In the hours before the United States carried out strikes against Iran-backed militants on Friday, Washington hit Tehran with more familiar weapons: sanctions and criminal charges.
The Biden administration imposed sanctions on officers and officials of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s premier military force, for threatening the integrity of water utilities and for helping manufacture Iranian drones. And it unsealed charges against nine people for selling oil to finance the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
The timing seemed designed to pressure the Revolutionary Guards and its most elite unit, the Quds Force, at a moment of extraordinary tension in the Middle East. Although the sanctions have been brewing for some time and the charges were filed earlier under seal, the region has been in turmoil for months.
The actions are part of a coordinated governmentwide effort to disrupt Iran’s efforts to use illicit oil sales to fund terrorism, and to push back on the country’s increasingly capable offensive cyberoperations. In the 15 years since the United States mounted a major cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the country has trained a generation of hackers and struck back at Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States, among others. Two American officials said the United States conducted cyberoperations against Iranian targets on Friday but declined to provide details.
The effects of sanctions and indictments are hard to measure. Few Iranian officers or officials keep assets in Western banks or travel to the United States, meaning the sanctions may have little practical effect. While the indictments and sanctions have a psychological element, demonstrating to Iranians and their business associates around the world that Western intelligence agencies are often tracking their movements and their transactions, actual arrests and trials are infrequent.
“The reason that we bring these cases is, we know that the money Iran obtains from the illicit sale of oil is used to fund its malign activities around the world,” Matthew G. Olsen, who heads the national security division of the Justice Department, said on Friday. “The threats posed by Iran and the destabilizing effects of its actions have only come into sharper relief since the attacks of Oct. 7,” the day of the Hamas attack on Israel that killed roughly 1,200 people.