Donald Trump has signed an executive order imposing further sanctions on Iran, as tensions between the US and the Middle Eastern country have escalated following an attack on an American surveillance drone.
The order would deny Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei and others access to financial instruments, with Mr Trump declaring the measure necessary to deny Iran access to nuclear weapons, and in order to send a message after a downed spy drone nearly pulled the US into a war with the Iranian regime.
But it remained doubtful whether the restrictions imposed would have any significant impact on an opaque regime that largely operates outside of mainstream global business and financial channels controlled by the US.
“We will continue to increase pressure on Tehran,” Mr Trump said on Monday in the Oval Office. “Never can Iran have a nuclear weapon.”
In remarks to reporters, Mr Trump stressed his administration is not interested in a military conflict with Iran, even though the president reportedly called off an attack at the last minute last week in retaliation for the drone incident.
“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.”
He suggested the military could have a role to play in the ongoing dispute, if deemed necessary. “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, but I felt that we want to give it a chance ... I think Iran has a phenomenal future,” he said.
In separate remarks, the US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said the sanctions target specific military leaders who the US believe are responsible for shooting down the US drone last week. Mr Mnuchin noted that Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, alongside Mr Khamenei, is among those targeted, and that the sanctions target Iran’s “chain of command” in order to lock up billions worth of Iranian assets.
“Along with our existing sanctions ... we have additional sanctions to go after the supreme leader’s office and lock up literally billions of dollars worth of assets,” Mr Mnuchin said in the White House briefing room. “Along with that action today, we are also announcing specific sanctions targeting those responsible for recent activities.”
It remains unclear what, if any, impact on Iran the sanctions would have. The office of the supreme leader – a vast enterprise that includes thousands of employees – operates like a clandestine religious order, and rarely if ever taps into global financial institutions or networks. International officials from the UN and other nations who have dealings with Iran would be exempt from any sanctions.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson Abbas Mousavi said last week that the US had run out of sanctions targets. “Is there any new sanction that Trump has not yet imposed against the Iranian nation?” he said in a 50-second video.
“He has imposed sanctions on individuals and companies and [has engaged in] economic terrorism and has started an economic war against us. Well, so far they have done everything they could,” Mr Mousavi quipped.
“These sanctions in reality... are propaganda and give them a sense of achievement,” he said. “I really do not know what kind of sanctions are left that they have not imposed so far. Let them impose new sanctions and we will see what happens.”
Measures threatened against Iran’s foreign minister, Mr Zarif, may also prove ineffective because he is not known to hold any foreign assets and is not regarded as particularly wealthy or enmeshed in international or local business dealings.