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The Takeaway: Can sanctions curb Iran's protest crackdown?

Plus, a top Republican lawmaker questions the Biden administration's Syria policy and the US announces support for Lebanon's security forces.
Iran protest

WASHINGTON — As Western governments continue to pile sanctions on Iran for its protest crackdown, there are few signs that its leaders are backing down. 

If anything, the violence has turned deadlier. Tehran has resorted to public executions to quash nationwide demonstrations that have arguably posed the most serious challenge to Iran’s leadership since the 1979 revolution.

On Monday, the US Treasury Department responded with new penalties targeting 10 Iranian individuals and what it described as a slush fund for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Among those blacklisted were two IRGC commanders whose forces reportedly fired on protesters in the city of Javanrud using machine guns and heavy weaponry.

“If Iran continues to engage in these human rights abuses, we will continue to apply even more pressure on Iran,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told Al-Monitor. 

The US has so far issued nine rounds of sanctions, but Price acknowledged it’s difficult to prove whether the steady drumbeat of designations is having its intended effect. 

The sanctions are mostly symbolic, given that the targets are unlikely to have financial assets in the United States or plans to travel there. But Henry Rome, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said there is still value in naming-and-shaming Iran’s human rights violators. 

“There's benefit in showing that the US can reach deep into these organizations and pluck out individuals for scrutiny,” Rome said. “It's within the realm of possibility that getting hit with sanctions or getting threatened with sanctions could make a member of the security forces think twice about doing something. But there isn't any evidence to suggest that that's happened.” 

Such sanctions can also serve as a tool for getting credible information out about the protests and keeping the attention on rights abuses as the uprising fades from the headlines. Monday’s sanctions announcement, for example, accused the IRGC of shelling vehicles that were delivering blood bags to local hospitals treating the wounded.   

The latest US sanctions were coordinated with the European Union and United Kingdom, which slapped sanctions on their own sets of targets Monday. Bijan Ahmadi, executive director of the Toronto-based Institute for Peace & Diplomacy, said there are other ways for the West to exert diplomatic pressure on the regime.

“The strategy can include revoking entry, study, and business visas for family members of Iranian officials, and those with business interests in the regime, exclusion of regime representatives from multilateral fora, and carefully targeted expulsions of Iranian diplomats from capitals,” Ahmadi said.

As Al-Monitor first reported, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing for the Biden administration to impose visa bans on the family members of Iranian officials connected to the protest violence. 

That violence has escalated since the demonstrations erupted in mid-September over the death in police custody of 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini. According to the Oslo-based monitoring group Iran Human Rights, at least four people have been executed and some 481 people have been killed in the protests. 

The brutal government response has taken a toll on the protest movement, which observers say appears to be waning in strength. Our correspondent in Tehran — whose name The Takeaway is withholding for security purposes — says the authorities' clampdown, along with the cold weather, is keeping many protesters at bay. 

“Many Iranians are now investing much hope in outside pressure,” our correspondent said. But if there are more executions or the economy gets much worse,“a resurgence of the protests could take place any moment.”

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McCaul questions Biden’s Syria aid policy 

The Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee is questioning whether US support for certain recovery projects in Syria is eroding what little leverage Washington has against Bashar al-Assad’s government. In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said he was “alarmed by the dramatic expansion of US assistance to areas controlled by Assad for purposes far beyond lifesaving humanitarian aid.”

The United States funds humanitarian assistance throughout Syria but has made support for full-scale reconstruction contingent on the Syrian government's progress on a political solution. A subset of that humanitarian aid known as early recovery assistance is meant to restore basic services in sectors like health, sanitation and education.

In the letter obtained by Al-Monitor and first reported by Devex, McCaul urged the Biden administration to prevent that early recovery aid from being used as “a license for reconstruction,” which he described as the international community’s most important source of leverage against the Syrian regime. 

McCaul’s letter comes as regional governments are gradually re-establishing diplomatic ties with Syria, some 12 years after the uprising that sought to topple Assad. Critics say the administration could be doing more to prevent Damascus’ return to the Arab fold, including through so-called Caesar Act sanctions. 

US to help pay Lebanon’s army salaries

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it would provide $72 million to help Lebanon pay its security forces who are struggling to make ends meet.  

The temporary assistance — under which eligible soldiers and police officers will receive $100 cash stipends each month for six months —  marks the first time the United States has paid the salaries of Lebanon’s army and police. The UN Development Program will disburse the money. 

US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea said in a statement that the redirected aid was being given “in light of the urgency of Lebanon's dire economic situation." The Lebanese currency has lost more than 90% of its value since fall 2019 and the prices of food, fuel and other basic necessities have surged. The salaries of enlisted soldiers have dropped from about $800 a month before the currency crisis to just over $100 today, the Associated Press reports.

Read Al-Monitor’s full story here.

Other top stories from our contributors

• Ben Caspit explains why an illegal West Bank outpost has put Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on a collision course.  

• As the Turkish-Syrian dialogue advances, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham appears eager to take advantage of the confusion in the rebels' ranks, writes Fehim Tasketin.

• Melda Dogan reports that Istanbul’s taxi shortage is pitting Gulf tourists against Turkey's locals. 

• The murder of a prominent Turkish nationalist nearly a month ago has divided the country's nationalists, reports Andrew Wilks. 

• For Al-Monitor Pro, Samuel Wendel examines whether China can surpass the United States as a key partner for space cooperation with the Gulf region. 

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