Washington: In a clear signal that economic pressure on Iran will continue despite a successful prisoner swap last weekend, the United States hit the Islamic Republic on Wednesday with sanctions on its largest shipping company and airline.
The State and Treasury departments imposed sanctions on Mahan Air and a state shipping network over its role transporting lethal aid from Iran to Yemen and weapons of mass destruction proliferation. It also targeted a Shanghai-based shipping company involved in transporting missile parts to Iran.
"Today's destinations put the world on notice those who engage in illicit transactions with these companies will risk exposure to sanctions themselves," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
The sanctions were the first official action against Iran since a prisoner swap Saturday in which Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang was exchanged for Massoud Soleimani, an Iranian biologist imprisoned in the United States on charges of sanctions violations.
Some administration officials had cautioned against imposing more sanctions on Iran just days after Tehran released Wang, who had been held for three years on espionage charges the United States considered bogus. But the new measures were designed to send the message that the US campaign of maximum pressure would continue unless Iran's theocratic rulers reverse course on several issues, including its nuclear program, missile testing and support for militia groups in neighboring countries.
"The message is: Don't confuse successful hostage negotiations with our campaign of maximum pressure, which will continue. You're hurting and we intend to up the pain level," said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator who is a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the new sanctions are a response to Iran's continuing support for Shiite proxies in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, even as the country has faced weeks of anti-government protests.
"The prisoner swap only means that the administration is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time," he said. "It can negotiate with Iran to release those unjustly detained while also keeping its foot on the pressure pedal."
In recognising the heightened risk to Americans visiting Iran, Pompeo advised travellers - particularly those with dual nationality - that Americans face a high risk of kidnapping, arrest and imprisonment in Iran.
But he also expressed a small degree hope that the two governments can negotiate more prisoner exchanges. At least five Americans are in jail in Iran, and one has been missing for 13 years. Iran has said that 20 of its citizens are imprisoned in the United States on sanctions charges.
"We've had some indication that that may be the case," Pompeo said of the possibility of more prisoner exchanges negotiated through diplomatic channels, adding, "But I don't want to overstate that, I don't want to give false optimism about that pathway."
Pompeo vowed to follow "every even tiny opening" to gain freedom for the Americans but noted there were limits to what the United States is willing to do.
"We don't send pallets of cash, don't send bags of money, we don't change our policy," he said in a swipe at the Obama administration and the prisoner exchanges that coincided with the nuclear deal President Donald Trump has since withdrawn from.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that Iran will overcome US sanctions by either bypassing them or through negotiations.