As talks to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) seem to have all but failed, the Joe Biden administration continues to pile sanctions on Iran. The Treasury Department said the new penalties targeted a “group of Iran-based malicious cyber actors” allegedly linked to Tehran’s elite military unit, the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Al Jazeera reported on Wednesday.
According to the department’s statement, the sanctions hit 10 people and two entities over accusations that, since 2020, they have compromised networks in the United States as well as other countries. Treasury officials claimed this “IRGC-affiliated group is known to exploit software vulnerabilities in order to carry out their ransomware activities, as well as engage in unauthorized computer access, data exfiltration, and other malicious cyber activities.”
Last week, the US levied sanctions against Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security over alleged involvement in a July cyberattack which disrupted Albanian government websites, though Iran denies responsibility and described Washington and Tirana’s accusations as “baseless.”
“Albania, a NATO member, hosts the Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), which Iran views as a ‘terrorist’ organization that seeks to forcibly overthrow the government in Tehran,” Al Jazeera noted. Alongside Israel, the MEK has carried out multiple assassinations inside Iran against nuclear scientists, and they were both suspected in the murder of a senior IRGC commander, Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, last May. Later, a US official confirmed to CNN that Israel was behind the hit. The latter killing touched off an unprecedented wave of assassinations in the country which targeted members of the IRGC and Iran’s aerospace industry.
Washington has also imposed additional sanctions on Iranian companies over the last week, alleging involvement in the production and transfer of drone technology to Moscow. The Biden administration has previously claimed, without evidence, that Tehran was passing along “hundreds” of drones to Russia for use in the Ukraine war.
Biden has taken an extremely hard line during the indirect, EU-brokered negotiations which aim to return Washington to the Iran nuclear deal. Donald Trump’s administration illegally exited the JCPOA and launched a brutal “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign on the Islamic Republic, which Biden has only expanded since taking office.
In recent months, the Israelis have carried out multiple drone strikes and killings inside Iran, while the US began bombing Syria repeatedly in what the Pentagon described as a message to Tehran. Iran nonetheless made some significant concessions in the nuclear talks which seemingly brought both sides much closer to a deal after the EU presented a “final” proposal. However, Tehran ultimately made demands regarding sanctions relief and guarantees which the US refused to accept after consulting with the Israelis, leaving the JCPOA in limbo yet again despite months of negotiations.
Subsequently, Tel Aviv and bipartisan Iran hawks in Congress launched a full court press to prevent Biden from lifting sanctions. The Israelis demand that Washington ensure a “credible military threat is put on the table” to make concessions regarding its ballistic missile deterrent. Concurrently, the US and Israel seek to surround Iran with a NATO-style alliance made up of America’s Gulf dictatorship partners.
Amid faltering diplomacy, American B-52s, eyeing Tehran, flew over the Middle East last week, while National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby announced that Biden was requesting “other available options” against Iran. Israeli media, meanwhile, is reporting that the US has told Tel Aviv the deal is already effectively dead – claims Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared to confirm on Monday, when he declared that any agreement with Iran is now “unlikely.”