( AP ) - The chief of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards shrugged off harsh new U.S. sanctions that are the most sweeping since 1979, saying "the corps is ready to defend the ideals of the revolution more than ever before."
Washington announced new sanctions Thursday targeting the Revolutionary Guards, which the U.S. accuses of supporting terrorism by backing Shiite militants in Iraq. The sanctions ban U.S. dealings with the extensive network of businesses believed linked to the Guards - and put stepped-up pressure on international banks to cut any ties with those firms.
"They have applied all their efforts to reduce the efficiency of this revolutionary body," General Mohammad Ali Jafari said Thursday, according to the state news agency IRNA. "Now as always, the corps is ready to defend the ideals of the revolution more than ever before."
The sanctions come at a time when Iran's economy is struggling, with dramatic price rises this year. The cost of housing and basic foodstuffs like vegetables have doubled or even quadrupled. The government also has imposed unpopular fuel rationing in an attempt to reduce expensive subsidies for imported gasoline.
Despite the government's insistence that U.S. and U.N. sanctions aren't causing any pain, some leading Iranians have begun to say publicly that the pressure does hurt. And on Tehran's streets, people are increasingly worried over the economic pinch.
The sanctions have heightened resentment of the United States among some in the public. But they are also fueling criticism among Iranian politicians that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is mismanaging the crisis with hard-line stances that worsen the standoff with the West.
Word of the U.S. move angered people in Tehran.
"The sanctions will damage us, our children and our people and not the government. Prices of everything increased up to double after former sanctions by the U.N.," said Morteza Morovvati, a 45-year-old teacher. "Who in the world and the Iranian government is going to care about ordinary people?"
Hashem Nazari, a retired clerk for an electricity equipment company, said that even before the new U.S. sanctions on some Iranian banks, his son living in Germany could not send him money through the banks.
"For the past two months, he has sent me money through private money exchangers," Nazari said.
Still, much of the anger appeared focused at the West.
"This will be another step by (President) Bush toward igniting war in the region," Mansour Rasti, 28, a graduate student in political science, said of the new sanctions.
Marzieh Aghai, a 37-year-old government bureaucrat, said she would support her country no matter what. "They (the Americans) don't know the Guards. We are proud of them."
Ahmadinejad and his allies are likely counting on sanctions to rally Iranians against the United States.
"Hard-liners in Tehran were looking forward for the sanctions. It helps them hide their incompetence behind the embargo," said political commentator, Saeed Laylaz.
But the new sanctions could worsen Ahmadinejad's political woes. Many conservatives who once backed him have joined reformers in criticizing Ahmadinejad. They point to his failure to fulfill promises to repair the economy - despite increased oil revenues - and say his fiery rhetoric goads the West into punishing Iran.
Ahmadinejad's sudden replacement of Iran's top nuclear negotiator with a close loyalist over the weekend also angered many conservatives in parliament.
Worry over sanctions has been increasingly expressed by figures high up in Iran's clerical leadership. Earlier this month, Hasan Rowhani, who sits on two powerful cleric-run bodies, the Experts Assembly and the Expediency Council, said that "the economic impact is felt in the life of the people." He said Ahmadinejad has just been making more enemies for Iran.
On Sunday, Ahmadinejad's predecessor as president, Mohammad Khatami, a reformer who remains influential, complained that Ahmadinejad claims "problems have been resolved but we see that problems remain unresolved."
The Bush administration hopes its new sanctions will push companies around the world to cut their business ties with Iran. "It is increasingly likely that if you are doing business with Iran you are doing business with the IRGC," Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said, referring to the Guards.
So far, the response of Ahmadinejad's government to sanctions, including past rounds by the United States and the U.N. Security Council, has been defiance.
Ahmadinejad on Wednesday called earlier U.N. sanctions, which similarly punish a list of Iranian companies believed linked to the nuclear program, "a pile of papers that have no value."
On Thursday, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Ali Hosseini, called the new U.S. measures "worthless and ineffective" and said they were "doomed to fail as before."
But the sanctions could increase Iran's isolation from international financing.
Most notably, the new sanctions ban dealings with two major Iranian banks, Bank Melli and Bank Mellat, adding them to a list of already banned banks. That means the banks will have difficulty turning to European banks for dollars, said Matthew Levitt, a former U.S. Treasury Department terrorism expert now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.