In July, Iran’s interior minister issued a veiled threat. The regime, said Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, seeks to end protests “with restraint from police.” Nevertheless, he warned that if necessary, “the judiciary and law enforcement forces will carry out their duties.” Since then, the police have killed at least one protester and wounded scores of others. The United States should sanction Fazli for the ministry’s record of violence against demonstrators and for other draconian policies.
The Ministry of the Interior performs tasks typical of any interior ministry, including policing, administering elections, and issuing permits for public gatherings and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). These undertakings proceed, however, within the framework of Tehran’s larger mission: advancing the values of the Islamic Revolution. As such, the ministry functions as an agent of repression enforcing the regime’s radical ideology.
Since nationwide protests began in late 2017, the police – formally known as the Law Enforcement Force (LEF) of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or NAJA, its Persian acronym – have arrested and attacked thousands of Iranian protesters. In doing so, it has worked closely with other paramilitary organizations, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its subsidiary, the Basij, and the Intelligence Ministry.
The police operate unofficial detention centers, where officers routinely abuse detainees physically and psychologically. In January, protester Vahid Heydari, 22, died under mysterious circumstances in a detention center in Arak. The LEF claimed he committed suicide. Evidence of a severe blow to the victim’s head suggests otherwise.
The mere act of protesting is an affront to the Ministry of the Interior, which rarely grants permits for any rally, let alone demonstrations against the regime. According to the Islamic Republic’s constitution, peaceful assemblies “may be freely held” so long as “they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.” Insofar as the regime regards itself as the living embodiment of Islamic ideals, this condition effectively serves as a pretext to prohibit demonstrations that challenge the mullahs’ rule.
Similarly, the ministry habitually denies permits to NGOs and political parties that seek to advance human rights or values inconsistent with the regime’s Islamist creed. Today, no licensed human rights group critical of the regime operates in Iran. According to the State Department’s 2017 report on human rights, Iranians who promote human rights independently have frequently endured “harassment, arrests, online hacking, and monitoring of individual activists and organization workplaces.”
Moreover, by presiding over Iran’s pseudo-democratic elections, which allows only regime loyalists to run for office, the Ministry of the Interior perpetuates the illusion of popular sovereignty. Fazli himself has emphasized the importance of high voter turnout, since it lends a veneer of legitimacy to a clerical dictatorship.
Appointed in 2013, Fazli occasionally deploys moderate rhetoric that belies his intrinsically repressive responsibilities. For example, when the latest protests began, he declared that Tehran intends to address their demands. But his actions speak louder than his words. Moreover, Fazli previously held multiple leadership roles in the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, which is the propaganda organ of the regime and routinely airs forced confessions.
By sanctioning Rahmani Fazli for his conduct, Washington can reinforce its message to the regime that its repression comes at a price. And for those demonstrating on the streets against the theocracy, it is an important way to voice support for their cause.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and follow FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance @FDD_CSIF. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.