U.S. adds to Iran sanctions as French seek to restart oil sales

By Nick Wadhams and Saleha Mohsin on 9/4/2019

WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) - The U.S. placed new sanctions on Iran, and a top American official signaled more measures are coming while deflecting questions about French diplomatic efforts meant to help Tehran restart oil sales.

Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, said Wednesday that the U.S. will “continue to drive up the costs” for Tehran’s efforts to develop ballistic missiles and take other actions soon after the Treasury Department imposed new restrictions on a shipping network controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“There will be more sanctions coming,” Hook told reporters at the State Department. “We can’t make it any more clear than that,” he said, adding “we are not looking to grant any exceptions or waivers.”

But Hook wouldn’t directly address diplomatic efforts, led by French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, which would offer Iran a $15 billion economic lifeline allowing pre-purchases of some Iranian oil. The Trump administration would need to grant waivers to sanctions on Iran’s energy sector for the credit line to go into effect.

Asked repeatedly about that proposal at his briefing Wednesday, Hook declined to clarify what the U.S. stance was other than to say that there’s no “concrete proposal” for the administration to consider. The French plan, still in development, “doesn’t exist,” Hook said, without explicitly ruling it out.

Muddled Message

It was the latest sign of an increasingly muddled U.S. message on Iran. At the G-7 meeting in Biarritz, France, last month, President Donald Trump said he’d support French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to extend a “letter of credit” to Iran, secured by oil, to help the country meet short-term financial obligations. “It would be from numerous countries,” Trump said, and “it would be paid back immediately.”

The president’s top aides have since labored to clarify those comments, as well as repeated statements from Trump that he’s open to having direct talks with Iran’s leaders. Hook said Trump’s interest in meeting Iranian leaders isn’t new and depends on the country meeting specific U.S. demands as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign.

Trump, speaking at the White House on Wednesday, said his goal is to ensure Iran doesn’t obtain nuclear weapons, adding that the U.S. doesn’t need to work through Macron to secure a deal.

New Sanctions

“We can deal directly if we want,” Trump said.

The latest U.S. comments followed the announcement of new sanctions on the IRGC shipping network. The Treasury Department said the organization has helped move hundreds of millions of dollars of oil to the militant group Hezbollah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and other illicit actors. It designated about 16 entities and 10 individuals to its sanctions list and issued an advisory warning of the sanctions risks related to oil shipments to Syria, including those from Iran, according to a release on its website.

“Treasury’s action against this sprawling petroleum network makes it explicitly clear that those purchasing Iranian oil are directly supporting Iran’s militant and terrorist arm,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

A day earlier, Treasury announced sanctions against the Iran Space Agency and two affiliated research groups, accusing them of advancing Tehran’s missile programs.

Amid all the shuttle diplomacy by the French, Iranian officials have been threatening to ramp up their nuclear activities this week in a further violation of the nuclear deal. French officials have said such a move would send the wrong signal.

Wednesday’s sanctions against the shipping network also come shortly after a tanker carrying Iranian crude disappeared from satellite-tracking not far from Syria’s coast. The disappearance prompted speculation that the ship was about to transfer its cargo to another vessel out of the view of global ship-monitoring systems.

The last signal from the supertanker Adrian Darya 1, thought to have 2 MMbbl of oil on board, was received on Monday afternoon, according to ship-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg.

Previously called Grace 1, the vessel was seized near Gibraltar by the UK military and local police in early July on suspicion of supplying crude to Syria. The British overseas territory released the carrier last month, saying it received assurances the vessel wouldn’t sail to any entity sanctioned by the European Union.

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