The US has slapped new sanctions against seven Chinese companies as well as firms from Taiwan and North Korea, charging they may have helped Iran in its quest for weapons of mass destruction and more modern ballistic missiles.
A US Department of State notice published in the latest issue of the Federal Register said the nine conglomerates are being penalized for transferring to Iran "equipment and technology controlled under multilateral export control lists."
No specifics have been provided, but the action comes amid increased concerns the administration of US President George W. Bush may be toughening its stance toward the Islamic republic accused of harboring nuclear ambitions.
The companies now barred from doing business with the US include Beijing Alite Technologies Limited, China Aero-Technology Import Export Corporation, China Great Wall Industry Corporation, China North Industry Corporation (Norinco), Q.C. Chen, Wha Cheong Tai Company, and Zibo Chemet Equipment Corporation.
Norinco and China Great Wall Industry have close ties to the People's Liberation Army, and are already under US sanctions for violating various export control regimes. It was not immediately clear how the new measures will affect their business.
The cited Taiwanese firm was identified as Ecoma Enterprise. The list also includes Paeksan Associated Corporation of North Korea, a firm controlled by the country's Communist government.
The measures call for a full US government embargo against the listed businesses and their subsidiaries as well as their exclusion from any US federal assistance program.
All export licenses that involve the nine companies are being suspended, and "no new individual licenses shall be granted," according to the notice.
"These measures shall be implemented by the responsible departments and agencies of the United States government and will remain in place for two years from the effective date," the document said.
The sanctions follow a CIA report to Congress saying that assistance from Chinese companies had "helped Iran move toward its goal of becoming self-sufficient in the production of ballistic missiles."
In addition, the US spy agency reported, firms from China provided Iran and other countries with dual-use items, raw materials and assistance that could present proliferation concern, including equipment and technology that could be used for manufacturing chemical weapons.
China is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime, an international agreement designed to stem proliferation of ballistic missiles, but it pledged in October 1994 to uphold some of its key provisions.
The new crackdown against Iran's trading partners preceded amid new warnings to Tehran, which US officials insist is trying to use its allegedly peaceful nuclear program as cover for building an arsenal of atomic weapons.
"I hope we can solve it diplomatically, but I will never take any option off the table," Bush said Monday in an interview with NBC News when asked whether his administration was willing to take military action if Iran continued to stonewall the international community about its suspected nuclear weapons program.
The comment followed a report by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker magazine that said US commandos have been already operating inside Iran since last year selecting suspected weapons sites for possible air strikes.