As Europe and United Kingdom Take Tough Action, Biden Admin Slow to Sanction Iran

Slow response comes as Iranian government continues violent crackdown on anti-regime protests

Protesters trample on a picture of Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi / Getty Images
January 20, 2023

The Biden administration is lagging behind its international partners in imposing sanctions on the Iranian regime, stoking concern among advocacy groups that are pushing for a tough response to the clerical government’s violent crackdown on protesters.

The European Union, United Kingdom, and Canada sanctioned 46 Iranian individuals or entities in December 2022 for their role in the violent crackdown on anti-regime protesters, 29 of which have not been hit with similar measures by the Biden administration, according to figures collected by a watchdog group and shared with the Washington Free Beacon.

Since protests erupted in September of last year, the European Union has added 66 individuals or entities to their sanctions list. Just 26 of those are sanctioned by the United States. The United Kingdom has taken action against 41 individuals or entities, just 20 of which are sanctioned by the United States. And Canada added 84 individuals or entities to their sanctions list, only 42 of which are also sanctioned by the United States. The Biden administration has not issued any new sanctions since Dec. 21, as opposed to both the United Kingdom and Canada. There are only 16 individuals or entities that have been designated by the United States since September that are not also designed by the European Union, United Kingdom, or Canada.

The figures, compiled by United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) as part of the watchdog group’s Iran Human Rights Sanctions Tracker, show a gap between the pace of designations by the Biden administration and its international allies. The Biden administration has walked a diplomatic tightrope in hopes the hardline government will resume diplomacy over a revamped version of the 2015 nuclear accord. But with the protests showing no sign of slowing down—and the Iranian regime becoming increasingly violent—experts say it is past time for the Biden administration to drop its diplomatic talks and get serious about isolating the leadership in Tehran.

"The White House was perhaps fearful of appearing to torpedo the Vienna talks to restore the JCPOA by designating regime leaders. But it’s time to face reality. The JCPOA is dead," UANI executive director David Ibsen told the Washington Free Beacon, referring to the nuclear deal by its official acronym. "These designations would also be fundamentally non-nuclear in nature. This raises the question—what else must [Iranian Ayatollah] Khamenei and his hand-picked leadership do to earn human rights and terrorism designations?"

Watchdog groups like UANI are concerned by the Biden administration’s decision to refrain from sanctioning Iran’s top leaders, including Khamenei, his family, and closest associates. Canada and European nations also have stopped short of targeting Iran’s top officials, though they have designated mid-level targets still untouched by the United States, according to Ibsen.

"The Biden administration has stopped short of designating the highest ranking officials in the Islamic Republic and is not yet matching the designations of mid-level targets that have been announced by the UK, Canada, and EU," Ibsen explained. "There is no reason why Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his son Mojtaba Khamenei, and President Ebrahim Raisi should remain beyond the reach of U.S. human rights and terrorism sanctions, or why Washington is hesitating to match the designations coming from abroad."

The figures provided by UANI show that nearly 61 percent of the human rights sanctions enacted by the European Union are not similarly designated by the United States. The figure rises to 62 percent when compared with the United Kingdom, and stands at 49 percent when compared with Canada.

On Wednesday in a major decision, the European Union Parliament called for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to be designated as a terrorist group. Europe has long refrained from taking action against the IRGC and the latest decision signals a wholesale reevaluation of the continent’s position on the matter. The United States designated the IRGC as a terrorist group under former president Donald Trump. President Joe Biden considered for a short period of time removing that designation as part of a concessions package to cajole Iran into negotiating over its nuclear program.

The State Department’s response to the Iranian regime’s violent crackdown on protesters took center stage last week, when Iran executed a dual Iranian-British citizen. The Biden administration condemned the matter but offered little else when pressed by reporters, who questioned whether the administration’s current approach has had any tangible effect on the Iranian regime.

Without greater coordination between the Biden administration and its international partners, sanctions on the Iranian regime will continue to lack bite, according to UANI’s Ibsen. The figures compiled by the group show that in some cases the United States has sanctioned individuals not covered by Canada and European allies, and vice versa.

"Washington should work with its allies in the G7 to sanction all these men and harmonize human rights sanctions as it would send a powerful message that the world stands with the Iranian people and not their oppressors," he said.