Targeted human rights sanctions are, in short, a tool governments use to freeze the assets of and deny visas to those complicit in human rights violations. While they are generally intended to prompt offenders to change their behavior, they have additional effects. For example, preventing perpetrators from obtaining the tools needed to continue abuses and showing support for victims. However, the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project (SLP) has heard from multiple sources that many people in affected communities—including the Iranian community—do not have sufficient information, especially in their native language, about these measures and what they mean.
Based on this feedback, this blog series was started to highlight important information about targeted human rights sanctions as they relate to the Islamic Republic of Iran; major updates on Iranian perpetrators who have been sanctioned for human rights abuses and why; and any other information that may be relevant to affected communities. Input is welcomed from readers, particularly in Iranian civil society, for questions and topics that should be addressed.
Just days before the first anniversary of Mahsa Jina Amini’s death and the massive protests it sparked in Iran, the US House of Representatives passed the Mahsa Amini Human Rights and Security Accountability Act (the “MAHSA Act” or bill), a bipartisan measure which received a nearly unanimous vote. The MAHSA Act—which focuses on targeted sanctions—will have to be approved by the Senate and signed by the president to become law.
On January 27, Representative Jim Banks (R-IN) introduced the MAHSA Act to the House with eighteen cosponsors. The bill has since received broad bipartisan support and currently has 128 cosponsors: sixty-eight Republicans and sixty Democrats. In short, the proposed bill sought to heighten the president’s obligations around targeted sanctions. It required that he review certain categories of Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) officials and entities and pursue sanctions designations where applicable.
The House sent the bill to the Committee on Foreign Affairs (HFAC), Judiciary Committee, Financial Services Committee, and Committee on Ways and Means upon its introduction, and the HFAC produced an amended version on June 22. On July 27, Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Alex Padilla (D-CA) introduced a revised version of the bill to the Senate, which in turn referred it to the Committee on Foreign Relations (SFRC).
The MAHSA Act was one of several bills introduced in the months following Amini’s suspicious death in custody in mid-September 2022 and the subsequent anti-establishment protests that followed, which were met with state-sponsored repression. Other bills included the Support for Iranian Political Prisoners Act (passed into law on December 23, 2022), the Masih Alinejad HUNT Act of 2022 (which was initially introduced in 2021 and re-introduced and adopted in 2023), the PUNISH Act of 2022, the SEVER Act of 2022, the INFO Act of 2022, and the REGIME Act of 2022.
What the MAHSA Act seeks to do
The text introduced to the Senate, and the revised text produced by the HFAC are substantively the same, though the former omits a list of factual findings that provides context for the bill’s introduction. All language quoted in this section is identical in these two versions.
First, both versions require that within ninety days of the bill’s passing, and annually after that, the president must review a list of legal persons (i.e., individuals and entities) associated with the IRI to determine whether they meet the criteria for targeted sanctions under a list of applicable authorities.
The applicable sanctions authorities are:
- Section 105(c) of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (“Section 105(c)”)
- Executive Order 13553 relating to blocking property of certain persons with respect to serious human rights abuses by the Islamic Republic (“EO 13553”)
- Executive Order 13224 relating to blocking property and prohibiting transactions with persons who commit, threaten to commit or support terrorism (“EO 13224”)
- Executive Order 13818 relating to blocking the property of persons involved in serious human rights abuse or corruption (“EO 13818”)
- Executive Order 13876 relating to imposing sanctions with respect to Iran (“EO 13876”)
- Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2023 (“Section 7031(c)”)
With these authorities in mind, the president must then review the following:
- (1) The Supreme Leader of Iran and any official in the Office of the Supreme Leader (OSL).
- (2) The president of Iran and any official in the Office of the President of Iran (OPI) or the President’s cabinet, “including cabinet ministers and executive vice presidents.”
- (3) Any entity that the OSL oversees and that is “complicit in financing or resourcing of human rights abuses or support for terrorism.”
- (4) Any official of an entity owned or controlled by the Supreme Leader or the OSL.
- (5) “Any person determined by the President” to be one of the following:
- Appointed by the Supreme Leader, OSL, the president of Iran, or the OPI “to a position as a state official of Iran, or as the head of any entity located in Iran or any entity located outside of Iran that is owned or controlled by one or more entities in Iran.”
- “[M]aterially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of,” any person or entity sanctioned under Section 105(c), EOs 13553, 13224, 13818, or 13876.
- “[O]wned or controlled by, or to have acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly,” any person or entity sanctioned under Section 105(c), EOs 13553, 13224, 13818, or 13876.
- “[A] member of the board of directors or a senior executive officer” of any entity sanctioned under Section 105(c), EOs 13553, 13224, 13818, or 13876.
