WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US slapped fresh sanctions on Iran on Tuesday (July 18) over its ballistic missile programme, just hours after Washington admitted the Islamic Republic was complying with a landmark nuclear deal signed two years ago.
Iran's parliament retaliated by voting for extra funding for the missile programme, a move that speaker Ali Larijani said would show the Americans that Iran "will resist them with all its power."
The heightened tensions came after President Donald Trump was forced to back off from a key campaign promise to withdraw from a 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran, which eased sanctions in return for limiting its ability to produce material for atomic weapons.
Trump had described it as "the worst deal ever" and accused Iran of continuing to back terrorism in the Middle East. But on Monday (July 17) the White House admitted that the Islamic Republic was sticking to the nukes agreement.
It noted, however, that while Iran might be meeting its requirements on paper, it was "unquestionably in default of the spirit" of the accord.
In announcing the new sanctions against 18 individuals and entities in Iran, the State Department said it "remains deeply concerned about Iran's malign activities across the Middle East which undermine regional stability, security, and prosperity." It cited Iran's support for Hezbollah, Hamas, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Huthi rebels in Yemen fighting a US-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
In addition to earmarking an additional US$260 million (S$355m) for its ballistic missile programme, Iran's parliament also agreed Tuesday to allot a similar amount to the Revolutionary Guards' foreign operations wing, the Quds Force, accused by Washington of fomenting unrest across the region.
The Pentagon has also repeatedly voiced concern over a string of high-profile incidents in waters off Iran involving Iranian vessels.
It has accused the Revolutionary Guards of conducting risky maneuvers around US warships in the Gulf, some of which resulted in the Americans firing warning shots.
"These sanctions target procurement of advanced military hardware, such as fast attack boats and unmanned aerial vehicles, and send a strong signal that the United States cannot and will not tolerate Iran's provocative and destabilizing behavior," said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Washington is also concerned about the fate of Xiyue Wang, a 37-year-old Chinese-American researcher at Princeton University who was recently sentenced to 10 years in Iranian prison.
While the US complained about Iran's defiance of the spirit of the nuclear accord, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he would make his own complaints about US non-compliance when representatives of the five nuclear powers - China, Russia, France, Britain, the United States - plus Germany meet in Vienna on Friday to take stock of the deal.
Zarif accused the Trump administration of failing to lift sanctions in line with the deal.
He said he had no communication with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in stark contrast to his predecessor John Kerry, with whom Zarif negotiated the groundbreaking nuclear deal.
"It doesn't mean there can't be. The possibilities for engagement... have always been open," said Zarif in New York, where he was attending a UN forum on development.
He said he was willing to discuss Wang's case "on humanitarian grounds" but stressed that Iran's courts were independenpent of the government.
Trump and his top security officials have always taken a tough line on Iran: his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, fought Iranian-backed militias during the US occupation of Iraq while serving as a Marine general, and memories are still fresh of Hezbollah's attack on the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon in 1983.