of a policy that by U.S. estimates has deprived the Iranian government of at least $70 billion that could have been used for missiles and support for proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Abrams declined to speculate on the election outcome, but he said the sanctions program is meant to pressure Iran into negotiating a deal that addresses not only nuclear issues but also Iran’s behavior in the region and its missile program.
“Our hope is it would be used wisely and not discarded,” he said. “That would be foolish and tragic.”
Relations between Tehran and Washington have been on a precipitous downslide since 2018, when President Trump withdrew the United States from the multilateral nuclear deal and began imposing a steady stream of sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy. Iran has retaliated by exceeding limits for heavy water and uranium enrichment it agreed to, but it has not walked away from the pact or kicked out international inspectors.
The United States has sanctioned nearly every sector of the Iranian economy in an effort to get Tehran to renegotiate the nuclear pact. The economic punishment has been so severe that national security adviser Robert O’Brien acknowledged this week that “there’s very little left for us to do.”
Democratic nominee Joe Biden has said he would consider reentering the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, if Iran returns to full compliance. Many analysts say that by piling on more sanctions, the administration hopes to deter that.
“Without a doubt, it’s an effort to try to fill it out as much as possible, to make it difficult for a Biden administration to return to the JCPOA,” said Trita Parsi, an Iran expert with the Quincy Institute.
“Both countries have to make a decision if they want to continue be in an antagonistic situation, or move it to better place. Thinking we can have arms control agreements that are durable while we’re at each other’s throats is simply not possible.”
Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the new penalties underscore the difficulty of changing the dynamics of sanctions and the relationship between the two countries.
“The predicate for these sanctions, after all, is continued Iranian bad behavior,” he said. “Should that not change, there is no case to ease the pressure.”
But Richard Nephew, who was the chief sanctions adviser for the Obama administration during negotiations with Iran, said the Trump administration’s bellicose attitude toward Iran could buttress the urgency of reentering the abandoned nuclear deal.
“The Trump administration’s recent sanctions steps may add some political complexity to a future attempt to return to the JCPOA, but they do not create new legal boundaries,” he said. “Of course, the slow-burning crisis that the Trump administration is causing by prompting Iran’s restart of sensitive parts of the nuclear program, problematic regional behavior, and the risk of escalation into conflict will mitigate some of any political problems that returning to the JCPOA might create.”
Many allied governments share U.S. concerns about Iran’s behavior and missile development, but they have resisted the administration’s efforts to take harsher steps that would effectively kill the nuclear agreement.
Tensions flared this week when a 747 jet belonging to a sanctioned Iranian airline landed in a remote section of the airport in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas and unloaded 10 truckloads of cargo. Abrams said U.S. officials do not know what was offloaded, but he has warned of U.S. retaliation if it turns out to be long-range missiles. The United States considers an embargo on conventional arms trade with Iran to still be in place, even though Washington failed to get the Security Council to agree to an extension when the embargo expired earlier this month.