The Trump administration has unveiled the full extent of its new sanctions on Iran, with targets including 50 banks and their subsidiaries, the national airline and 200 members of the shipping industry and vessels.
However, the sanctions fell short of the US’s aim of cutting off Iranian oil exports entirely. Eight countries, including Tehran’s biggest customers, were granted temporary waivers: China, India, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey.
US officials said that those countries had agreed to reduce oil imports from Iran dramatically. However, it is unclear whether all those countries, most importantly China, have made such agreements.
Iran’s atomic energy organisation was sanctioned, but with three exemptions for what were described as non-proliferation projects, one of them at Bushehr nuclear power plant, which Russia helped Iran build.
Unveiling the measures on Monday, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, described them as the most severe to have been imposed on Iran and said they were aimed at forcing Tehran to stop its “destabilising activities” in the Middle East, referring to Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
“Our ultimate goal is to convince the regime to abandon its current revolutionary course,” Pompeo said. “The Iranian regime has a choice. It can either do an 180-degree turn … and act like a normal country, or it can see its economy crumble.”
The US has formally exempted humanitarian goods from the sanctions, but experts say that the measures against the financial system are so all-encompassing, they will deter any kind of trade with Iran.
The US has reimposed penalties on all the Iranian individuals and organisations that were relieved of sanctions after the 2015 nuclear deal, under which Tehran accepted strict curbs on its nuclear programme.
Donald Trump announced he was pulling the US out of the deal in May, but the other parties to the agreement – Iran, the EU, the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – have declared their determination to uphold it.
The EU is trying to create financing mechanisms to insulate European companies from US sanctions, but most large corporations have already pulled out of Iran for fear of losing access to US markets or finance. Pompeo vowed to pursue any company seeking to bypass the sanctions.
“It should be noted that if a company evades our sanctions regime and secretly continues sanctionable commerce in the Islamic Republic, the US will levy severe, swift penalties on it, including potential sanctions,” he said.
“I promise you that doing business with Iran in defiance of our sanctions will ultimately be a much more painful business decision than pulling out of Iran entirely.”
Brian Hook, the US special envoy on Iran warned that any European country that hosted a special purposes vehicle (SPV), a mechanism the EU is trying to create to shield companies from US penalties, risked being targeted with sanctions.
“The United States will not hesitate to sanction any sanctionable activity in connection with our Iran sanctions regime,” Hook said. So far, no EU country has offered to host the scheme, and Hook’s warning is not going to encourage any country to do so.
Iran greeted the reimposition of sanctions with air defence drills and an acknowledgement from the president, Hassan Rouhani, that the country faces a “war situation”, raising tensions in the Middle East.
The sanctions bring to an end all the economic benefits the US granted Tehran for the nuclear deal, though Iran for now continues to abide by the accord, under which it limited uranium enrichment. But Iranian officials have in recent months made a point to say this could resume at any time, faster than before.
The sanctions will particularly hurt Iran’s oil industry, a crucial source of money for its anaemic economy. The national currency, the rial, has plummeted over the past year, sending prices for everything from mobile phones to medicine skyrocketing.
Speaking on Monday, Rouhani said: “Today, Iran is able to sell its oil and it will sell.”
Iranian state television aired footage of air defence systems and anti-aircraft batteries in military manoeuvres across a vast stretch of the country’s north.
The drill was to continue through Tuesday. Gen Habibillah Sayyari said the army and the Revolutionary Guards were taking part in the exercise.
Rouhani pledged to government officials in comments aired on state TV that Iran would overcome the sanctions.
“We are in the war situation,” he said. “We are in the economic war situation. We are confronting a bullying enemy. We have to stand to win.”
The country’s economic chaos prompted mass anti-government protests at the end of last year that led to nearly 5,000 reported arrests and at least 25 people being killed. Sporadic demonstrations still continue.
The US says the sanctions are not aimed at toppling the government, but persuading it to radically change policies including support for regional militant groups and the development of long-range ballistic missiles.