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US Says it Imposes Sanctions on Moscow-Backed Iranian Oil Smuggling Network

The United States Department of the Treasury is seen in Washington, DC, US, August 30, 2020. (Reuters)

The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions on what it described as a Russian-backed oil smuggling and money laundering network for Iran's Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, even as Washington tries to revive the Iran nuclear deal.

The US Treasury Department said the network was led by current and former Quds Force figures, "backed by senior levels of the Russian Federation government" and included Chinese companies and a former Afghan diplomat. It had raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Iran's Quds Force and Tehran's Lebanese allies Hezbollah, and helped Tehran support proxy militant groups, Treasury said.

The Quds Force is the foreign espionage and paramilitary arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards and controls its allied militia abroad. The Trump administration put the guards on the State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) in 2019, the first time Washington formally labeled another nation’s military a terrorist group.

The Biden administration has been engaged in indirect talks to restart a 2015 deal former President Donald Trump abandoned, under which world powers lifted international financial sanctions on Tehran in return for curbs on its nuclear program.

"While the United States continues to seek a mutual return to full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), we will strictly enforce sanctions on Iran’s illicit oil trade," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a separate statement, referring to the nuclear deal.

The Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York and the Russian and Chinese embassies in Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

While talks had appeared close to resurrecting the nuclear deal in March, they stalled over last-minute Russian demands and whether Washington might drop the Revolutionary Guards from its terrorism list. Washington's Iran envoy said on Wednesday the chances of reviving the nuclear deal were shaky at best, and Washington was ready to tighten sanctions on Iran.

Wednesday's sanctions targeted Russia-based RPP LLC, which the Treasury said was used to help transfer millions of dollars on behalf of the Quds Force, and UAE-based Zamanoil DMCC, which Washington accused of working with the Russian government and state-owned Rosneft to ship Iranian oil to companies in Europe.

A former Afghan Charge d’Affaires in Moscow was also designated, as were several people described as associates of the Revolutionary Guards.

Among a number of China-based companies that were designated were Beijing-based Haokun Energy Group Company Limited and its Hong Kong-based subsidiary China Haokun Energy Limited. The Treasury accused China Haokun Energy Limited of purchasing millions of barrels of Iranian oil from the Quds Force.

Reuters was not immediately able to contact the designated companies.