Gender persecution is happening in Iran. Targeted sanctions would be a step toward accountability.

This past year, the situation of women in Iran has increasingly come under international scrutiny. In September 2022, Mahsa Amini died from injuries sustained by the regime’s “morality police,” triggering a women-led protest movement that quickly transitioned from protests against compulsory hijab rules to protesting the Islamic Republic of Iran itself. Since then, more than five hundred protesters have been killed and almost twenty thousand arrested, among them many female journalists. Alarming reports of gender-based crimes, including sexual abuse and torture of protesters at the hands of Iranian security forces, have also come to light. As the journalist and activist Masih Alinejad and others have described it, women in Iran live under a severe and systematic form of oppression akin to “gender apartheid.”  Now, schoolgirls across the country are falling ill in what many believe are deliberate poisonings to close girls’ schools in retaliation for their participation in the protests.

One of the principal institutions behind this systematic oppression of women is the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution (SCCR), an unelected body answerable only to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Indeed, it was the SCCR, under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that created the morality police in the first place. Months before Amini’s death, President Ebrahim Raisi, who was himself sanctioned by the United States in 2019 and who now heads the SCCR, ordered the morality police and government agencies across the country to enforce more strictly the compulsory hijab rules, a policy enacted and designed by the SCCR. Despite mounting evidence of abuses in the context of the protests, the SCCR reiterated its support for the compulsory hijab in January. That same month, a new secretary of the SCCR was appointed—one who personally used to fire a slingshot at women who he considered to be wearing their hijab improperly and, more recently, insisted that protesters should be shown “no mercy” and crucified.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to hold the SCCR accountable. It is an unelected body in a country that is beyond the reach of traditional accountability mechanisms such as international courts and routinely refuses to cooperate with specialized human rights mechanisms. The UN Human Rights Council recently established a fact-finding mission on Iran with a mandate to collect, consolidate, and analyze evidence of human rights violations stemming from the protests, but it does not have the power to initiate any legal proceedings itself. Given these limitations, sanctions—and specifically targeted sanctions—offer a way forward to address the ongoing gender persecution. 

Governments use targeted sanctions to freeze perpetrators’ assets and ban them from obtaining visas. They are primarily used as a tool to incentivize behavior changes under the theory that perpetrators will abandon the sanctionable activities in order to reclaim their assets and ability to travel. 

Targeted sanctions have been used since the 1990s. However, using them to target human rights violations and corruption first began in 2012 in response to the death of Russian whistleblower and tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. Magnitsky was tortured and died in Russian prison after uncovering an instance of massive Russian corruption. After Magnitsky’s death, his client Bill Browder began advocating for justice on his behalf. While Browder could not find paths for criminal accountability in Russia or overseas, he recognized the link between corruption and human rights abuses, and he noted that many architects of both spent their ill-gotten gains in Western countries. Jurisdictions including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union (EU), and Australia adopted measures, often referred to as Magnitsky-style sanctions, to prevent perpetrators of these crimes from enjoying those luxuries—even if they were otherwise untouchable.

Ideally, the United States, likeminded countries, and regional blocs such as the EU will all designate both the SCCR and its members. While entities often do not have overseas assets and, naturally, cannot receive visas, their members often do have international connections. Designations on entities do not automatically result in designations on members, but the relevant legislation is often worded such that any members would additionally meet the criteria.

Iranian regime officials are known to have considerable overseas wealth, as well as international connections (such as immediate family members living overseas) that would suggest they would want to maintain the ability to spend money and obtain visas in those locations. The children of high-ranking officials, sometimes called “aghazadehs,” are frequently criticized for their luxurious lifestyles, even prompting a hit television series in Iran focused on them. Targeted sanctions would freeze all assets in the officials’ names and would, in general, prevent them from engaging with banking systems based in the sanctioning countries (for example, to send money to family members) or from obtaining a visa (for example, to visit family members). Especially in light of reports of mass resignations among certain regime officials and members of the security forces, sanctions might incentivize SCCR members to resign from government positions, at the least. 

Even if executed perfectly, targeted sanctions will not end gender persecution. Despite existing global sanctions (targeted and otherwise), the Iranian regime has not yet meaningfully changed its behavior. Designating an entity like the SCCR without known overseas assets and without designating individual members would have limited material effect. However, as recognized by the Netherlands, the symbolic value cannot be overlooked. The limited benefits are worth the effort—especially when it comes to gender-based crimes. First, it puts the SCCR’s members on notice that the international community is aware of their complicity and is paying attention. Second, it offers support to the victims of the SCCR’s policies—in this instance, women. Such support has been lacking in targeted sanctions to date, and groups such as Human Rights First have analyzed designations and found that in most instances jurisdictions did not recognize the gender of the victims, but when they did, they were more likely to identify men than women. 

The United States has designated hundreds of Iranian officials across more than a dozen Iran-focused sanctions regimes. So far, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the EU have imposed targeted sanctions on the morality police and on the security forces—but not yet on the SCCR. While the designations thus far have been a positive and welcome step to address the behaviors stemming from the SCCR’s policies, they fail to acknowledge the specific harms the SCCR has committed in building the architecture of Iran’s gender apartheid.

Experts from the Strategic Litigation Project have previously recommended that authorities designate the SCCR under relevant targeted sanctions regimes and have submitted supporting evidence and legal arguments. As important as designating human-rights-violating institutions such as the morality police has been, designating the SCCR is also critical for identifying and condemning the bodies responsible for facilitating the ongoing gender-related crimes and would add additional weight in support of their many victims. International Women’s Day offers an opportunity for countries and other jurisdictions with human rights sanctions regimes to designate those responsible for upholding regimes that discriminate against women and implement the policies designed to violate women’s rights—including the SCCR and its members.

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.

The Strategic Litigation Project works on accountability efforts for atrocity crimes, human rights violations, and corruption offenses around the world.

Further reading

Image: A newspaper with a cover picture of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police" is seen in Tehran, Iran September 18, 2022.