On the eve of Iran’s parliamentary elections, the Trump administration sanctioned five Iranian officials who it accused of preventing free and fair elections.
The US Treasury Department announced sanctions on the powerful Ahmad Jannati, the secretary of the Guardian Council, and Mohammad Yazdi, a member of the council.
Three members of Iran’s election supervisory committee were also designated. They are Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, Siamak Rahpeyk and Mohammad Moghadam.
“The Trump Administration will not tolerate the manipulation of elections to favour the regime’s malign agenda, and this action exposes those senior regime officials responsible for preventing the Iranian people from freely choosing their leaders,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.
“The United States will continue to support the democratic aspirations of Iranians.”
The US says influential cleric Mr Jannati has overseen the disqualification of more than 9,000 of 14,000 candidates in Friday’s election to select 290 legislators.
The Treasury statement identified him as having a close relationship with supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
Brian Hook, the US special representative on Iran, called the regime a “mafia" as he described its efforts to disqualify moderate and progressive candidates from standing in Friday's election.
President Hassan Rouhani had also criticised the Guardian Council in a televised speech in January for disqualifying so many candidates, saying it was "not an election”.
But Mr Rouhani has since encouraged Iranians to vote in the polls.
Mr Hook criticised the notion of free and fair elections in the country and the presentation of Mr Rouhani as a moderate thinker.
“The supreme leader will still be in charge after the elections,” he said. "If you're in the regime, you're a hardliner."
Mr Hook said Iran's rulers promote figures, such as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, to present a face of “modernised autocracy” to the West.
He praised the Trump administration's strategy of maximum pressure, saying Washington was in no hurry for negotiations and would not heed Iran’s request to lift sanctions before coming to the table.
Mr Hook stressed the need to renew the arms embargo on Iran, which is due to expire in October. Russia and China have not committed to the idea.
Mr Hook called Iran “the main driver of instability in the Middle East” and repeated Washington’s commitment to increase pressure on Tehran until it changed its behaviour.
US sanctions have been imposed on Iran's manufacturing, mining and textile sectors, and senior Iranian officials who Washington said were involved in the January 8 attack on military bases housing American troops.
Mr Hook said China was still importing "a few hundred thousand barrels [of Iranian oil]. We would like to see that number get to zero".