Iran's Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani speaks during a ceremony to mark Parliament day in Tehran December 1, 2009. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

January 12, 2018

Why Did the U.S. Sanction Iran's Sadegh Amoli Larijani?

The news that President Donald Trump will continue to waive U.S. nuclear sanctions lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal - possibly for the last time - will almost certainly overshadow one of the Trump administration’s more remarkable decisions on Iran to date: sanctioning Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani. Why is the U.S. singling out a 56-year-old cleric?

Larijani is among the most senior Iranian political figures the U.S. has ever sanctioned.  He’s also one of the most powerful hardline political figures in Iran outside of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Supreme Leader himself appointed Larijani in 2009 to lead the Judiciary, one of Iran’s three independent branches of government (alongside the executive, headed by President Hassan Rouhani, and the legislature). His brother, Ali Larijani, is the speaker of the Iranian parliament. Ayatollah Larijani is also an important voice in Iran’s national security decision-making through his position on the Supreme National Security Council.

Larijani has played an important role in hardliners’ efforts to muzzle Iran’s reformists. He was the youngest jurist ever appointed to the Guardian Council, which vets presidential and parliamentary candidates for election and holds veto power over all the Parliament’s legislation. The Guardian Council has a long history of disproportionately disqualifying reformist and moderate electoral candidates and squashing reformist-leaning legislation. More recently, Larijani has clashed repeatedly with the reformist-backed President Rouhani on such issues as press freedoms and the imprisonment of the reformist leaders of the 2009 Green Movement.  

The European Union sanctioned Larijani in 2012 for personally approving and overseeing the imposition of horrific punishments.  It noted: “Since Sadeq Larijani took office, arbitrary arrests of political prisoners, human rights defenders and minorities have increased markedly.”

Larijani will certainly play a large role in determining the fates of the many thousands of Iranians arrested for their role in the most recent protests. He will definitely assist the regime’s efforts to increase the coercive power of the Islamic Republic to prevent a re-emergence of the protest movement.  The White House decision to join the E.U. in sanctioning him may be intended to deter him from using his power and position to oppress the Iranian people too forcefully.  Sanctioning the head of one of the branches of Iran’s government is a strong statement.  It remains to be seen how Iran’s leadership and the international community will respond.