By Daphne Psaledakis and Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday imposed sweeping new sanctions targeting Iran, blacklisting a foundation controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and taking aim at what Washington called Iran’s human rights abuses a year after a deadly crackdown on anti-government demonstrators.
The sanctions announced by the U.S. Treasury Department, which also targeted Iran’s intelligence minister, marked the latest action to reinforce the “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran pursued by President Donald Trump’s administration. They came just over two months before Trump is due to leave office after his Nov. 3 election loss.
The department imposed sanctions on what it described as a key patronage network for Khamenei. It said it blacklisted the Bonyad Mostazafan, or the Foundation of the Oppressed, which is controlled by Khamenei, in the move also targeting 10 individuals and 50 entities associated with the foundation in sectors including energy, mining and financial services.
The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of the targeted individuals and entities and generally bar Americans from doing business with them.
The charitable foundation – an economic, cultural, and social welfare institution – has amassed vast amounts of wealth to the detriment of the rest of the Iranian economy and controls hundreds of companies and properties confiscated since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“Iran’s Supreme Leader uses Bonyad Mostazafan to reward his allies under the pretense of charity,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in the statement.
“The United States will continue to target key officials and revenue-generating sources that enable the regime’s ongoing repression of its own people,” Mnuchin added.
Trump, who has taken a hard line toward Tehran during his presidency and abandoned an international nuclear agreement with Iran reached by his predecessor Barack Obama, last week asked for options on attacking Iran’s main nuclear site, but ultimately decided against taking the step, a U.S. official said on Monday.
The Treasury Department also slapped sanctions on Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, accusing his ministry of playing a role in serious human rights abuses against Iranians, including during last year’s protests.
The crackdown a year ago may have been the bloodiest repression of protesters in Iran since the 1979 revolution.
Reuters reported last year that about 1,500 people were killed during less than two weeks of unrest that started on Nov. 15, 2019. The toll, provided to Reuters by three Iranian interior ministry officials, included at least 17 teenagers and about 400 women as well as some members of the security forces and police.
Iran’s Interior Ministry has said around 225 people were killed during the protests, which erupted after state media announced that gas prices would rise by as much as 200% and the revenue would be used to help needy families.
The U.S. State Department on Wednesday also blacklisted two Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officials, accusing them of involvement in the killing of nearly 150 people in the city of Mahshahr during last year’s crackdown. The action bars them and their immediate families from traveling to the United States.
Rights groups said they believe Mahshahr had one of the highest protest death tolls, based on information they received from local residents. The State Department said as many as 148 civilians were killed there.
“Nations who believe in supporting the freedoms of expression and association should condemn Iran’s egregious human rights violations, and reaffirm respect for the dignity and human rights and fundamental freedoms of every person by imposing consequences on the regime as we have, today,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a separate statement.
Reuters was the first to report that sanctions on Iranians involved in the crackdown against anti-government demonstrations were expected as early as this week.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen since Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 from the 2015 deal under which Tehran agreed to restrict its nuclear program in return for relief from American and other sanctions. Trump restored harsh U.S. economic sanctions designed to force Tehran into a wider negotiation on curbing its nuclear program, development of ballistic missiles and support for regional proxy forces.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, set to take office on Jan. 20, has previously said he would return the United States to the nuclear deal, if Iran resumes compliance.
Some analysts have said that the piling-on of additional U.S. sanctions by Trump’s administration appeared to be aimed at making it harder for Biden to re-engage with Iran after taking office.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Humeyra Pamuk; editing by Will Dunham)