President Trump on Monday signed an executive order that authorizes sanctions against any person appointed to office by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. While the order identifies no specific targets pursuant to this provision, it provides a new legal basis for Washington to sanction officials responsible for human rights abuses against the Iranian people.
Iran’s supreme leader directly appoints a range of senior officials, including military commanders, the directors of state-run media outlets, and the heads of key bonyads, or foundations, that help run Khamenei’s business empire. But three other appointed officials may play the most crucial role in the preservation of Khamenei’s grip on power, systematically suppressing dissent through violence and intimidation.
Former presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi leads Iran’s judiciary, which routinely imposes lengthy jail sentences and the death penalty on political prisoners after trials devoid of due process. Brigadier General Hossein Ashtari, the head of Iran’s national police, and Gholamhossein Gheibparvar, commander of the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary force under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, work in tandem to subdue protests and enforce the regime’s radical Islamist ideology.
These organizations have assumed heightened importance in the wake of nationwide demonstrations that began in late 2017 and continue to this day. Khamenei effectively relies on Raisi, Ashtari, and Gheibparvar to serve as the regime’s first lines of defense against internal opposition, thereby ensuring the regime’s survival and religious identity, which the supreme leader regards as interdependent.
Raisi, appointed by Khamenei in March, previously played a key role in the 1988 massacre of thousands of political opponents. After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then the supreme leader, issued a fatwa sentencing members of dissident groups to death, Tehran established panels in prisons throughout the country known as Death Commissions, which decided who would live and who would die. Raisi served on one of them.
Raisi has held multiple other positions in Iran’s judiciary, including prosecutor (1980-1994), deputy chief justice (2004-2014), and attorney general (2014-2016). In these capacities, he sought or presided over the prosecution, imprisonment, torture, and execution of countless detainees.
Many of the judiciary’s victims arrive before its kangaroo courts thanks to Ashtari and Gheibparvar, whom Khamenei appointed in March 2015 and December 2016, respectively. Ashtari’s police force, formally known as the Law Enforcement Force (LEF) of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has killed dozens of protesters and arrested thousands more since late 2017. Police officers have fired live ammunition into crowds and beaten demonstrators.
Under Gheibparvar’s leadership, the Basij – often in conjunction with the LEF – systematically monitors women’s dress, targeting women who refuse to wear the hijab, or headscarf, in public. It works to prevent male-female fraternization, alcohol consumption, the dissemination of Western media, and other conduct it regards as un-Islamic. Iranians who defy these prohibitions often face beatings and imprisonment at the hands of Basij officials.
With 50,000 branches throughout the country and several million members, the Basij maintains an omnipresence that allows it to proliferate regime propaganda and conduct surveillance through the use of checkpoints and patrols, thereby embedding the organization into the very fabric of Iranian life.
Washington should sanction Raisi, Ashtari, and Gheibparvar pursuant to President Trump’s new executive order, numbered 13876, as well as Executive Order 13553, which President Obama signed in 2010 to sanction persons responsible for serious human rights abuses in Iran on or after June 12, 2019, the first day of the Green Revolution. As President Trump tweeted on Tuesday, “The wonderful Iranian people are suffering, and for no reason at all.” Sanctioning their oppressors would constitute an effective way to express solidarity with their plight.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.