* U.S. plays ‘cat and mouse’ with Iran on sanctions
* Move comes ahead of new nuclear talks next month
* Prime target: Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards (Adds State Department comment, background)
WASHINGTON, Dec 21 (Reuters) - The United States imposed new sanctions on Iran on Tuesday, seeking to choke off finances for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and a state-owned shipping line to increase pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program.
The U.S. Treasury Department announced it was targeting financial networks that support the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its national carrier, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL).
“Both the IRGC and IRISL are major institutional participants in Iran’s illegal conduct and in its attempts to evade sanctions,” said Stuart Levey, Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
The move came as the United States and other big powers prepare for another round of talks with Iran next month on its nuclear program after an initial meeting in Geneva that U.S. officials described as “difficult and candid.”
The U.N. Security Council imposed new sanctions on Iran this year over its nuclear and missile activities, and the United States and the European Union have followed up with their own measures aimed at cutting off financial services and energy sector investment from Iran.
Tighter sanctions against Iran has also complicated the financing of any deals that involve buying Iranian crude or selling refined oil products to Iran, the world’s fourth largest crude oil exporter. [ID:nLDE6BC0FK]
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, set up after the 1979 Islamic revolution to protect the ruling system from internal and external threats, has been a particular target of sanctions that seek to undermine its sprawling military, political, social and economic interests.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the new U.S. move against the Revolutionary Guards was a response to efforts by Iran to circumvent the existing sanctions. Iran says its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes.
“This is part of the ongoing game of cat and mouse, if you will, between Iran and the international community,” Crowley said.
“We continue to look at what’s happening in Iran and continue to sanction those entities that we think are controlled by the government and are directly related to their proliferation activities.”
The U.S. Treasury Department originally designated IRISL in 2008 for alleged involvement in illicit arms shipments. Levey said it was primarily involved in container shipments and was not a bulk carrier for movement of Iranian oil products.
Treasury said the shipping line uses a variety of deceptive behavior to try to mask its activities including falsifying shipping documents, changing nominal ownership of its ships and repainting them to hide the fact that they are part of IRISL.
Levey said Tuesday’s actions were intended to restrict financing for the guard corps and shipping line rather than to affect oil trade.
The Treasury order named two Iranian banks — Ansar Bank and Mehr Bank — as supporters of the IRGC and said it was banning them from participating in U.S. financial and commercial systems and barring U.S. citizens from any dealing with them.
It also designated a cooperative called Bonyad Taavon Sepah that Treasury said was formed by IRGC commanders to handle its investments.
With the IRGC’s expanding influence and control over broader segments of the Iranian economy, including defense production, construction, and oil and gas industries, increasing numbers of Iranian businesses are subsumed under the IRGC’s umbrella and identified with its illicit conduct.
U.S. officials say sanctions are increasingly squeezing Tehran, which this week began moves to bolster the economy by phasing out popular subsidies on a range of essentials such as energy, food and water.
Levey said the pressure on Iran would continue.
“It’s clear that it’s important for us to continue to impose pressure ... to highlight the fact that firms are looking for ways to help Iran evade international sanctions,” he said. (Reporting by Glenn Somerville and Andrew Quinn; Editing by Doina Chiacu)