Donald Trump has ordered new sanctions against Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and other officials including eight Revolutionary Guard commanders in the latest step of an escalating pressure campaign.
Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, will also face fresh sanctions in a few days, US officials said. He negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with the US and other major powers, and has spearheaded Iranian diplomacy since.
Signing an executive order in the Oval Office, Trump called the increased sanctions “hard-hitting”, saying they would deny the supreme leader, his office and and those closely affiliated with him access to key financial resources.
“These measures represent a strong and proportionate response to Iran’s increasingly provocative actions,” Trump said.
“We do not seek conflict with Iran or any other country,” the US president added. “I can only tell you we cannot ever let Iran have a nuclear weapon.”
Standing alongside Trump, the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, said the measures would freeze billions of dollars in Iranian assets.
A treasury statement said eight senior commanders of the navy, aerospace and ground forces components of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were also being targeted.
“These commanders sit atop a bureaucracy that supervises the IRGC’s malicious regional activities, including its provocative ballistic missile program, harassment and sabotage of commercial vessels in international waters, and its destabilizing presence in Syria,” the statement said.
Trump said he was willing to pursue dialogue with Tehran without preconditions, but the sanctions appear to make such talks even less likely, at least in the short term.
Khamenei and his family are said to control a business empire worth tens of billions of dollars.
“The supreme leader’s office has enriched itself at the expense of the Iranian people,” the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said. “It sits atop a vast network of tyranny and corruption that deprives the Iranian people of the freedom and opportunity they deserve.”
Tension has been mounting in the Gulf since Trump withdrew the US from a multilateral deal in which Iran accepted strict limits on its nuclear programme in return for sanctions. Those tensions have culminated in the sabotaging of tankers in the Persian Gulf, and the shooting down of a US drone on Thursday. Trump ordered airstrikes in reprisal, but then cancelled them.
“I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us, and that doesn’t mean we’re going to show it in the future,” Trump said on Monday.
When confirming he had aborted the attack on Iran on Friday, Trump had said he would be imposing new sanctions, but he said the measures against Khamenei and others were not specifically linked to the downing of the Global Hawk drone.
“You could probably add that into this” he said, but added: “This was something that was going to happen anyway.”
Earlier on Monday Brian Hook, the US special envoy on Iran, said he had been holding extensive talks with US allies in the wake of the Gulf of Oman tanker attacks, when two vessels were damaged by explosions. He believed a global coalition to protect shipping was required.
“There have been too many attacks. We could have had an environmental disaster and extensive loss of life due to reckless Iranian provocations,” he said.
Hook said the G20 summit this week in Japan would be a good forum for discussions. As many as 17 countries had been adversely effected by the recent tanker attacks either directly or through crew, insurance or contracts, he said, and an international force might isolate Iran diplomatically as well as make it more perilous for Tehran or its surrogates to mount further attacks.
Iran has denied responsibility for the blasts.
Hook, seen as one of the hawks on Iran inside the US administration, said Tehran faced a choice: “They can either start coming to the negotiating table or they can watch their economy continue to crumble.”
Tensions with Iran have been mounting since Donald Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal last year and began applying pressure on Tehran through economic sanctions.
Trump tweeted that other countries, including China and Japan, should protect their own oil tankers in the Middle East. “Why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries … for zero compensation,” he wrote. “All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey.”
Meanwhile, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, met Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince for talks on Monday as the US sought to promote an anti-Iran alliance.
“You are a dear friend,” King Salman told Pompeo, who was due to fly to the United Arab Emirates later on Monday for further discussions.
Iran has said it will not enter into discussions until sanctions are lifted. The fresh round of US sanctions is however an attempt to force the Iranian leadership to hold talks with the US. A near-total ban on oil exports is already in place.
A drone strike on an airport in Saudi Arabia by Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels, which left one person dead and 21 injured, will have coloured the mood among Gulf states. It follows another attack on 12 June.
Hook is also to meet officials from Britain, France and Germany this week, but declined to say what pressure he will putting on those countries to follow the US out of the nuclear deal with Iran if, as Tehran has threatened, it breaches its permitted uranium enrichment stock levels on Thursday.
The EU has the choice of either putting the issue in the nuclear deal dispute mechanism, or threatening its own retaliatory measures.
Germany appeared cool towards US talk of building a global coalition against Iran. A foreign ministry spokesman said on Monday that Berlin had “taken note via the media” of Pompeo’s comments and added that “our top aim is and remains a de-escalation of the serious situation”.
Hook claimed the EU was being subjected to nuclear blackmail by Iran, and claimed Iran had rejected the opportunity to take various diplomatic “off-ramps” in the past year.
The UK, together with France and Germany, is urging Tehran to wait for European countries to set up the much-delayed financial mechanism designed to help businesses in Europe trade with Iran, circumventing secondary US sanctions. Iran saw an increase in trade as one of the key benefits of the deal.