Upon the president’s review, should any of the people or entities in the list meet the requirements under Section 105(c) or Section 7031(c), the president must “impose sanctions,” and should any of the individuals meet the requirements under the Executive Orders, the president must “pursue applicable sanctions.” This suggests that the president can directly impose designations under Section 105(c) and Section 7031(c), but must work with the relevant officials listed in the EOs to request their action. Further, for the fifth category of people and entities, a chairman or ranking member of the SFRC or HFAC can request that the president determine within sixty days whether a specific person or entity meets the criteria and whether the president intends to impose sanctions under any applicable authorities.
Finally, the president must submit an unclassified report to the SFRC and the HFAC. This must include a list of all the people and entities under the five categories who meet the criteria for sanctions under at least one of the sanctions authorities, which authorities apply to each actor, and under which authorities sanctions have been or will be imposed within thirty days of the report. As part of the report, if a person or entity meets the criteria for sanctions, but they will not be imposed, the president must lay out (if necessary, in a separate classified annex) “a complete justification of the decision to waive or otherwise not apply the sanctions.”
Why the MAHSA Act is significant
Logistically, the MAHSA Act shifts responsibility for sanctions determinations. Section 105(c), like the MAHSA Act, makes the president responsible for developing a list of perpetrators for Congress. However, the EOs task the secretary of the treasury, the secretary of state, and (for some) the attorney general to make determinations, and Section 7031(c) tasks the secretary of state with making the determinations.
Substantively, the MAHSA Act—if fully implemented as currently written—demands that more officials be reviewed. Like the MAHSA Act, Section 105(c) requires the president to submit to certain congressional committees a list of IRI government officials or persons acting on their behalf whom the president has determined based on credible evidence “are responsible for or complicit in, or responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, the commission of serious human rights abuses” against Iranians and their families since June 12, 2009 (regardless of where such abuses took place). He also must impose targeted sanctions on these individuals or entities. However, the requirement to submit a list of persons under Section 105(c) is significantly narrower than the one under the MAHSA Act. It does not require that the president review each actor within the broader categories nor that the president sanction or pursue sanctions on all who qualify (or submit a basis for declining to do so).
The MAHSA Act is also more comprehensive. For example, several categories of perpetrators are not covered by Section 105(c) that are covered by the other four authorities listed above. However, unlike Section 105(c), these other five authorities do not require reviews of all actors falling under certain categories, except EO 13876, which mandates sanctions on the Supreme Leader and the OSL. This means that there may be actors who meet the criteria for designation under Section 7031(c) or EOs 13553, 13224, 13818, or 13876, and who would fall under the five categories provided in the MAHSA Act, whom the US government has not yet reviewed. Specifically, Section 105(c) does not cover acts of corruption (which are included in EO 13818 and Section 7031(c)), acts of terrorism (which are included in EO 13224), designations of entities (which are included in all four EOs), and modes of liability such as materially assisting, sponsoring, or providing support (which are included in all four EOs).
Given the confidential nature of the US government’s review of potential targeted sanctions designations, it cannot publicly be known whether the MAHSA Act will, in fact, result in the review of more actors and the issuance of more designations. It is possible that all people and entities under all five categories of people have been thoroughly examined, and all possible targeted sanctions have been issued. However, by mandating the annual review and requiring an explanation for any decision not to designate an actor who meets the relevant criteria, the MAHSA Act may increase designations and will offer a guarantee that the US is taking these actions.
How civil society successfully lobbied for the MAHSA Act
The Iranian-American community has historically exercised little lobbying power in support of human rights. The effort to pass the MAHSA Act set a new precedent for how grassroots advocacy can propel the community to have their voices heard on Capitol Hill.
The MAHSA Act was not initially introduced in a firmly bipartisan manner—the representative who introduced it and fifteen of the eighteen initial listed co-sponsors were Republican lawmakers. Iranian-Americans sought to address that by calling and emailing their representatives in Democratic districts, with the warning that they would not vote for them next term if they did not support the MAHSA Act. The community organized rallies in Congressional districts where a representative was reluctant to sign on and demanded answers in person and over social media. This even spawned the creation of an active online group self-styled as the “Mahsa Act army” with a viral #MahsaAct hashtag used on both X, formerly known as Twitter, and Instagram since the introduction of the bill. Daily posts with call sheets for Congressional offices and a reminder to call along with motivational mantras powered this legislation into passage.
This public mobilization effort can serve as a blueprint for further advocacy in the coming months, including in support of the passage of a crimes against humanity bill that would provide additional prosecutorial tools against Iranian officials responsible for atrocity crimes.
Celeste Kmiotek is a staff lawyer for the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council.
Lisandra Novo is a staff lawyer for the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council.
Gissou Nia is the director of the Strategic Litigation Project at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs.
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