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.
There has been a spate of action against Iran in the past week, culminating with Friday’s strikes on Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq. The airstrikes were in retaliation for a drone attack last Sunday that killed three U.S. service members at a base in Jordan.
On Monday, the Justice Department unsealed charges in Minnesota against an Iranian man accused of hiring a member of the Hells Angels to kill Iranian dissidents living in Maryland. On Wednesday, four Chinese citizens were indicted in Washington, accused of trying to smuggle and export technology used in military equipment and weapons for groups associated with the Revolutionary Guards, part of a constant effort to evade the West’s many prohibitions on selling technology that could be used in weapons systems or surveillance.
The sanctions related to the water utilities involved hacks on what are called “logic controllers,” which are made by an Israeli company, Unitronics, and run the pumps and valves in the water systems. Getting at the controllers is a way of reminding the United States and other countries that their critical infrastructure is vulnerable.
“The United States, in coordination with the private sector and other affected countries, quickly remediated the incidents with minimal impacts,” the Treasury Department said. But it was hardly the only attack of that kind to come from Iran: Ransomware attacks have emanated from Iranian hackers, including one against Boston Children’s Hospital three years ago, and even a major Las Vegas casino.
The sanctions were against a series of officials of the Revolutionary Guards’ “electronic warfare and cyber defense organization,” including its leader, Hamid Reza Lashgarian.
Another set of sanctions, issued by the State Department, focused on four companies that the United States said were supplying materials and technology to Iran’s drone and missile programs. The drones have been of particular concern because Russia is using them in large numbers against Ukraine.
The most sweeping move came from the Justice Department, which unsealed charges against nine people from Iran, Turkey, China and Oman related to efforts to smuggle and sell Iranian oil in violation of U.S. laws.
The legal action came as tensions between the United States and Iran deepen. Attacks like the one that killed three Americans are funded by illicit Iranian oil sales, officials said. And the intensity has increased since Oct. 7, with more than 160 attacks against U.S. military forces in Iraq, Syria and Jordan by Iran-backed militias.
“Today’s cases are part of the department’s ongoing efforts to cut off the flow of black-market Iranian oil that funds the regime’s malign activity, threatening the United States and our interests around the world,” Mr. Olsen said.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.