The United States hosted a virtual, international “Summit for Democracy” on Dec. 9–10, bringing together leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector. The State Department pitched the summit as providing “a platform for leaders to announce both individual and collective commitments, reforms, and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad.” Laudably, the Biden administration used the occasion of the summit to impose sanctions on officials of one of the world’s biggest human rights abusers — the Iranian regime. Unfortunately, the summit was a missed opportunity for America and its democratic allies — particularly the European Union — to do more to stand up for the human rights of the Iranian people.
Iran continues to frequently violate basic freedoms — of speech, the press, religion, assembly — as well as the very right to live. On Nov. 26, for example, Iranian police suppressed protests against severe water shortages in the city of Isfahan, arresting more than 200 and wounding 30 by shooting pellets into their eyes. Two days prior, the authorities hanged 25-year-old Arman Abdolali for allegedly murdering his girlfriend when he was only 17. Her body was never found, and Abdolali claimed that he was tortured into confessing, including through beatings, solitary confinement, and denial of asthma medication. Indeed, torture is a frequent tactic of the regime, as is brutal disruption of protests.
Appropriately, then, on the eve of the summit, the U.S. sanctioned perpetrators of such abuses. Targets included Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) special units, the “dedicated crowd control and protest suppression unit” of the previously sanctioned LEF, according to the Treasury Department. The special units have “used excessive and lethal force, firing upon unarmed protestors, including women and children, with automatic weapons.” The administration also blacklisted other special units senior officials, including commander Hassan Karami. The most prominent sanctions target was Gholamreza Soleimani, head of the Basij, a key regime paramilitary force that has cracked down on demonstrators for years.
These sanctions are well and good, but raise questions. The EU sanctioned Karami and Soleimani in April. Why did the U.S. wait eight months to follow suit? Why did it take the EU and the U.S. years to sanction Soleimani for human rights abuses, given his long-notorious involvement in them? Why has the EU yet to sanction the LEF or its special units, as well as officials thereof?
Unfortunately, these delays are part of a bigger picture of inaction and inconsistency. By my count, of the 91 persons or entities that the EU has sanctioned for human rights abuses in Iran, the U.S. has not sanctioned 59. The inverse problem is even worse. The U.S. has sanctioned roughly 160 persons or entities for such abuses, and the EU has blacklisted only about 30 of those — fewer than one-fifth.
Some of these EU omissions are noteworthy. These include the Basij itself, which the U.S. sanctioned over ten years ago, along with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which, according to Treasury, bears responsibility for major human rights abuses, including “the violent crackdowns on protests and the mistreatment of political detainees held in a ward of Tehran’s Evin prison controlled by the IRGC”; the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, which is “responsible for the beatings, sexual abuse, prolonged interrogations, and coerced confessions of prisoners, particularly political prisoners…”; and the regime-controlled Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), which has televised the aforementioned forced confessions. The U.S. and EU had years to work together to synchronize their human rights sanctions lists, but they have not, and they haven’t offered any explanation.
The Summit for Democracy will, as President Biden said, “kick off a year of action” to follow through on the high-minded rhetoric at that gathering. Washington, Brussels, and other democracies must get their act together and get on the same page, all sanctioning the same violators of the Iranian people’s human rights.
Synchronizing the sanctions lists is a floor, not a ceiling.
In particular, human rights often take a back seat to other foreign policy priorities, and we have yet to see what the Biden administration is willing to sacrifice to save the Iran nuclear deal or make a new one. Iran has said that it will not resume compliance with the deal until all sanctions on the regime are unilaterally lifted. While Washington and Brussels won’t agree to that, they could hesitate to expand human rights sanctions out of fear of scuttling an agreement with Tehran.
Thus, now is the time to hold democracies accountable for the words they spoke at the summit. The State Department says the confab “illustrates the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to putting democracy and human rights at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.” Now’s the time for them to prove it, and to partner with the EU and other free nations to that end.