By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Wednesday it had sanctioned Iran's main agency in charge of broadcasting for helping the government censor Western reports, part of a broader effort by Washington to pressure Tehran's nuclear program.
The Treasury Department also said sanctions that shackle Iran's oil earnings took effect, as scheduled, on Wednesday. Iran's earnings now have to be credited to accounts in countries that buy Iranian crude.
Under the conditions, Tehran can only use the funds to buy goods from its oil customers, preventing the money from being repatriated and used on the nuclear program the West believes is developing weapons. Iran says the program is for purely civilian purposes.
"This will significantly restrict Iran's ability to make use of the oil revenue that it's earning," a senior U.S. official told reporters about the sanctions.
In its crackdown on Iran's state-sponsored media, the Treasury named the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, its director, Ezzatollah Zarghami, and others as subject to sanctions that effectively block their access to the U.S. financial system.
Human rights groups have said Iran is using state media reports to trample dissent, and have pointed to forced confessions of political detainees in front of state media outlets.
Iran is using social media to hunt down political activists and is engaged in a campaign to filter out unwanted television content, the senior U.S. official said. After Iran's 2009 presidential election, the government increased its jamming of foreign channels, including the BBC and Voice of America, the Treasury said.
The United States will target people and organizations in Iran "responsible for human right abuses, especially those who deny the Iranian people their basic freedoms of expression, assembly and speech," said David Cohen, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury.
The new sanctions also target the Iranian Cyber Police, a unit formed in 2009 that has hacked into email accounts related to political action, deleted anti-government blogs and arrested bloggers, the Treasury said. The Iran Electronics Industries, which the Treasury said had helped the government crush activism by monitoring text messages, was also targeted by the sanctions.
Iran's currency, the rial, has lost about half its value against the dollar in the past year as U.S. and EU sanctions halved the country's oil exports.
The new sanctions on oil revenues do not specifically try to deepen cuts in Iran's oil exports.
But the measures could reward Iran's oil customers for working with the United States on the sanctions by forcing Tehran to buy their products. "By bottling up this revenue in each one of these countries, it will I think enhance the attractiveness of the goods they sell to Iran," he said.
The extra revenues from sales of their goods could make it easier for India, Turkey and South Korea and other Iran oil customers to continue to seek alternatives to Iranian oil even if petroleum prices go higher.
Washington is expected to keep pressuring Iran's customers to make deeper cuts, as dictated by the U.S. sanctions law.
The new measure has not sat well with all of Iran's customers. India, Iran's second largest oil customer, plans to seek an exception to the new provision.
The United States has granted all 20 of Iran's major oil buyers 180-day exemptions to the sanctions in return for their reduced purchases of the petroleum. The exceptions to China, India and others were granted in December.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu and Peter Cooney)
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