May 31, 2018 | Policy Brief

Trump Imposes New Human Rights Sanctions on Iran

The U.S. Treasury Department on Wednesday imposed sanctions on six individuals and three entities responsible for major human rights abuses against the Iranian people. The designations reflect a reinvigorated U.S. effort to pressure Tehran for its domestic repression following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s May 21 address articulating a new Iran strategy.

The sanctions, which come as nationwide protests continue to consume Iran, target key nodes of the regime’s police state. First, Washington sanctioned Ansar-e Hezbollah and three of its top leaders, Abdolhamid Mohtasham, Hossein Allahkaram, and Hamid Ostad. The group serves as a nominally independent group that acts on the regime’s behalf to preserve its rule and administer some of its draconian religious edicts.

In conjunction with Iranian forces, Ansar-e Hezbollah attacked protestors during the nationwide demonstrations of 2009 and the student riots of 1999. It has sought to ensure that Iranian women wear the mandatory hijab, or headscarf, in public by patrolling the streets and throwing acid at their faces, routinely blinding and disfiguring them.

Second, Washington designated the notorious Evin Prison, where countless political prisoners have experienced physical and psychological torture. In its 2017 report on human rights, the State Department noted that inmates also face “inhuman conditions” that include “infestations with cockroaches and mice, chronic overcrowding, poor ventilation, prisoners being forced to sleep on the floor with little bedding, and insufficient food.” Hunger strikes occur habitually.

Finally, the Trump administration sanctioned an IT company and three Iranian officials for engaging in censorship. Hanista Programing Group has created alternative messaging and social media applications that enable Tehran to monitor their users, thereby facilitating its ability to arrest and otherwise persecute its political and ideological opponents.

Abolhassan Firouzabadi, as the secretary of Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace, manages the regime’s efforts to block unapproved social media and censor speech and media. Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, as the secretary of the Committee to Determine Instances of Criminal Content, oversees Tehran’s blocking of political content during elections. Abdulali Ali-Asgari, as the director general of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, frequently censors other media outlets and broadcasts the forced confessions of prisoners.

These designations, which mark the first new Iranian human rights sanctions since January, clarify a key ambiguity in the Trump administration’s strategy. In his recent speech, Pompeo listed a dozen preconditions Tehran must fulfill if it wishes to end U.S. sanctions. However, while Pompeo voiced support for the Iranian people’s protests against the regime, his 12 requirements contained no call for the cessation of Tehran’s repression.

The fresh U.S. designations suggest that Washington will nevertheless take concrete steps to pressure the mullahs for their human rights abuses as part of its larger campaign of economic warfare against Iran. The sanctions also send a message to Iran’s protestors that America will back up its verbal expressions of solidarity with tangible steps aimed explicitly at deterring the regime’s domestic brutality.

At the same time, however, scores of other Iranian actors responsible for similar or worse human rights abuses have escaped U.S. sanctions. In the coming months, the Trump administration should designate them as well. In so doing, Washington can offer further backing to the Iranian people as they continue their struggle against their theocratic oppressors.

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

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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