Why the EU is sanctioning Iran to target protest repression

Brussels is punishing Tehran officials over human rights violations and military support for Russia

A noose hangs from mock gallows as Iranians in Chile protest outside the UN headquarters in Santiago against the hardline regime in their homeland. Reuters
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The European Union on Monday issued a second round of sanctions in less than a month against Iran over its harsh response to nationwide protests.

So far, 336 demonstrators have been killed in the unrest and nearly 15,100 detained, according to the activist HRANA news agency.

On Sunday, a protester was formally sentenced to death for “corruption on Earth”, the judiciary’s news portal Mizan Online said, without naming the person or giving any further details about their arrest or trial.

The protests, which started on September 16, were triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, who died in custody after being arrested by Iran’s morality police.

But the EU is also worried about Iran’s military support of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and last month issued a first round of sanctions linked to the transfer of drones.

Increasingly, European foreign affairs ministers say more sanctions are needed amid claims that Iran is also stepping up its support for Russia by sending Moscow ballistic missiles.

The National breaks down the various sanctions and their implications.

What are the latest round of sanctions?

The EU on Monday added 29 people and three entities to the bloc's existing Iran human rights sanctions regime that was initially set up in 2011, bringing the number of sanctioned individuals to 126 and sanctioned entities to 11.

“The EU strongly condemns the unacceptable violent crackdown of protesters,” said the EU's top diplomat Josep Borrell in a statement.

“We stand with the Iranian people and support their right to protest peacefully and voice their demands and views freely.”

The designations include the four members of the squad that arbitrarily arrested Ms Amini, provincial heads of the Iranian law enforcement forces and of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) in addition to Brig Gen Kiyumars Heidari, the commander of the Iranian army's ground forces, and the head of the Iranian Cyber Police Mohammad Naser Majid.

The EU also sanctioned Iran's Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi and Iranian state television broadcaster Press TV for producing and broadcasting the forced confessions of detainees.

Sanctioned people are hit by a travel ban which prevents them from entering the EU, and institutions are subject to frozen assets. EU citizens and companies are forbidden from making funds available to them.

Germany has been one of the most vocal European countries in calling to increase pressure on Iran over breaches of human rights.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday said: “I can only say to the leadership in Tehran: 'What kind of government does it make you if you shoot at your own citizens?'”

In what appeared to be a co-ordinated move, Britain on Monday also sanctioned Iranian officials that were targeted by the EU, such as Information Minister Issa Zarepour and Naser Majid for their roles in the protest crackdown.

“Together with our partners, we have sent a clear message to the Iranian regime — the violent crackdown on protests must stop and freedom of expression must be respected,” said Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in a statement.

In total, the UK targeted 24 Iranian political and security officials.

How do the latest sanctions differ from previous sanctions linked to human rights violations?

The measures imposed by the EU on Monday are broader than those issued on October 17, when Brussels sanctioned 15 individuals and entities, including Iran’s law enforcement forces.

Those targeted included the head of Iran’s morality police, Mohammad Rostami, and the chief of its Tehran branch, Col Haj Ahmed Mirzaei.

The EU also listed Mr Zarepour for his role in restricting access to the internet since protests started.

The Basij force, a volunteer paramilitary organisation involved in the repression of protesters, was also on the list, which closely mirrored a US Treasury sanctions list of Iranian entities and officials issued on September 22.

What are the consequences of increasing pressure on Iran?

Some European leaders have linked Iran’s crackdown on protesters with Brussels-mediated negotiations aimed at reviving a 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), between Iran and world powers.

Under that agreement, sanctions on Tehran were eased in return for curbs on its nuclear programme but were abandoned after the US administration in 2018 withdrew under president Donald Trump.

“This revolution changes many things,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday. “I don't think there will be new proposals which can be made right now [to save the nuclear deal]", he said.

Iran said it had agreed to a visit by the UN’s nuclear watchdog this month. The group suspects Iran is expanding its production of enriched uranium above levels prohibited under the abandoned 2015 deal.

But Mr Borrell was more cautious in linking the killing of protesters to Iran’s nuclear programme.

“I think the JCPOA is a different issue,” he said. “The JCPOA is about Iran becoming nuclear and the best way for Iran to not become nuclear is to continue work on the JCPOA.

“This is not on a good track, in a stalemate, but the work continues.”

A senior EU official on Friday said it was a “mistake” to pile a nuclear crisis on top of the existing tensions between Iran and the West.

“In the EU, we still think that the JCPOA is a good avenue,” said the official, while also recognising that Mr Borrell’s persistence in reviving the nuclear deal was not widely shared among western allies.

“We will die out of optimism maybe but it’s a beautiful way to die,” he said.

What is the EU doing about Iran’s military support for Russia?

Ukrainian officials have backed media claims that Iran is supplying drones and ballistic missiles to Russia for use in its war in Ukraine.

After independently verifying drone transfers, the EU on October 20 added three Iranian individuals and one Iranian entity to its sanctions list of those who undermine or threaten the sovereignty of Ukraine.

Those included senior officials involved in the country’s drones programme. They represent Iran’s armed forces, Ministry of Defence and the IRGC.

Shahed Aviation Industries, which produces the drones that were sent to Russia and used to attack Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, was also listed.

Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister Urmas Reinsalu on Monday described this package of sanctions as “symbolic” and called for a harsher response should the EU gather enough evidence regarding the alleged missile transfers.

“We are taking seriously our Ukrainian friends' remarks [about missiles] as they did … about the drones which later appeared to be true,” he said.

The senior EU official said he was “deeply concerned” about such reports.

They would constitute “a plain violation of the UN Security Council resolution”, he said, in reference to the 2015 nuclear deal, which included restrictions on weapons exports.

“We are working on getting our independent confirmation that this is true,” said the official. “It if proves to be true, we will take actions in the form of sanctions.”

The official said Mr Borrell had repeatedly voiced concern with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian during phone discussions.

Referring to Iran, the official said “this is the only country, with North Korea, that is militarily helping the Russians”.

Updated: November 14, 2022, 6:55 PM