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Smart, But A Little Bit Slow

These Two Men Look Like They've Been Sanctioned (Naqdi On The Right, Dolatabadi On The Left)
These Two Men Look Like They've Been Sanctioned (Naqdi On The Right, Dolatabadi On The Left)
Government moves in mysterious ways. Today the U.S. departments of Treasury and State jointly announced the imposition of sanctions on two senior Iranian officials, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi and Mohammed Reza Naqdi. Dolatabadi is the chief prosecutor for the city of Tehran, effectively the country's dissident-hunter-in-chief, and Naqdi is head of the Basij, the paramilitary security force that specializes in terrorizing opposition demonstrators. The sanctions block the two men from involvement in any sort of business dealings in the U.S. and prohibit any U.S. citizen from engaging in transactions with them. As Treasury official Adam J. Szubin rather grandiosely put it, "Dolatabadi and Naqdi have no place in the international financial system." In other words, no skiing trips in Dubai for these two guys anytime soon.

Yet a question presents itself: Why now? The presidential order that provides the legal basis for these sanctions assumed force on September 28, 2010. The very next day the government published a list of eight equally nasty Iranian officials who were immediately targeted. Surely two relative big shots like Dolatabadi and Naqdi could have been included then. Why did it take another four and a half months for the U.S. government to catch up with them?

Treasury officials weren't able to supply an answer by the time of this writing. But I did get some help from Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service. (You can see his excellent overview of Iran-related sanctions here.) He points out that President Barack Obama's Executive Order 13553 provides for sanctions against Iranian officials complicit in "serious human rights abuses...on or after June 12, 2009." That was the date of the disputed Iranian presidential election that ignited the Green Movement. Katzman notes that Dolatabadi and Naqdi were appointed to their present positions only after that. "These guys were replacements for guys who were in office when the election was held" -- people like the eight men on the original September 29 list, who all meet this particular criterion.

By contrast, Dolatabadi and Naqdi moved into their present jobs in August and October 2009, respectively. So perhaps this meant that the precise nature of their role in events following the suppression of the Green Revolution disturbances required a bit of extra scrutiny by the lawyers in Washington. (I'm just guessing here, but perhaps the delayed designation also has something to do with the additional prominence the two men have achieved within the past two weeks, as the government has engaged in a vicious crackdown on a renewed wave of unrest. Dolatabadi, by the way, is also in charge of the upcoming espionage trial of the two American hikers who remain in Iranian custody.)

All of which should teach us a lesson about the latest in sanctions technology. So-called smart sanctions, which target individuals rather than governments or big institutions, are intricate affairs that require a fair amount of bureaucratic maintenance and fine-tuning. But this may be worth the extra effort. Iranians presumably have much less cause to resent sanctions that target thuggish officials than those that affect the population at large.

This might be a good time to mention that, for all its activity on the economic countermeasures front, the U.S. government still hasn’t managed to get its way when it comes to imposing sanctions on Iran's central bank. The Russians, the Chinese, and the Europeans (especially the Germans) are all opposed to the idea, arguing that such a move could destabilize the entire Iranian economy and thus send millions of ordinary folk into poverty. Targeted sanctions dodge this problem. So far, though, even they don't seem to be doing much to prevent the Iranian regime from preying on its own people. Let's hope that changes.