- The Washington Times - Monday, June 24, 2019

President Trump hit Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and top military officials with fresh sanctions Monday in the wake of Tehran’s shoot-down of a U.S. Navy surveillance drone, calling the financial penalties “a strong and proportionate response to Iran’s increasingly provocative actions.”

Days after he called off a retaliatory military strike against Iran, Mr. Trump also challenged other nations to step up security for oil shipping in the dangerous Persian Gulf region or to start paying the U.S. military for protecting the vital passage for much of the world’s energy supply. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the issue with the king and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in a meeting there Monday.

With Mr. Pompeo visiting the region amid growing tensions, the U.S. issued a joint statement with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom calling on Iran to stop threatening regional stability with its aggressive actions.

“These attacks threaten the international waterways that we all rely on for shipping,” said the joint statement, urging “diplomatic solutions to de-escalate tensions.”

Sanctions against Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the English-speaking diplomat and one of the regime’s most recognized figures, are coming soon, U.S. officials said.

Iran officially shrugged off the actions from Washington, but European allies who still back the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran that Mr. Trump abandoned offered a cool reception to moves to choke off Iran’s economic lifeline and force the regime into new talks.

At the White House, Mr. Trump, who said he called off a U.S. airstrike against Iranian targets at the last minute Thursday, signed an executive order to freeze any assets in the U.S. connected with Ayatollah Khamenei and eight Iranian military leaders. The move is aimed at blocking their access to international financial systems.

Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, blocked from a closed-door Security Council session Monday afternoon on the rising Middle East tensions, called the situation “very dangerous” and said the U.S. should de-escalate tensions by stopping “its military adventurism” in the region, withdrawing its “naval armada” and moving away from “economic warfare against the Iranian people.”

Majid Takht Ravanchi said the Trump administration’s decision to impose new sanctions on the Islamic republic is another indication of U.S. hostility against the Iranian people and its leaders. He told reporters in New York that U.S.-Iranian talks are impossible under current conditions and that “you cannot start a dialogue with someone who is threatening, who is intimidating you.”

After the session, the ambassadors from France, Germany and Britain issued a joint statement expressing their continuing support for the 2015 nuclear deal and calling for “de-escalation and dialogue” by all sides.

Limited patience

Mr. Trump reiterated that he doesn’t want war with Tehran but said his patience is limited. Iran says it will exceed its level of enriched uranium set by the 2015 deal if other countries do not help it overcome U.S. economic pressure.

“We do not seek conflict with Iran or any other country,” Mr. Trump said. “I can only tell you we cannot ever let Iran have a nuclear weapon. I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to show it in the future.”

Mr. Trump said Iran’s supreme leader “ultimately is responsible for the hostile conduct of the regime.”

“The assets of Ayatollah Khamenei and his office will not be spared from the sanctions,” the president said. “His office oversees the regime’s most brutal instruments, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.” Mr. Trump pronounced the ayatollah’s name “Khomeini” — the name of the fiery Iranian leader of the American hostage era who died in 1989.

The Treasury Department said the eight senior commanders of navy, aerospace and ground forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “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.”

Mr. Trump emphasized that his actions are aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and to stop Tehran from funding terrorism. He also said he wants a dialogue with Iran’s leaders to reach those goals and eventually to lift the sanctions, which include severe restrictions on exporting crude oil.

“I look forward to discussing whatever I have to discuss with anybody that wants to speak,” the president said. “In the meantime, who knows what’s going to happen?”

Mr. Trump and his more hawkish aides have struggled to find the right balance between keeping Iran in check and protecting key regional U.S. allies, while respecting the president’s clear reluctance to get the U.S. military involved in another major war in the Middle East.

Iran said Monday that U.S. cyberattacks against its military had failed.

“They try hard but have not carried out a successful attack,” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology, said in a post on Twitter.

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the sanctions are more than symbolic. His nonprofit research group has identified more than 300 companies, directors and executives with holdings confiscated from private Iranian citizens to build the supreme leader’s $200 billion empire.

“Iranians know how corrupt the supreme leader is. These entities acquired a considerable share of their assets from the systematic confiscation of private property that followed the Islamic Revolution and the expropriation of Iranian private property,” Mr. Dubowitz said. “The administration’s decision to sanction the supreme leader, his office and his financial instruments is not just symbolically important in demonstrating that Khamenei remains the supreme obstacle to a better life for Iranians.”

Questioning the pressure

But the president of the National Iranian American Council, Jamal Abdi, said the latest sanctions under the administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” are likely to further inflame tensions with Iran.

“Sanctions are what got us into this mess. More sanctions will not get us out of it,” Mr. Abdi said. President Trump “is staying the course and driving us further towards the brink of a completely avoidable crisis of his administration’s making.”

Mr. Abdi said the Iranian government “is keeping the door open to negotiating with Trump.”

“And if Trump’s bottom line is truly to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, now is the time for him to pause the pressure campaign, bring on [American] officials who can negotiate with the Iranians, and pursue negotiations based on mutual respect and realistic concessions,” he said.

In the wake of his latest confrontation with Iran, Mr. Trump opened a new line of speculation on Twitter by questioning why the U.S. continues to provide free military protection for other oil importers such as China and Japan in the dangerous Persian Gulf region without paying for safe passage.

Noting that the U.S. has become less reliant on oil from the Middle East, the president tweeted, “So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation? All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey.”

The president said China gets 91% of its imported oil through the Strait of Hormuz that borders Iran, and Japan receives 62% of its oil from the same part of the world. The U.S. receives about 16% of its oil from Persian Gulf nations, mostly from Saudi Arabia.

The president’s argument is reminiscent of his push for NATO members to pay more for the alliance, which he argues largely benefits European countries against potential Russian aggression.

Mr. Pompeo was in the United Arab Emirates after meeting in Saudi Arabia with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss “the need for stronger maritime security to promote freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.”

“They also agreed on the importance of working together with the Gulf Cooperation Council to counter the Iranian threat throughout the region and to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its malign behavior,” said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

Lauren Meier contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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