April 18, 2017 | Policy Brief

U.S. Sanctions Brother of Qassem Soleimani

April 18, 2017 | Policy Brief

U.S. Sanctions Brother of Qassem Soleimani

The Treasury Department on Thursday added two Iranian human rights abusers to its sanctions list, marking the first new human rights-related designations since 2014. The move reflects a renewed U.S. effort to target key drivers of Tehran’s domestic repression, which the Obama administration largely abandoned after nuclear negotiations began.

The new sanctions target Sohrab Soleimani, a senior official in Iran’s State Prisons Organization and the younger brother of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. They also penalize the Tehran Prisons Organization, which the younger Soleimani previously headed for 15 years. Treasury enacted the measures pursuant to Executive Order 13553, which President Obama signed in 2010 to punish Tehran for its human rights abuses.

The U.S. action draws attention to Iran’s notorious jails, which subject political dissidents, journalists, human rights activists, ethnic and religious minorities, and other prisoners of conscience to systematic torture, forced confessions, rape and sexual humiliation, meager nutritional provisions, lack of access to medical care, and other forms of inhumane treatment.

Perhaps more notably, though, Treasury’s move highlights the familial and ideological nexus between Iran’s domestic repression and broader regional aggression. As a National Security Council senior official put it, Soleimani’s relationship to the leader of the IRGC Quds Force is “no coincidence.” The Soleimani brothers both aim to advance the common goal of radical Shiite governance in the Middle East – the younger brother from within Iran and the older from without.

In a 2015 interview, the younger sibling described his brother, responsible for aiding Syria’s brutal Assad regime and arming Iraqi Shiite militias, as a “kind and emotional” family man. “Those who don’t know him well can’t believe what kind of personality he has,” he said. Likewise, he noted, “As the head of the Quds Force, he has little time to devote to his own life, yet his attention [for family and friends] has not diminished.”

At the same time, he hailed his elder brother’s contributions to Tehran’s expansionary agenda. He “loves the children of the martyrs so much,” Sohrab Soleimani said, “that sometimes his own children become jealous.” In fact, he claimed, the Quds Force leader “has been born in our family, but he doesn’t belong to us; he belongs to the country and to the Shiites.”

These convictions have guided Sohrab Soleimani’s career as a prison director. As the former head of the Tehran Prisons Organization, he oversaw Evin Prison, Iran’s most infamous penitentiary and home to an estimated 15,000 inmates, including a large number of political prisoners.

During the wave of arrests that accompanied the 2009 Green Revolution, Soleimani categorically declared that no “inhumane or immoral” behavior had occurred in the Iranian capital’s prisons. In one instance, he denied allegations that guards had beaten two inmates to death, instead maintaining that they had succumbed to meningitis. The claim spurred opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi to reply that if one of the detainees had died from the malady, “how come his teeth were broken?”

In its statement announcing the new sanctions, Treasury cited his role in an April 2014 raid in Evin’s Ward 350, widely known as “Black Thursday,” that saw the systematic beating of more than 30 political dissidents by IRGC and Ministry of Intelligence officials. Relatives of the detainees who visited the prison shortly thereafter said the cell block looked like a hospital ward. One even said it “resembled Abu Ghraib.”

The latest U.S. sanctions, which follow new ballistic missile and terrorism sanctions imposed on Iranian actors earlier this year, suggest that Washington will no longer turn a blind eye to the full range of misbehavior that flows from Tehran’s radical Islamist ideology. They are long overdue.

Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.