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White House adds to Iran sanctions blacklist

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration added 17 foreign companies and individuals to a federal blacklist Thursday for allegedly helping Iran evade economic sanctions, a move intended both to maintain pressure on Tehran during upcoming nuclear negotiations and to persuade skeptics in Congress that no more sanctions are needed.

The State and Treasury departments announced the joint action shortly before Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. diplomat at nuclear talks with Iran, appeared on Capitol Hill and vowed to "vigorously enforce" existing sanctions. Additional penalties, she warned bluntly, "would derail" talks aimed at forging a long-term deal to restrict Tehran's nuclear activities.

The double-barreled approach, a day after Secretary of State John F. Kerry briefed members of the Senate behind closed doors, capped a weeklong campaign by the administration to win public support for a multi-stage deal with Iran. The White House is trying to counter hawkish lawmakers and lobbying groups who claim that the White House has eased sanctions enforcement, and who argue that even harsher penalties against Iran are necessary to force it to abandon its nuclear program.

Under the accord signed in Geneva on Nov. 24, Iran agreed to freeze most of its nuclear work over the next six months in exchange for an estimated $6 billion to $7 billion in sanctions relief, mostly access to money frozen outside the country. The deal is intended to provide time for the country to reach a comprehensive agreement with a diplomatic bloc made up of the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

Administration officials said Thursday that they would continue to expose Iran's use of front companies and other deceptive operations to evade embargoes on its oil, banking, shipping and other sectors. U.S. officials say the stiff penalties have pushed Iran into a deep recession, with the annual inflation rate now above 40%.

The interim accord "does not, and will not, interfere with our continued efforts to expose and disrupt those supporting Iran's nuclear program or seeking to evade our sanctions," said David Cohen, the Treasury official in charge of crafting and enforcing sanctions.

"These sanctions have isolated Iran from the international financial system, imposed enormous pressure on the Iranian economy and motivated the Iranian leadership to make the first meaningful concessions on its nuclear program in over a decade," he said.

The administration has blacklisted hundreds of individuals, state-owned businesses and front companies it accuses of supplying Iran's nuclear and ballistic-missile programs or otherwise violating international sanctions. Some critics say the White House has added few new names since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric who has led his nation's attempt at rapprochement with the West, was inaugurated in August.

"I don't know if [the blacklisting] will assuage opinion on the Hill, but its absence was sure to provoke more opposition," said Ray Takeyh, a former Iran expert at the State Department who is now with the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations.

There was no immediate reaction from Iran. The administration is "walking a fine line here, but this won't be perceived to be so provocative that Rouhani will walk away from the talks," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an advocacy group that favors tougher sanctions.

The entities added to the blacklist Thursday include four companies — two in Singapore, one in the Philippines and one based in Ukraine — that allegedly conducted transactions on behalf of National Iranian Tanker Co., Iran's main shipper of crude oil, which is under U.S. sanctions aimed at crippling the country's crucial oil industry.

The State Department also targeted five Iranian entities for allegedly supplying materials or support to Tehran's nuclear enrichment and ballistic missile programs in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. They include Eyvaz Technic Manufacturing Co., which since at least 2008 has supplied the Iranian government with key parts for centrifuges used to enrich uranium that could eventually be used to fuel a nuclear weapon, U.S. officials said.

The blacklist bars transactions with designated individuals and companies, freezes any assets they hold under U.S. jurisdiction, and blocks foreign entities that do business with them from access to U.S. banks or financial institutions.

U.S. officials say the interim deal grants Iran access, in installments, to $4.2 billion of its frozen funds, as well as a six-month suspension of sanctions on petrochemical exports and its auto industry. They estimated the trade could generate about $1.5 billion in revenue. The deal also suspends sanctions on Iran's ability to buy and sell gold.

Administration officials disputed claims that Iran could use the deal to attract foreign investment worth far more.

"There's no reason to think there's great business opportunities in Iran today," said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. "The majority of their banks remain isolated from the international financial system. It's very difficult to move money into or out of Iran."

U.S. officials say Iran has lost about $80 billion since early 2012 because of U.S. and European Union oil sanctions, and $100 billion in Iran's foreign exchange holdings are restricted or inaccessible because of U.S. financial and banking sanctions.

The administration's public relations campaign appears to be working. The White House this week won the backing of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), the Senate Banking Committee chairman.

"I agree that the administration's request for a diplomatic pause is reasonable," Johnson said Thursday. "A new round of U.S. sanctions now could rupture the unity of the international coalition against Iran's nuclear program."

Some senior lawmakers apparently remain unconvinced.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) are working on a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran after the six-month window expires. The House adjourns for the holidays Friday and the Senate at the end of next week, so any action almost certainly will be postponed until next year.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

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