WASHINGTON – The U.S. Treasury Department has slapped sanctions on Iran's third-largest bank and an affiliate for allegedly providing financial services to other entities already sanctioned in connection with that country's disputed nuclear program.
The move came hours after the European Union imposed a new embargo on Iranian oil and petroleum products
, sales of which drive Iran's economy and fund its nuclear research. Around 80 percent of Iran's oil revenue comes from its exports.
"At a time when banks around the world are cutting off Iran and its currency is depreciating rapidly, today’s action against Bank Tejarat strikes at one of Iran’s few remaining access points to the international financial system," David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.
Cohen said the move to ban financial dealings with Bank Tejarat and its Belarus-based affiliate, Trade Capital Bank, will "deepen Iran’s financial isolation, make its access to hard currency even more tenuous, and further impair Iran’s ability to finance its illicit nuclear program."
Western powers suspect Iran of trying to build a nuclear weapon, while Tehran insists its program is for peaceful purposes. Four rounds of UN sanctions have been imposed to persuade Iran to halt the most sensitive activities.
The Treasury Department statement said Bank Tejarat has nearly 2,000 branches throughout Iran, as well as branches in Paris and Dushanbe.
It said the bank has "directly facilitated Iran's illicit nuclear efforts," including funneling tens of millions of dollars to help the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran acquire uranium.
The statement accused the bank of "repeatedly assist[ing] U.S.-designated banks in circumventing international sanctions," as well as supporting "the activities of subsidiaries and subordinates of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps."
'Sharpen The Choice'
With the new measures, Washington has now imposed sanctions on all of Iran's large state-owned banks.
Also on January 23, in addition to its own oil and petroleum embargo, the EU adopted restrictions on Iran's central bank and a ban on trade in precious metals and diamonds.
In a statement, U.S. President Barack Obama "applauded" Brussels' move and promised to "continue to impose new sanctions to increase the pressure on Iran" unless it complies with international obligations.
In a joint statement, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that along with toughened U.S. sanctions, the EU's move will "sharpen the choice for Iran's leaders and increase their cost of defiance of basic international obligations" concerning their nuclear program.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Iran has another opportunity to demonstrate openness regarding its nuclear program when a delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visits the country on January 29-31, as announced earlier in the day
"We call on Iran to cooperate fully with the IAEA on this trip," Nuland said. "The IAEA is going in a constructive spirit and it's asking Iran to display the same attitude."
News of the EU sanctions prompted a member of the Iranian parliament's National Security Committee, Mohammad Ismail Kowsari, to warn that the Strait of Hormuz -- through which one-fifth of the world's oil transits -- "would definitely be closed if the sale of Iranian oil is violated in any way."
Kowsari said the United States and its allies would not be able to reopen the route and warned Washington not to attempt any "military adventurism."
Iranian state television quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast as saying the EU sanctions amounted to "psychological warfare" and would not stop Iran from pursuing its nuclear activities.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told the official news agency IRNA that the sanctions would prove "futile" and create "more obstacles" to overcoming the nuclear standoff.
The EU's oil embargo is set to come into effect on July 1.
written by Richard Solash and Golnaz Esfandiari, with agency reports