The State Department on Friday sanctioned a key Iranian military official who presided over the killing of 148 protesters during the November demonstrations in the Iranian city of Mahshahr. The designation of Hassan Shahvarpour, a brigadier general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), constitutes a potent message of solidarity with the Iranian people as they continue to voice discontent against an increasingly repressive regime.
A December 1 report by The New York Times, which interviewed six Mahshahr residents, provides vivid detail about the massacre. When protesters blocked the road to a Mahshahr suburb, IRGC forces “immediately shot without warning at dozens of men blocking the intersection, killing several on the spot.”
“The residents said the other protesters scrambled to a nearby marsh, and that one of them, apparently armed with an AK-47, fired back,” the Times reported. “The Guards immediately encircled the men and responded with machine gun fire, killing as many as 100 people, the residents said.”
One resident, according to the Times, said the regime agreed to return the bodies of his friend and his cousin only after their families “signed paperwork promising not to hold funerals or memorial services and not to give interviews to media.” These conditions marked an apparent effort to conceal the IRGC’s crimes from the public.
The massacre prompted Mahshar’s representative to the Iranian parliament, Mohamad Golmordai, to issue scathing criticism of the regime. “What did you do that the dishonorable Shah didn’t do?” he yelled from the parliament floor. “Your behavior surrounding security issues is suspicious and questionable.”
The State Department designated Shahvarpour pursuant to Section 7031(c) of the current Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, which authorizes sanctions on those who commit a “gross violation of human rights,” among other offenses. Congress first included this authority in the 2014 appropriations act for the State Department and then renewed it annually. It is a global authority, not one restricted to officials from Iran.
Sanctions under Section 7031(c) are distinctive because they ban not just the targeted individual but also his immediate family from entering the United States. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said on Friday that Shahvarpour is the first Iranian official ever sanctioned under this authority. Previously, the U.S. government employed authorities granted by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) of 2010 to impose human rights sanctions on Iranian officials. CISADA sanctions entail an asset freeze in addition to an individual travel ban.
The designation of Shahvarpour is also notable for its pedigree: Data about the massacre was “submitted by the Iranian people through the Department of State’s Rewards for Justice tip-line,” the State Department said. In a tweet in November, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged “Iranian protestors to send us their videos, photos, and information documenting the regime’s crackdown on protestors. The U.S. will expose and sanction the abuses.” Hook said the line has received 88,000 tips thus far.
To be sure, the State Department’s designation of Shahvarpour may be largely symbolic, as he is unlikely to seek entry to America. Still, the family members of multiple Iranian officials currently work and study in the United States, exposing the hypocrisy of a regime that repeatedly calls for America’s destruction. The U.S. sanctions would thus inhibit Shahvarpour’s family members from similar ventures.
At the same time, naming and shaming Iran’s key human rights abusers constitutes a powerful way to embarrass Tehran, weaken its resolve, and cultivate international support for the Iranian people. The Trump administration should now build upon Shavarpour’s designation by continuing to sanction other key abusers in Iran’s clerical regime.
Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Tzvi and CEFP, subscribe here. Follow Tzvi 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.