The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions against eight Iranian officials, including several government ministers, for what the Obama administration says is their complicity in widespread human rights violations in Iran.
The action follows new sanctions imposed on Iran earlier this year over its nuclear program, but Wednesday’s measures were the first imposed by the US on Iran for human rights violations.
The sanctions – taken by President Obama and announced at a press conference by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner – come more than a year after the administration and Mr. Obama in particular were criticized for a guarded response to the bloody crackdown on the Iranian opposition that followed Iran’s June 2009 presidential election.
Among the individuals targeted are Iran’s minister of the interior and deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces for law enforcement, the minister of welfare and social security, the minister of intelligence, the deputy chief of the national police, and the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The sanctions are designed to freeze any assets in the US and to limit international travel options.
The new measures focused on human rights violations and targeting specific alleged human-rights abusers raised immediate questions of “why now,” and “why not sooner?” Secretary Clinton described US policy toward Iran as a “balancing act” in which Iran’s nuclear program and the destabilizing impact a nuclearized Iran would have in the region also play a paramount role.
She said that while the administration has always been clear in its condemnation of the Iranian government over human-rights violations, with Wednesday’s measures it is now going further. “Today we are moving from just criticizing the government … to calling out individuals within the government whom we believe can be traced to abuses,” she said.
Clinton said the administration is acting as a result of legislation passed by Congress earlier this year – the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act – that expands the president’s options for applying pressure to the Iranian government. “We are using the new tools the Congress has just given us,” she said.
At the time of Iran’s 2009 election and after days of near-silence from the White House during harshly repressed street demonstrations in Iran, many US-Iran experts concluded that Obama was restraining criticism in hopes of keeping bridges open to a dialogue with Iran.
On Wednesday Clinton offered a justification for the muted response in 2009, saying the administration was mindful that any high-profile support from the US president for the opposition movement could end up being used by the government as a pretext for cracking down harder.
“We were mindful that this indigenous opposition not somehow be seen as a US enterprise, because it wasn’t,” she said.
Secretary Geithner said Treasury’s experience is that sanctions targeting individuals, companies, and businesses are taken more seriously and lead to more of a multiplying effect around the world than the “traditional broad-based sanctions” that the US has levied on Iran for more than a decade. “We have found that when we single out individuals, banks and business respond,” he said.
Clinton said the US believes the international economic sanctions leveled against Iran are having an impact, judging from recent comments from some officials and business leaders, But up to now, she added, the government had not heeded international outcry about ongoing human-rights abuses.
“We are not naïve,” she said. “The fact is that this government has been impervious to our pleas and those of others."