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.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department:
Today’s action targets the Islamic Revolution Mostazafan Foundation, also known as Bonyad Mostazafan or the Foundation; its leadership, presided over by former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official Parviz Fattah; and 50 Bonyad Mostazafan subsidiaries in key sectors such as energy, mining, logistics, information technology, and financial services, which collectively account for a substantial portion of Bonyad Mostazafan’s multi-billion dollar economic empire. These entities and individuals are being designated pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13876, which targets the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian Supreme Leader’s Office (SLO), as well as their affiliates.
Bonyad Mostazafan was created in the wake of the Islamic Revolution to confiscate and manage property, including that originally belonging to religious minorities such as Baha’is and Jews. The Foundation has since emerged as a source of power, wealth, and influence for the Supreme Leader and his inner circle.
Bonyads are opaque, quasi-official organizations controlled by current and former government officials and clerics that report directly to the Supreme Leader. Bonyads receive benefits from the Iranian government, including tax exemptions, but are not required to have their budgets publicly approved. They account for a significant portion of Iran’s non-petroleum economy, with the Foundation itself estimated to account for over one percent of Iran’s gross domestic product.
Bonyad Mostazafan’s vast economic wealth is partly the result of asset expropriation and business with human rights abusers and those involved with Iran’s support of international terrorism. As of 2017, the Foundation was owed nearly $2.5 million in trade debt by the Law Enforcement Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the IRGC, and Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), all of which have been previously designated under multiple authorities, including counterterrorism authorities. The Martyrs Foundation repaid a similar debt of $1.65 million to the Foundation between 2016 and 2017.
Despite its outsized influence in the Iranian economy, Bonyad Mostazafan operates outside of government oversight and, due to a 1993 decree by the Supreme Leader, is exempt from paying taxes on its multi-billion-dollar earnings. The Supreme Leader has the authority to regulate its central accounts and personally profits from the Foundation’s holdings, which also line the pockets of his allies. Between 2015 and 2016, the Foundation transferred large sums of money to the SLO. In 2017, the Foundation financially contributed to candidates for Iran’s presidential election. Foundation managers worked for the campaign of candidate Ebrahim Raisi, a member of the Supreme Leader’s inner circle and the current Judiciary Chief, who is reportedly linked to the so-called “death commission” that ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Raisi was designated pursuant to E.O. 13876 in November 2019.
As of 2020, according to Bonyad Mostazafan President Fattah, Foundation properties have been occupied by the IRGC, the Iranian navy, the Iranian Parliament (Majles), and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, none of whom pay to do so. Ahmadinejad bases his office in an upscale property belonging to the Foundation, worth some $50 million in a wealthy neighborhood of Tehran.
The abuse of Bonyad Mostazafan’s assets also benefits the Supreme Leader’s inner circle. Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a Khamenei confidant and the father-in-law of his son Mojtaba Khamenei, occupies Foundation property worth some $100 million, paying rent far below market rates. A member of Iran’s Expediency Council, Haddad-Adel, was designated pursuant to E.O. 13876 in November 2019. Mojtaba Khamenei was simultaneously designated pursuant to E.O. 13876 alongside Haddad-Adel.
While the Supreme Leader enriches himself and his allies, the Foundation’s primary mission to care for the poor has become a secondary objective. According to the Foundation’s previous president, in past years as little as seven percent of the Foundation’s profit has been spent on projects aimed at reducing poverty.
Bonyad Mostazafan is being designated pursuant to E.O. 13876 for being owned or controlled by, directly or indirectly, the Supreme Leader of Iran.
Bonyad Mostazafan maintains close ties to the IRGC, personified by current Foundation president and former IRGC officer Parviz Fattah. Appointed to the presidency of the Foundation by the Supreme Leader in July 2019, Fattah previously served as Minister of Energy during the Ahmadinejad presidency before his appointment as managing director of the IRGC-linked Bonyad Taavon Sepah. He later served as head of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, whose Lebanon branch was designated pursuant to counterterrorism authorities in 2010 for being owned or controlled by, and for providing financial and material support to, Hizballah.