Donald Trump has signed an executive order that imposes new sanctions on Iranian officials including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, as the US president presses on with his “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.
Mr Trump said the “hard-hitting” fresh sanctions would prevent top officials from accessing financial instruments. The US did not seek conflict but it “cannot ever let Iran have a nuclear weapon”, he added.
The move against Mr Khamenei, Iran’s ultimate decision maker, and his office is likely to be viewed as highly provocative in Iran and will fuel suspicions that Washington is pushing for regime change in the Islamic republic.
The US and Iran have been locked in a stand-off since Mr Trump last year unilaterally withdrew from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers.
US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, would also face sanctions “later this week”. Mr Zarif is a veteran diplomat who is respected in many foreign capitals and has been at the forefront of Iran’s discussions with European powers intended to keep Tehran’s landmark nuclear accord alive.
Mr Trump said: “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.” He described the sanctions as “a strong and proportionate response to Iran’s increasingly provocative actions”.
Iranian state television responded, saying the new sanctions were imposed using “the empty excuse” of Iran’s nuclear activities amid US “disgrace” over having one of its drones shot down.
The new measures specifically targeting the country’s top leadership follow the imposition of sweeping economic sanctions on Iran.
Daniel Tannebaum, global sanctions leader at PwC, described the designation as “largely symbolic.”
“The supreme leader does control a fairly substantial business empire, so it’s not nothing, but there have been enough measures targeting companies controlled by the government that it might not make a significant dent,” he said.
Mr Trump’s announcement follows weeks of rising tension between Tehran and Washington. Last week he ordered then called off US military strikes against Iran at the last minute in response to the downing of an unmanned American spy drone by Iranian forces.
Mr Trump said he called off the strikes after being told 150 Iranians would be killed, saying the response would be disproportionate. He later said Tehran had been “very wise” not to attack a manned American spy plane as both the US and Iran sought to de-escalate tensions.
He repeated at the weekend that he was willing to hold talks with Iran, while insisting that his “maximum pressure” strategy of sanctions on the republic was working.
The US is seeking to force Iran to renegotiate the nuclear accord, curb its influence over regional militias, and scale back its missile programme.
As well as the new sanctions on Mr Khamenei, the Treasury issued sanctions against eight senior commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, an elite force. In April, Washington designated the guards as a terrorist organisation.
The new sanctions came hours after Mr Trump accused other world powers of failing to protect vital Middle East shipping lanes and urged them to boost maritime security after a spate of oil tanker attacks.
The US president urged countries including China and Japan to do more to guard vessels that brought oil to them via the strategically crucial Strait of Hormuz.
Mr Trump and other US officials did not specify whether they were looking for financial contributions or an operation such as the ship escorts that Washington carried out during the Iran-Iraq war more than 30 years ago.
“All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey,” he wrote on Twitter.
In response, Mr Zarif tweeted that Mr Trump “is 100% right that the US military has no business in the Persian Gulf. Removal of its forces is fully in line with interests of US and the world. But it’s now clear that the #B_Team is not concerned with US interests — they despise diplomacy, and thirst for war”.
Brian Hook, the US envoy on Iran, said he was holding talks during a tour this week of Gulf Arab oil-producing countries on how new measures to safeguard ships could be “internationalised”.
US officials have blamed Iranian forces for sabotage attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf. Tehran has dismissed the US allegations.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, met King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on Monday as part of the US campaign to build an international coalition against Iran.
Mr Pompeo tweeted after his meeting with King Salman that freedom of navigation was “paramount”.
In May the US deployed a US aircraft carrier strike group and B52 bombers to the region citing unspecified “escalatory activity” by Iran.
Additional reporting by Ahmed Al Omran in Riyadh and Andrew England in London