WASHINGTON – The U.S. on Thursday imposed more sanctions on Iranian government officials in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, as protests have embroiled dozens of Iranian cities for weeks and evolved into the most widespread challenge to Iran’s leadership in years.
U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control designated seven high-ranking leaders for financial penalties due to the shutdown of Iran’s internet, repression of speech and violence inflicted on protesters and civilians. Iran's interior and communications ministers and several law enforcement leaders were targeted for sanctions.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the sanctions demonstrate the “United States stands with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.”
And Brian Nelson, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in announcing the sanctions that “the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly are vital to guaranteeing individual liberty and dignity.”
U.S. support of freedom in Iran, however, further undermines efforts to salvage the languishing 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, would provide Tehran with billions in sanctions relief in exchange for the agreeing to roll back its nuclear program..
How the administration can credibly side with a protest movement while hoping to strike a nuclear deal with a regime it accuses of engaging in human rights abuses is a question that has resonated through the halls of Congress.
“President Biden simply cannot offer the prospect of sanctions relief and de facto legitimize a regime that is ruthlessly gunning down its own citizens in the street,” said Marjan Keypour Greenblatt, director of a network of activists that promotes human rights in Iran and a nonresident scholar with the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program.
Amini was detained in September by the morality police, who said she didn’t properly cover her hair with the mandatory Islamic headscarf, known as the hijab. She collapsed at a police station and died three days later.
Her death set off protests in dozens of cities across the country of 80 million people, with young women marching in the streets and publicly cutting off their hair in the most widespread challenge to Iran’s leadership since the 2009 Green Movement protests drew millions to the streets.
The government has responded with a fierce crackdown. An Associated Press tally of reports in state-run and state-linked media shows there have been at least 1,900 arrests connected to the protests.
And while state television last suggested at least 41 people had been killed in the demonstrations as of Sept. 24. an Oslo-based group called Iran Human Rights estimates at least 154 people have been killed.
Amini's death has drawn a host of U.S. actions against the government and its leaders.
The morality police and the leaders of other Iranian law enforcement agencies were hit with one round of sanctions, and on Sept. 23, the Treasury Department announced that it would allow American tech firms to expand their business in Iran, where most internet access has been cut off in response to the protests.
Agency officials said an updated general license authorizes tech firms to offer more social media and collaboration platforms, video conferencing and cloud-based services.
“We’re going to continue to impose further costs on the perpetrators of this violence,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday afternoon.
Before Amini’s death, U.S. sanctions on Iran have accelerated in recent months.
Firms from Iran, China, India, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere that the Biden administration says have been involved in shipping sanctioned Iranian oil around the world have also seen penalties.
Associated Press reporters Matthew Lee and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.