Administration levels new sanctions on Iran amid Saudi crisis

The Trump administration is leveling sanctions against an Iranian paramilitary force and its associated companies and financial institutions, accusing the group of recruiting and training child soldiers and funding terrorism.

The Treasury Department on Tuesday designated Iran’s Basij Resistance Force — an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — and 22 companies and financial institutions associated with the group as “specially designated global terrorists.”

The designation freezes Basij assets and blocks US citizens from doing business with the Basij and its conglomerate of banks, investment companies and engineering firms, among other interests.

The sanctions are just the latest component of the Trump administration’s efforts to ramp up economic pressure on Iran and dissuade foreign companies from doing business with Iran.

The Trump administration has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia in its efforts to maximize pressure on Iran, but that relationship has come under pressure amid the ongoing controversy over the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi hasn’t been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Turkish officials say they have evidence that Khashoggi was killed, and CNN’s sources say Saudi Arabia is preparing a report contending that the Washington Post columnist died in an interrogation that went awry.

The administration has taken a cautious stance in its response to the matter, with President Donald Trump vowing a thorough accounting and sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet earlier Tuesday with Saudi King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but also resisting calls thus far to impose economic sanctions. The President tweeted on Tuesday that he’d spoken with bin Salman, who denied knowledge of the Khashoggi episode and promised “a full and complete investigation into this matter.”

“Of course we have a longstanding relationship with Saudi Arabia that is very significant to us, but that doesn’t mean in any way we are ignoring or downplaying this episode. We continue to believe those that are responsible for it have to be held accountable. And I think that’s got to be our bottom line,” a senior administration official said in a briefing with reporters.

Pressed on the importance of Saudi Arabia in the US’s broad efforts to maximize pressure on Iran and counter its behavior in the region, the official called the Saudis “one important component,” but noted that the US has “a range of them (partners) across the Middle East in the Gulf from Egypt to Bahrain.”

“I definitely agree it’s an important relationship, but that doesn’t mean we’re ignoring all other issues,” the official said.

Describing the sanctions, another senior administration official said the Basij network is a “quintessential example” of how Iran’s paramilitary forces and terrorist-supporting organizations have “infiltrated seemingly legitimate businesses.”

“The IRGC is pervasive within the Iranian economy,” the official said. “This is precisely the kind of activity we have warned other governments about.”

Senior administration officials briefing reporters about the sanctions on Tuesday said they hope the efforts will prompt the Iranian regime to change its behavior.

“Normal governments don’t have revolutionary arms that export revolutions and wreak havoc on their neighbors,” the official said.

The Trump administration believes the sanctions it has leveled on Iran, particularly since Trump withdrew the US from the Iranian nuclear deal, are working. The officials pointed to increased “spontaneous domestic protests” in Iran, including among those in Iranian society who have traditionally supported the regime.

The administration emphasized the Basij’s role in recruiting and training children as soldiers, pointing to pictures of children practicing target shooting under the auspices of the Basij.

“In addition to its involvement in violent crackdowns and serious human rights abuses in Iran, the Basij recruits and trains fighters for the IRGC-QF, including Iranian children, who then deploy to Syria to support the brutal Assad regime,” the Treasury Department said in a press release.

The Treasury Department added that the Basij also recruits among Afghan migrants to Iran.

After describing Iran’s action as not those of a “normal government,” the officials were asked whether they would describe Saudi Arabia in the same terms given the Saudi’s alleged killing of Khashoggi but declined to do so.