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Trump Sanctions Iran’s Supreme Leader in Provocative Move

President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and eight senior military commanders, a provocative step designed to increase pressure on the Islamic Republic.

Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday that the penalties would deny Khamenei and his office access to financial resources.

“The supreme leader of Iran is the one who ultimately is responsible for the hostile conduct of the regime,” Trump said.

Trump last week abruptly canceled planned air strikes against Iran for shooting down a U.S. Navy drone on Thursday. The administration also blames Iran for recent attacks on two oil tankers near the Persian Gulf, though Iran denies it.

The penalties won’t have a significant impact on a country that’s already in recession and facing heavy sanctions from the U.S. Still, the new restrictions serve as symbolic reprimand for the attacks, according to former Treasury officials.

‘Annoy the Iranians’

“It will have an effect because it will annoy the Iranians and make negotiations hard to pull off if the supreme leader is sanctioned,” said Brian O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who previously worked in the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions unit.

The U.S. already has sanctioned more than 80% of Iran’s economy, according to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. He’s en route to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to rally a front against Iran.

Khamenei, who was initially elected president of the nascent republic in 1981, has “possessions” worth an estimated at $200 billion, according to a Facebook post by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in April. He is backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and has survived an assassination attempt and frontline combat.

The U.S. Treasury Department said Monday those sanctioned also include eight officials of the Guard Corps who supervised “malicious regional activities,” including its ballistic missile program and “harassment and sabotage” of commercial ships in international waters.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at a news conference in Washington that some of the sanctions had been “in the works” and others were a result of “recent activities.” He said sanctions against the Islamic Republic have been effective in cutting off funds to the military and “locking up” the Iranian economy, and that the new penalties would be effective as well.

Mnuchin said the U.S. will impose financial restrictions on Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “later this week.”

Trump told reporters Monday that, “A lot of restraint has been shown by us, a lot of restraint — and that doesn’t mean we are going to show it in the future, but I thought that we want to give this a chance,” he said.

Any financial institution that knowingly assists with a financial transaction for those who were sanctioned could be cut off from the U.S. financial system, according to the Treasury.

Trump’s Warning

Trump had warned of additional sanctions on Saturday. At the same time, he said an interview that aired Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he thinks Iranian leaders want to negotiate and he’s willing to talk with no preconditions except that the outcome must be Iran acquiring no nuclear weapons. Trump said the proposed discussions have “nothing to do with oil.”

Even before the new penalties were announced, the U.S. had applied sanctions to nearly 1,000 Iranian entities, including banks, individuals, ships and aircraft. In May, the Trump administration prohibited the purchase of Iranian iron, steel, aluminum and copper.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry had said new penalties won’t force the country to negotiate or capitulate.

“Are there any other sanctions left for the U.S. to impose on Iran?” ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Monday prior to Trump’s announcement, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. The Trump administration “knows full well that if pressure and sanctions were the answer, they would have yielded results much earlier.”

Tensions have spiked in the Gulf since May, when the Trump administration revoked waivers on the import of Iranian oil, squeezing its economy a year after the U.S. walked away from the landmark 2015 deal meant to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon. Since then, a spate of attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz shipping choke point have raised the specter of war and pushed up oil prices. The U.S. has blamed the attacks on Tehran, which has denied any wrongdoing.

On Monday, Trump questioned in comments on Twitter why the U.S. was protecting the shipping route on behalf of other countries.

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