WASHINGTON—The U.S. Treasury blacklisted 21 state-owned Iranian companies as part of a growing and coordinated international effort to undercut Tehran's ability to use units in Europe and Asia to facilitate financial transactions and weapons development.
The Obama administration's point man in its financial war on Iran, Stuart Levey, also announced Tuesday U.S. sanctions against key leaders in Iran's elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well measures targeting Iranian foundations accused of supporting militant groups in Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories.
"As its isolation from the international financial and commercial systems increases, the government of Iran will continue efforts to evade sanctions, including using government-owned entities around the world," said Mr. Levey, Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. "Today's identifications will mitigate the risk that such entities pose."
Treasury's moves mark the latest in an escalating response from the U.S., its overseas allies, and the United Nations to Iran's continued pursuit of nuclear technologies. Tehran says it is seeking to develop civilian nuclear power, but the U.S. alleges Iran is covertly developing atomic weapons.
In June, the U.N. Security Council passed it fourth round of economic sanctions against Tehran aimed at curtailing its nuclear work. The U.S. Congress followed by passing extensive legislation targeting Iranian banks and energy companies. And the European Union last month banned any new investment in Tehran's oil- and gas-sector and significantly limited European companies' ability to do business with Iranian financial, insurance and transportation firms.
Mr. Levey said Tuesday that Iran has increasingly utilized foreign front companies to try to conduct financial transactions and facilitate Iran's development of military technologies as the sanctions have mounted.
Included on the new U.S. blacklist are nine Iranian companies based in Germany. Mr. Levey said Treasury notified Germany and all other countries affected by the sanctions ahead of the announcement.
A spokeswoman at the German embassy in Washington said her government is studying the new U.S. sanctions and stressed that Berlin has played a "leading role" in new EU sanctions passed last month.
The list also includes two companies in Belarus and one each in Japan and Italy. Some of these firms are owned by Iranian entities previously sanctioned by the Treasury, said Mr. Levey.
Onerbank ZAO of Belarus, for example, is owned by the previously designated Bank Saderat, according to the Treasury. Bank Torgovoy Kapital ZAO is owned by Iran's Bank Tejarat, it says.
U.S. individuals and companies are banned from conducting any business with the companies listed on the Treasury's Iranian Transactions Regulations list, which has now grown to 58. But Mr. Levey said the bigger impact is that foreign governments and firms will also be pressured to cease business with these Iranian companies for fear of running afoul of growing U.S. and U.N. sanctions.
"What we have found is that in many circumstances…the financial institutions will say they do not wish to do business with anyone identified on this list," said Mr. Levey, who noted that thousands of global firms are being notified of the new Treasury actions. "This allows us to take action and create a multilateral coalition to enforce it."
The Treasury on Tuesday also sanctioned four leaders of the Revolutionary Guards' Qods Force, which the U.S. believes oversees Tehran's financial support for militant groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Among those targeted were Hushang Allahdad, whom the Treasury says is the Qods Force's chief financial officer, and Gen. Hossein Musavi, believed to head the Qods Force's Ansar Corps, which is active in Afghanistan. The sanctions freeze any assets they might have in the U.S. and bans them from conducting U.S. dollar transactions. U.S. companies and business are also prevented from doing business with them.
The Treasury also sanctioned two Iranian-controlled foundations that the U.S. believes facilitates the flow of arms and money into Hezbollah's operations inside Lebanon. These include the Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon and the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee-Lebanon Branch.
The U.S. and its allies have made the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a principal target of its growing sanctions campaign. The EU last month banned all business dealings with the guard corps and the U.N. blacklisted a number of IRGC businesses, including the Khatam al-Anbiya business conglomerate.
Mr. Levey said the IRGC is increasingly dominating Iran's business sector and pushing out many smaller Iranian merchants and companies. "The Iranian people are becoming more and more victimized" by the IRGC, Mr. Levey said.
U.S. and European officials have said in recent weeks that they believe the international sanctions are having an increasing impact on Iran's ability to conduct business.
Last month, Khatam al-Anbiya pulled out of a major Iranian gas project citing the U.N. sanctions and the threat to its ability to raise financing. According to a European diplomat, more than a dozen of Tehran's cargo ships are stuck in Iranian ports due to the inability to secure overseas insurance. And some Iranian airplanes have been grounded recently due to their inability to meet European safety standards.
Senior Iranian diplomats in recent days have spoke of a renewed interest of engaging with the international community on the nuclear issue. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has cited September as a month that Tehran could meet with the U.S. and other involved parties.
U.S. officials, however, said they're only going to increase the financial pressure on Tehran in the coming weeks. Mr. Levey said he has a trip planned shortly to the Middle East aimed at better imposing the economic sanctions. And the State Department's point man on Iran and North Korea sanctions, Bob Einhorn, is visiting South Korea and Japan this week. Both Asian countries are major buyers of Iranian energy.