The United States has accused Iran of supporting terrorism, abusing the human rights of Iranian citizens and fueling the Syrian government’s crackdown on dissent, a U.S. official announced on Thursday.
The accusations have led to U.S. sanctions set to be imposed against Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS).
“Today we have designated the MOIS for abusing the basic rights of Iranian citizens and exporting its vicious practices to support the Syrian regime’s abhorrent crackdown on its own population,” David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.
“In addition, we are designating the (Ministry) for its support to terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in Iraq, Hezbollah and Hamas, again exposing the extent of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism as a matter of Iranian state policy,” Cohen added.
To date the U.S. response had been limited to accusations that weapons and advice was flowing between the Middle Eastern allies.
But Thursday’s concrete action is likely to further inflame tensions between Washington and Tehran.
In recent months a long-running dispute over Iran’s nuclear program and its alleged support for Hezbollah has been augmented with tit-for-tat threats of economic sanctions and a series of attacks around the globe which some say Iran perpetrated.
They include a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington and a series of bombings in India, Georgia and Thailand.
The move is the latest in a series of steps the United States has taken to increase pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes.
It bars MOIS officials from travelling to the United States, blocks any property MOIS owns in the United States and prevents U.S. citizens or companies from dealings with MOIS.
Predicting the Iranian response
U.S. intelligence agencies predict that Iran will respond if attacked but is unlikely to start a conflict, and they believe that Israel has not taken a decision to strike Iranian nuclear sites, a top U.S. intelligence official said on Thursday.
With those comments, Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, answered two key questions surrounding escalating tensions with Iran after the United States increased sanctions over its nuclear program.
Burgess also said that despite the ratcheting up of sanctions on Iran, the country’s leaders are unlikely to abandon their suspected nuclear weapons program.
Iran responded to the new sanctions that target its central bank and oil exports by threatening to close a key oil shipping lane. There have also been concerns that Israel might strike Iranian nuclear facilities and escalate tensions further.
The West suspects Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at developing weapons, while Tehran says it is peaceful.
“Iran can close the Strait of Hormuz at least temporarily, and may launch missiles against United States forces and our allies in the region if it is attacked,” Burgess told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
“Iran could also attempt to employ terrorist surrogates worldwide. However, the agency assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict,” he said.
Asked bluntly whether intelligence agencies believed Israel had made a decision to attack Iran, Burgess replied: “To the best of our knowledge Israel has not decided to attack Iran.”
On the sanctions, Burgess said Iran was nowhere near giving up its nuclear aspirations.
“Iran today has the technical, scientific and industrial capability to eventually produce nuclear weapons. While international pressure against Iran has increased, including through sanctions, we assess that Tehran is not close to agreeing to abandoning its nuclear program,” Burgess said.