Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said on Wednesday that the Israel-Gaza war was a potential concern for the global economy and signaled that additional U.S. sanctions could be coming in response to the attack on Israel by Hamas.
Questions about the economic impact of the war were growing as Ms. Yellen offered a forceful defense of Israel and pushed back on the notion that U.S. sanctions against Iran — a key backer of Hamas — have become too lenient. Ms. Yellen said the Treasury Department continued to review its sanctions on Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that is also a longtime adversary of Israel.
“We have not in any way relaxed our sanctions on Iranian oil,” Ms. Yellen said at a news conference on the sidelines of the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Marrakesh, Morocco. “We have sanctions on Hamas, on Hezbollah, and this is something that we have been constantly looking at and using information as it becomes available to tighten sanctions.”
She added: “We will continue to do that.”
The Treasury secretary also did not rule out reversing a decision made last month — to unfreeze $6 billion of Iranian funds in exchange for the release of American hostages — if it is determined that Iran was involved in the attack by Hamas.
At the time of the exchange, the United States informed Iran that it had transferred about $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue from South Korea to a Qatari bank account. The money is supposed to be used only for food, medicine and other humanitarian goods.
“These are funds that are sitting in Qatar that were made available purely for humanitarian purposes, and the funds have not been touched,” Ms. Yellen said, adding: “I wouldn’t take anything off the table in terms of future possible actions.”
The crisis in Israel poses a new challenge for the world economy and the Biden administration, which has spent the last year working to combat inflation in the United States and to corral energy prices that have become volatile because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Another war in the Middle East complicates those efforts by threatening to constrain oil supplies and send prices higher.
Ms. Yellen said geopolitical “shocks” continued to pose risks to the world economic outlook.
“Of course, the situation in Israel poses additional concerns,” she said.
Economic officials across the Biden administration are closely tracking developments in global oil markets this week. Global oil prices jumped on Monday after the terrorist attacks in Israel but were falling slightly on Wednesday. Administration officials are concerned that a sustained increase in the cost of crude could hurt economic growth and dent Mr. Biden’s approval rating, by pushing up the price of gasoline for American drivers.
Ms. Yellen said she continued to believe that the U.S. economy could achieve a so-called soft landing — where inflation eases without a recession — but was closely watching for any economic fallout from the new conflict in the Middle East.
“While we’re monitoring potential economic impacts from the crisis, I’m not really thinking of that as a major driver of the global economic outlook,” Ms. Yellen said. “We will see what impact it has. Thus far, I don’t think we’ve seen anything suggesting it will be very significant.”
International policymakers gathered in Morocco for a week of meetings, as the global economic recovery is losing momentum. The prospect of a new regional conflict gave other policymakers more reason to feel anxious about a sluggish world economy that has been battered by war, a pandemic and inflation in recent years. Central banks around the globe have been raising interest rates to tame rapid inflation, and investors had begun to hope that a recent slowdown in price gains could signal an end to those rate increases.
“I think central bank governors are concerned about what might happen to energy prices if the Israel-Gaza conflict were to turn into a bigger regional conflict and have implications for supply of oil on markets,” Gita Gopinath, the first deputy managing director of the I.M.F., said in an interview on Wednesday.
Ms. Gopinath added that higher oil prices could elevate prices more broadly, complicating interest rate decisions for central bankers. She suggested that it was too soon to say how the economic impact of the conflict in the Middle East might compare with the effects of the war in Ukraine, but that overlapping crises were a headwind.
“The geopolitical risks are certainly piling up in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and we’re seeing now in Israel and Gaza,” she said.
That sentiment was echoed on Wednesday by Ajay Banga, the World Bank president, who said at a news conference that he now expected interest rates to be “higher for longer” despite signs that inflation was cooling.
“I believe that wars are completely and extremely challenging for central banks who are trying to find their way out of a very difficult situation,” Mr. Banga said.
It is not yet clear what steps the Biden administration would take to contain oil prices if the Israel-Gaza war intensifies or how that might affect its efforts to curb Russia’s oil revenues.
Ms. Yellen suggested on Wednesday that the “price cap” policy that the Group of 7 devised last year, which forbids Russia to sell oil over $60 a barrel using Western banking and insurance services, had been successful.
“Global energy prices have been largely unchanged while Russia has had to either sell oil at a significant discount or spend huge amounts on its alternative ecosystem,” she said.
Jim Tankersley contributed reporting from Washington.