WHITE HOUSE - Iran is marking the 40th anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran with an announcement that it is speeding up uranium processing.
"We see this as a continuation of nuclear blackmail," a senior U.S. official remarked after Iran's nuclear chief claimed the country is now operating dozens of advanced centrifuges — a move that further goes against the 2015 agreement the country signed with a group of world powers.
The announcement, according to the U.S. official, is an attempt by Tehran to get the worried European signatories of the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement to make concessions to Iran.
U.S. President Donald Trump, asked later in the day by VOA what should be done about the new, advanced centrifuges, replied: "We're looking into that. We'll see."
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told state television that Iran is operating the IR-6 centrifuges, which allow the processing of uranium much faster than the IR-1 centrifuges Iran was allowed to use under the JCPOA.
Salehi also said Iran is working on the development of even faster centrifuges called the IR-9, which he claimed will work 50 times faster than the IR-1.
This is "a big step in the wrong direction," according to a senior administration official, who added, "We call on nations to condemn Iran's escalatory steps."
The U.S. Treasury Department on Monday rolled out new sanctions against Tehran, adding to the more than 1,000 already imposed on Iran's oil exports, its banks, financial transactions and the military leadership of the Islamic Republic.
Among those targeted by the new sanctions are the heads of the armed forces general staff and the Iranian judiciary, as well as the son and the chief of staff of Ayatollah Ali Khameini — Iran's supreme leader.
"These individuals are linked to a wide range of malign behaviors by the regime, including bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association in 1994, as well as torture, extrajudicial killings and repression of civilians," said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a statement. "This action further constricts the supreme leader's ability to execute his agenda of terror and oppression."
Trump administration officials contend the regime in Iran is fundamentally the same as it was in 1979 when a group of protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy, sparking a 444-day crisis that only abated when the 52 American diplomats and citizens who had been taken hostage were released.
"Forty years later, the revolutionary regime in Tehran has proven time and again that its first acts after gaining power were a clear indication o f its evil character," said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement issued Monday.
"The regime continues to unjustly detain Americans and to support terrorist proxy groups like Hezbollah that engage in hostage-taking."
A senior administration official on Monday called for Tehran to "immediately release, on humanitarian grounds, all Americans held on Iranian soil."
The request came as the State Department announced a new reward of up to $20 million for information leading to the safe location, recovery, and return of Robert Levinson, who was taken hostage in Iran 13 years ago with the involvement of the Iranian government. Levinson, a retired agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is the longest-held hostage in U.S. history.
Washington and Tehran find themselves on opposite sides in the Middle East. The Iranians have been activating their proxies and allies on numerous fronts, raising fears that miscalculations could lead to open and direct confrontation between the United States and Iran.
Officials in Washington reiterate the policy of the U.S. government is to change the Iranian government's malign behavior. But when it comes to forcing regime change in Tehran, "that's not our policy," a senior administration official told reporters Monday.
"The task of confronting Iran has become highly complex for the U.S. Iran has often seemed to master the escalatory cycle, including this past summer," said Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Barbara Leaf, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates who also was the first director of the State Department's Office of Iranian Affairs.
"The Trump administration has brought together in a jarring, discordant fashion these conflicting impulses to engage/confront, ironically in a formula least likely to produce the oft-stated U.S. policy goals."
Leaf told VOA that U.S. engagement with Iran "has been reduced to presidential tweets and public musings about Trump's ardent desire for a meeting — from Tehran's view, a meaningless photo op without a clear payoff. Confrontation has been reduced to strangling economic sanctions which have in no measurable way moved the regime away from its destructive regional policies."
Trump's own oft-repeated aversion to using force, according to Leaf, "has removed any fear by the regime that its use of asymmetrical tools against U.S. partners will have any repercussions — further encouraging Tehran to believe in the success of its own approach to the region."
Nike Ching at the State Department contributed to this report.