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Biden admin imposes sanctions on Iranian officials over 'brutal' crackdown on protests

The move comes as the U.S. faced appeals from Iranian expatriates to take a more assertive stance against the regime and call off nuclear negotiations.
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The Biden administration imposed sanctions on 14 Iranian officials after a violent crackdown on nationwide protests in Iran, vowing to hold the regime accountable for its "brutal suppression" of dissent, officials said Wednesday.

The announcement coincided with demonstrations in Iran marking 40 days since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in the custody of Iran’s morality police after she was accused of failing to comply with the country’s strict dress code.

“Forty days after the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, Iranians continue to bravely protest in the face of brutal suppression and disruption of internet access,” Brian Nelson, the under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence in the Treasury Department, said in a statement. 

“The United States is imposing new sanctions on Iranian officials overseeing organizations involved in violent crackdowns and killings, including of children, as part of our commitment to hold all levels of the Iranian government accountable for its repression.”

The sanctions target Revolutionary Guard commanders and intelligence officials helping to orchestrate efforts to crush the protests, prison officials accused of torture and other abuses of political prisoners, regional governors overseeing violent crackdowns on peaceful protests, as well as organizations involved in “censorship” and “surveillance” of the Iranian people, according to the departments of Treasury and State.

People protest the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran, Iran, on Sept. 20, 2022.
People protest the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran, Iran, on Sept. 20.Middle East Images via AP Photo

The death of Amini, a woman from the country’s Kurdish community, has sparked more than a month of protests across Iran with women in the vanguard, despite a massive security presence and arrests of demonstrators and civil society activists. The sustained protests, which have spread to universities and some factories and teachers associations, mark an unprecedented challenge to the regime’s authority.  

The sanctions are part of a wider effort by the Biden administration to work with European and other allies to ensure internet access for Iranians and to hold Iran accountable for its repression of the protests, including at the United Nations where Iran sits on a commission on the status of women, a senior administration official said in an interview.

“We are pushing it. I think you will see that unfold in the coming weeks,” the official said. “If you look over the sweep of what is coming, it’s a pretty multifaceted campaign.”

But the White House has come under criticism from some Iranian Americans and other activists over its response to the protests, with expatriates urging Washington to take a more assertive stance to isolate Iran, including by calling off any nuclear negotiations with Tehran.

The Biden administration says it is focused now on the protests, not on the stalled talks to revive a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But officials still say they remain open to restoring the deal, which imposes limits on Iran’s nuclear program in return for an easing of economic sanctions.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters at a Bloomberg event that it was hard to see the agreement moving forward given Iran’s negotiating stance. But, he added: "We remain determined one way or another, to make sure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. We continue to believe that the diplomacy is actually the best and most effective way to do that."

The U.S. special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, drew the ire of Iranian activists for a tweet last weekend in which he said the protesters wanted the government "to respect their dignity and human rights." Critics said Malley had misrepresented the goal of the protesters, who they say are demanding an end to the regime altogether.

Malley later said he made a mistake.

"It’s important to own up to one’s mistakes and this tweet was poorly worded," he told Iran International, a Persian language television network based in London. "It's not up to me, it's not up to the U.S. government to define what the brave women and men who are demonstrating in Iran want. It’s up to them."

The senior official who spoke to NBC News said the Biden administration is "vocally, repeatedly and consistently standing with the Iranian people," and taking measures "as best we can to identify who is responsible for the crackdowns, sanction them and expose them."

The administration views the protests as a moral issue, a question of "right and wrong," the official said.

Iranian leaders have denied human rights abuses or using lethal force in response to the protests, and have alleged that seditious "rioters" are acting with the support of adversaries of Iran. 

Iran's U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The package of sanctions unveiled Wednesday designated Hossein Modarres Khiabani, the governor of Sistan and Baluchistan province, where U.S. officials say some of the worst violence against protesters has unfolded.

Khiabani had responsibility over Iranian security forces that fired live ammunition, tear gas and metal pellets at protesters and bystanders after Friday prayers Sept. 30, according to U.S. officials. At least 80 people, including several children, were killed, according to the Treasury Department. Human rights groups also have accused the regime of killing dozens of protesters that day.

The sanctions also cited the commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence organization, Mohammad Kazemi, who U.S. authorities say has presided over a broad crackdown on civil society, repressing protests, arresting dissidents and "surveilling and throttling the use of the internet." 

In a statement outlining the sanctions, Blinken said the United States "will continue to find ways to support the people of Iran as they peacefully protest in defense of their human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in doing so, will continue to impose costs on individuals and entities in Iran who engage in the brutal repression of the Iranian people."