The White House is delaying plans to impose sanctions targeting Iran's ballistic missile program, according to a U.S. media report.
U.S. officials had planned to announce earlier this week the sanctions against 12 people and companies in Iran, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates.
But The Wall Street Journal reported late Thursday the decision had been delayed. The sanctions "remain on the table," according to officials, but the paper said it is now not clear when or if they will move forward.
The officials also stressed that imposing such financial penalties would not violate the agreement reached this year to scale back Iran's nuclear program. Tehran disagrees, saying the new sanctions would void the nuclear deal.
Iran threatens expanded missile program
On Thursday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered his defense minister to expand the ballistic missile program as a response to the threatened U.S. sanctions.
In a series of tweets, Rouhani said, "If the U.S. continues its illegitimate interference with Iran's right to defend itself, a new program will be devised to enhance missile capabilities."
"We have never negotiated regarding our defense capabilities including our missile program & will not accept any restrictions in this regard," he added.
Responding to Rouhani's remarks, a senior U.S. official told VOA the U.S. has long taken action to counter threats from Iran's missile program and will continue to do so. He said that includes working closely with U.S. allies in the region to bolster their defenses against such threats.
The Wall Street Journal said the U.S. sanctions would target about 12 people and companies connected to the missile program. The sanctions would call on U.S. banks to freeze the assets of those on the list and bar people and companies in the U.S. from doing business with them.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari on Thursday called the planned sanctions "unilateral, arbitrary and illegal."
Iran test-fired missiles in October and November.
The U.S. and France said the October launch violated a U.N. Security Council resolution banning Iranian development of a ballistic missile. Iran rejected the allegations, saying the sanctions only applied to missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and that their missiles had no such capability.
U.S. experts said the only purpose of the missile would be to deliver a nuclear warhead.
"We've been looking for some time at options for additional actions related to Iran's ballistic missile program based on our continued concerns about its activities, including the October 10th launch," an Obama administration official said. "We are considering various aspects related to additional designations, as well as evolving diplomatic work that is consistent with our national security interests."
Also Thursday, Iranian Revolutionary Guards spokesman Ramezan Sharif denied U.S. allegations that Iran test-fired missiles that passed near an American aircraft carrier Saturday in the Strait of Hormuz.
Sharif called the report "psychological warfare" and said the navy had not conducted any exercises in the past week.
U.S. military officials said the missiles passed within 1,500 meters of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. The officials, who spoke to Western media under condition of anonymity, said Iran's navy gave a radio announcement before firing the missiles, telling ships to steer clear of the area.
Several other ships were also in the region, including the destroyer USS Bulkeley, a French frigate and merchant ships.
None of the missiles were fired at any of the ships, and no evasive actions were necessary.
"While most interactions between Iranian forces and the U.S. Navy are professional, safe and routine, this event was not and runs contrary to efforts to ensure freedom of navigation and maritime safety in the global commons," U.S. Central Command spokesman Kyle Raines said in an emailed statement to Reuters.
The strategic Persian Gulf waterway, which sees nearly a third of all oil traded by sea pass through it, has been the scene of past confrontations between the U.S. and Iran, including a one-day naval battle in 1988.
VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this story.