With the recent changes to the Iranian presidency and judiciary, a rare geopolitical situation has emerged in which all bar one of the most senior officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran – from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to military and even scientific figureheads – are subject to US and international sanctions.
Ebrahim Raisi will formally assume presidency of Iran on August 5, 2021. Raisi has been on the US sanctions list for human rights violations since he became chief justice in March 2019, linked to his role in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners and ongoing oversight of crimes against humanity in Iran up until the present day. The sanctions mean Raisi and his family are not allowed to enter the United States, or own property or have a bank account there.
The sanctions covering Raisi were part of an unprecedented wave declared on the 40th anniversary of the US embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, under then-US President Donald Trump. They mean that amongst other appointments, Raisi will have great difficulty in attending the UN General Assembly in New York.
This round of sanctions also encompassed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his offices in the Islamic Republic of Iran. For his part, Khamenei has not set foot outside Iran since taking office. But the sanctions may have posed a bigger obstacle to his son and possible heir, Mojtaba Khamenei, a mysterious figure in Iranian politics who used to spend time in Britain and mainland Europe but does not appear to have secured a visa for years now.
Khamenei and Raisi’s First Appointees on the Iran Sanctions List
The new head of the Iranian judiciary, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, is sanctioned for human rights violations not only by the US but by Britain and the European Union as well. The international credibility of this key branch of decision-making power in Iran now looks to be close to zero.
Ahmad Jannati, chairman of the Assembly of Experts and secretary of the powerful Guardian Council, is also subject to US sanctions as of July 2020. The US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control attributed the move to Jannati’s role in the disqualification of some 7,000 candidates in the country’s 11th parliamentary elections. "I can no longer go to the United States for Christmas," Jannati has previously said in a mocking response to the move.
Other regime officials, however, would struggle under the same restrictions as many have children living and studying in the United States and Europe. The son of ex-Speaker of Parliament Ali Lairjani, for instance, is based in the United States, and would lose the ability to travel or reside in the country were his father – whose 2021 presidential bid was knocked back by the Guardian Council – to be placed on the US sanctions list.
Sadegh Amoli Larijani, the chairman of the Expediency Council, is also sanctioned by the European Union, Britain and the United States for widespread human rights abuses during his tenure as head of the judiciary, going back to the brutal suppression of the 2009 nationwide protests in Iran.
The Sole Exception to Blanket US Sanctions
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the former mayor of Tehran and current speaker of the Iranian parliament, is the only senior regime official not currently subject to US and/or EU sanctions. However, he is also a brigadier-general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and a former commander of the Iranian police force, both of which are sanctioned on both sides of the Atlantic.
The IRGC has also been designated a terrorist organization and is therefore in a more complicated situation. Even if its commanders and senior officers are not all on the sanctions list as individuals, they will be subject to restrictions by dint of their association with the Guards. In effect this means that Ghalibaf, like previous speakers of the Iranian parliament, will be unlikely to travel to Europe or the US either.
The Wide Scope of the October 2019 US Sanctions
On top of all the existing European and US sanctions against individuals in the Islamic Republic, Donald Trump in October 2019 issued an unprecedented executive order authorizing the State Department to ban high-ranking officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran and their first-degree relatives from travelling to the United States.
The State Department considers first-degree family members to be fathers, mothers, spouses, children, grandchildren, fiancés, siblings and half-siblings. This means that dozens of Iranian-born relatives of the heads of the three branches of power, the chairmen of the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, IRGC members and of course the Supreme Leader, lost the privilege of travel to the US at a stroke.
The welter of sanctions against the senior leadership in Iran has contributed to the exceptional feel of the new government in Iran. Everyone in a senior decision-making position, from Raisi to military deputies, will have their international freedoms curtailed to a huge extent for as long as the sanctions last.