The U.S. government is publicly accusing a series of people and companies supporting Iran's nuclear program despite massive international sanctions.
The departments of State and Treasury released a joint list of those they say have operated on behalf of Iran to try to evade the sanctions. Many of the companies, according to U.S. officials, tricked unwitting organizations into helping Iran bypass restrictions on its oil exports and nuclear program.
Government officials deny that the new designations are in any way designed to assuage growing skepticism on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers from both parties question whether Iran is ready to receive any relief on the harsh sanctions imposed by the U.S., U.N. and European Union, and are considering levying more sanctions.
The officials also discount reports that a new deal to lift some initial sanctions would become an economic boon for Iran.
"There is no reason to think that there are great business opportunities in Iran today," said a senior administration official, who spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity.
Banks within Iran remain isolated from the international financial system, the official said, and it is very difficult to move money in or out. Every sector of its economy, but particularly banking, oil and finance, is subject to some of the most comprehensive sanctions worldwide.
"The notion that it's a good time to get into Iran is both foolish as a business matter and dangerous as a legal matter," he said.
The Obama administration has been open to the idea in recent months of lifting sanctions in exchange for Iranian cooperation in limiting its nuclear program. Critics say that anything short of demanding Iran cease all nuclear operations undercuts the point of the sanctions, which are designed to cripple the Iranian economy.
Some reports have said sanctions relief could amount to tens of billions of dollars. Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress on Tuesday this number is more like $7 billion, which he considers a paltry amount for the $1 trillion Iranian economy.
The list announced Thursday is an attempt to prove that the U.S. government remains serious about strictly enforcing these restrictions against Iran as negotiations in Vienna and Geneva proceed, the officials said.
It cites organizations such as Eyvaz Technic Manufacturing Company, which is accused of buying components for Iran's centrifuges to develop nuclear materials. Or The Exploration and Nuclear Raw Materials Production Company, believed to have overseen the discovery, mining and processing of uranium in Iran.
There were five companies on this section of the list, all accused of contributing to helping Iran obtain nuclear and ballistic weapons.
The list also include the names, identities and passport numbers of people such as Mohammadi Kahvarin, an official at Neka Novin, a procurement firm with ties to Iran's nuclear program. Kahvarin is believed to have helped procure automation equipment for Iran in 2009.
Administration officials say the timing of this announcement is only due to the completion of their investigations into identifying these people and organizations.
The Treasury Department website has a full list of the designees.