The Trump administration has repeatedly condemned Iran for its domestic repression, but it can do much more. To hold the Islamic Republic accountable and express solidarity with Iranians seeking reform, Washington should continue sanctioning the regime’s most egregious human rights violators.
By naming and shaming Iran’s top officials for their past and present misconduct, America can boost the morale of protesters, challenge the Islamic Republic’s radical Islamist ideology, and send a message to U.S. allies that the Iranian people deserve their robust and concerted support.
In a new report published Monday by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, I offer a roadmap for such a policy, identifying 12 senior Iranian leaders who have played a key role in upholding Iran’s architecture of repression. These 12 abusers represent many of the key institutions Tehran has developed to enforce its revolutionary ideology. Likewise, their biographies reflect the continuity of Iranian policy since 1979: The majority of the 12 perpetrated severe human rights abuses long before they assumed their current positions. They rose within the Iranian bureaucracy because of their abuses, not in spite of them.
For example, Minister of Justice Seyyed Alireza Avaei and Judge Mohammad Moghiseh played key roles in implementing the 1988 massacre of thousands of political dissidents. Moghiseh and another judge, Abolghassem Salavati, are widely known in Iran as “hanging judges” for executing scores of political prisoners after brief trials devoid of due process.
Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, the minister of information and communications technology, previously served in Iran’s abusive Intelligence Ministry, and now applies that experience to monitor and block internet users in Iran.
Similarly, key officials lead organizations that have attempted to subdue the latest round of nationwide demonstrations through force. Hossein Ashtari, the head of Iran’s state police, known as the Law Enforcement Force (LEF) of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has presided over the killing of dozens of protesters and the arrest of thousands more. The LEF operates under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior, led by Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, which also habitually denies permits for protests and refuses to license nongovernmental organizations critical of the regime. Gholamhossein Gheibparvar, the commander of the Basij, or religious police, has targeted women who refuse to wear the hijab, or headscarf, in public.
Other ministers have worked to suppress the expression of viewpoints that contradict the regime’s radical Islamist creed. Mansour Gholami, the minister of science, research, and technology, runs Iran’s higher education system, which silences students and professors who disagree with Tehran’s worldview. Abbas Salehi heads the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which censors books, newspapers, films, museums, music, and other cultural touchstones.
Iran is sensitive to international criticism of its human rights record. In Tehran’s view, the West seeks not only to defeat the Islamic Republic military but also to infiltrate the country with foreign values that subvert the culture and faith of the Islamic Revolution. Put differently, the mullahs regard their conflict with the West as a struggle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. By documenting the violence and repression that Tehran inflicts to quash dissent, the United States can undermine regime propaganda that portrays the country as a healthy society proud of its militant Shiite creed.
At the same time, the designation of Tehran’s offenders would signal to the Iranian people that America shares their goals and concerns. Foreign support may play an important role in strengthening the resolve of demonstrators. In 2009, Washington’s tepid response to the regime’s brutal suppression of protests prompted many Iranians to criticize President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden on Bob Dole: 'among the greatest of the Greatest Generation' Moving beyond the era of American exceptionalism The bully who pulls the levers of Trump's mind never learns MORE on Iran’s streets. Common slogans included, “Obama, Obama – either with us, or with them!” American inaction may have persuaded many Iranians that the uprising was unlikely to succeed.
The imposition of additional human rights sanctions would reflect a longstanding bipartisan tradition. Congressional action on behalf of human rights in Iran accelerated after the violent suppression of the Green Movement in 2009. By near-unanimous margins, Congress subsequently passed multiple bills mandating sanctions on Iran for its domestic repression. Pursuant to these and other statutes, the Obama administration proceeded to designate 38 actors in Iran for their abuses, including some of the most brutal figures and institutions in the regime. To date, the Trump administration has sanctioned 17 others.
Notwithstanding other disagreements over U.S. policy toward Iran, both Republicans and Democrats have voiced uniform support for nationwide demonstrations in the country that began in late 2017. This consensus offers an opportunity for the Trump administration and Congress to work in tandem to stem Tehran’s repression.
In addition to sanctioning Iran’s top leaders, American leaders should conduct a name-and-shame campaign that identifies the regime’s top human rights violators and describes their crimes. In so doing, Washington can make clear that Iran’s continued misconduct will carry a price.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.