US gets serious on Iran sanctions

For banks, oil companies and other big businesses around the world, from India to Japan, Russia and Germany, the US now has a clear message: you're either with us or with Iran.

Doing business with both is no longer possible, at least in theory.

"This cannot be business as usual and we recognise that there is going to have to be a lot of due diligence," said State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley in a BBC interview.

The unilateral US sanctions passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama on 1 July go further than the fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran approved by the Security Council in June.

Washington will now penalise companies that invest more than $20m (£12.5m) in any project that significantly "contributes to the enhancement of Iran's ability to develop petroleum resources".

The export of refined petroleum products to Iran is also a target, and sanctions build on past UN and US designations of entities.

Those companies found guilty could find themselves shut out of the US financial system.

The US treasury department's sanctions tsar, Stuart Levy, told the BBC this wasn't US bullying because companies had a choice about whether "they'll do business in Iran or with the United States, and for example get US government contracts".

The new law will in fact require that American and foreign businesses that seek contracts with the United States government certify that they do not engage in prohibited business with Iran.

Presidential waiver

The sanctions legislation goes further than US unilateral sanctions have done in the past because it curbs the ability American presidents had under previous legislation to waive the sanctions on "national security grounds" - in other words, when they felt it tied their hands in the conduct of foreign diplomacy and could upset allies.

In the end, no foreign company was ever sanctioned under the 1996 Iran sanctions act, but this will now likely change.

Instead of a blanket waiver, the president will now only be able to waive sanctions on companies for 12 months on a case-by-case basis and as long as he certifies to Congress that the country where the company is based is co-operating in multilateral efforts to isolate Iran.

"This waiver has the name-and-shame effect and a political cost for the White House," said Howard Berman, a Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs committee, and one of the lawmakers leading the effort to pass the legislation.

Major banks in Japan and Germany, oil companies in India and companies elsewhere are scrutinising the law to determine the impact it will have on their business.

The EU has now also introduced similar tough unilateral measures.

Indian concern

A few days after the US sanctions became law, India's Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said his country was worried that "unilateral sanctions recently imposed by individual countries [could] have a direct and adverse impact on Indian companies and, more importantly, on our energy security."

It's this kind of reaction from allies and even rivals, like China, that has in the past stopped the US from enforcing the sanction regime too assiduously.

In fact, a New York Times analysis in March found that billions of US taxpayers' money had been spent in Iran, including $15bn (£9.5bn) paid to companies that defied American sanctions by making large investments that helped Iran develop its oil and gas reserves.

But Robert Einhorn, the state department co-ordinator for Iran sanctions, said the US would "aggressively prosecute" anyone in violation of US laws.

Enforcement of the law will require significant negotiations between the US and foreign governments, on a technical but also diplomatic level.

Foreign firms who are found in violation of the sanctions will be given some time to unwind their Iran business before the US takes punitive action and before any diplomatic row erupts.

Chinese 'responsibilities'

China's business ties with Iran are also a source of concern to the US because Beijing may try to fill the vacuum left behind by companies that pull out from Iran.

"If China wants to do business around the world it will also have to protect its own reputation, and if you acquire a reputation as a country that is willing to skirt and evade international responsibilities that will have a long-term impact," said Mr Crowley, the state department spokesperson.

"We understand [the Chinese] have their financial concerns but their international responsibilities are clear," he added.

In theory that is true, but in practice, as with all sanctions against any country, the loopholes are there, as are the companies that might be willing to pay the cost of losing access to the US financial system.

And while the use of the presidential waiver is now more limited, it's still an option.

If Russia offers to help in other ways to further the multinational effort to isolate Iran, Russian oil companies could still find a waiver or two coming their way.

US urges Japan to get tough on Iran

TOKYO (AFP) — Senior US officials on Wednesday urged Japan to follow Europe's example and take "strong measures" to punish Iran over its contentious nuclear programme.

Japan imposed sanctions against Iran on Tuesday in line with a UN resolution and said it plans to announce additional punitive measures later this month.

Robert Einhorn, State Department special adviser for non-proliferation and arms control, called for tough measures from Tokyo, which has long been on relatively good terms with Tehran.

"Japan imports a lot of oil from Iran, but the steps we are asking Japan to take would not interfere in any way with Japan's energy security, its imports of oil from Iran," he told a press conference.

He said he had told Japanese officials in an earlier meeting "to look at the measures already adopted by the European Union".

