Human rights and religious freedom groups commended President Barack Obama for signing an executive order Wednesday imposing sanctions on eight top Iranian officials responsible for serious human rights violations.
It was the first time the Obama administration had imposed sanctions on Iran over human rights abuses.
"We must send the clear message to the Iranian government that the international community will not tolerate with impunity continued human rights and religious freedom violations," remarked Leonard Leo, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal government commission, in a statement.
Leo noted that USCIRF in May had recommended the U.S. government take action as Obama did on Wednesday. Six of the eight names the Obama administration listed on its sanction list were identified by USCIRF back in May as being responsible for egregious religious freedom violations in Iran.
The Iranian officials on the list, which include the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, are allegedly responsible for gross human rights abuses, including a violent crackdown during the disputed 2009 presidential election, arbitrary arrests, torture, murders, and rape.
Under the U.S. sanctions, the Iranian officials will be barred from traveling to the U.S., doing business with U.S. companies, and have their U.S. properties frozen.
Although the immediate effect of the U.S. sanctions will be minimal, they are expected to trigger similar European sanctions against the officials. The new human rights sanctions together with the previous nuclear-related ones are expected to intensify pressure on Iran.
"In signing this executive order, the president sends the message that the United States stands up for the universal rights of all people," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an announcement Wednesday. "And as President Obama said at the United Nations last week, we will call out those who suppress ideas. We will serve as a voice for the voiceless, and we will hold abusive governments and individuals accountable for their actions."
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner noted that the targeted sanctions can be "very effective" without hurting Iranian civilians.
For more than 30 years, Iran's hardline Islamic regime has engaged in serious human rights abuses. The government has a poor religious freedom record, regularly cracking down on its religious minorities, including Christians, Sufi Muslims and Baha'is.
In the past year, dozens of Muslim-background converts to Christianity have been arrested and even tortured by Iranian authorities because of their new faith. Several churches have also been forced to shut down over the past year.
Iran is ranked the No. 2 worst persecutor of Christians, behind North Korea, on Open Doors' 2010 World Watch List. And since 1999, USCIRF has recommended that the State Department designate Iran as a "Country of Particular Concern" for its systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.