"These are strong measures. Japanese adoption of these strong measures would not adversely affect the economy of Japan," said the official, who earlier visited South Korea to rally support for tough sanctions.

The UN Security Council in June slapped its fourth set of sanctions on Iran over its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment work, part of a nuclear programme which many nations fear masks a drive for nuclear weapons.

The European Union last week announced additional sanctions, which have been opposed by Russia and China, now Iran's closest trading partner, with major energy interests in the country.

The EU measures include a ban on the sale of technology and services to Iran's energy sector, hitting activities in refining, liquefied natural gas, exploration and production, and a ban on investments in the energy sector.

Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is peaceful.

Daniel Glaser, a senior Treasury official overseeing efforts to combat terrorist financing and financial crimes, said US officials "look forward to (Japan's) next steps that go beyond its UN requirements".

On North Korea, Einhorn said he was unsure whether Pyongyang was ready to return to six-party talks aimed at stemming its nuclear ambitions, given its recent behaviour -- for example, the torpedoing of a South Korean warship, for which a multinational panel blamed the North.

"North Korea's actions raised legitimate questions in the minds of people about whether they are actually prepared to live up to their obligations to disarm completely, verifiable and irreversibly," he said.

"If the North Koreans are sincere... they have to take convincing tangible steps," Einhorn said.

He said those who had met North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il indicated he seemed to be "of sound mind" despite his apparent poor health.

"He seems to be talking and acting effectively," Einhorn said.

Iran’s account of woman’s crime shifting from adultery to murder

TEHRAN — Iran appears to be answering international criticism of its handling of the case of a woman sentenced to death by stoning by suggesting that she is guilty not only of adultery, but also of murder.

On Tuesday, in the first official response to the Brazilian president’s weekend offer of asylum for the woman, Sakineh Ashtiani, 43, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the president had not been fully informed on the case and that “the details of the conviction of this individual” would render it “clear.”

The comment came after an earlier report by the conservative news service Jahan that stated, without citing any source, that Ms. Ashtiani had been convicted of the murder of her husband but that judges had not released that information to the press as the details of the killing were “too horrific.”

The same report has been published on several other Iranian news Web sites.

In 2006, Ms. Ashtiani received 99 lashes for having “illicit relations” with two men after her husband died Later that year, one of the men was convicted of the murder of her husband. Her case was revisited, and she was convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning.

Last month, Iran’s judiciary postponed a final decision on her case, with a review apparently focused on whether she should be hung rather than stoned.

Over the weekend, President Lula InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva said that Brazil would grant the convicted woman a home in exile if she were “causing problems in Iran.” He had initially refused calls by human rights campaigners to use his cordial relations with the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to influence the case but appeared to change his mind while on a campaign visit in support of a woman, his former chief of staff, whom he has chosen to succeed him in Brazil’s next presidential election.

Iran has been criticized by human rights groups over its extensive use of the death penalty, as well as its adherence to strict Islamic laws which make adultery a capital crime.

Japan imposes sanctions on Iran over nuke program

TOKYO (AFP) - Japan imposed sanctions on Iran over its contentious nuclear program on Tuesday in line with a United Nations (UN) resolution and said it plans to announce additional punitive measures later this month. The cabinet of Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced the steps as the United States State Department’s special adviser for non-proliferation and arms control Robert Einhorn headed for Tokyo as part of an East Asian tour.

The measures include an asset freeze on 40 Iranian entities and one individual suspected of being involved in nuclear and missile development.

The UN Security Council in June slapped its fourth set of sanctions on Iran over its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment work, part of a nuclear program, which many nations fear masks a drive for nuclear weapons.

The US, European Union (EU), Canada and Australia have also announced additional sanctions, which have been opposed by Russia and China, now Iran’s closest trading partner, with major energy interests in the country.

Japan is also considering its own additional sanctions, the top government spokesman Yoshito Sengoku said.

“The government will push ahead with studying measures our country should take so that we will have a conclusion as soon as possible by the end of August,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku told a press conference.

“We believe we need to address the issue sternly to reach a diplomatic, peaceful solution,” he said.

European foreign ministers last week adopted measures targeting Iran’s oil and gas industries, going beyond the latest UN sanctions.

The EU measures include a ban on the sale of technology and services to Iran’s energy sector, hitting activities in refining, liquefied natural gas, exploration and production, and a ban on investments in the energy sector.

Iran maintains that its nuclear program is peaceful.

U.S. blacklists Iran military leaders, 21 firms

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.