Sanctions tighten against internal IRGC arms

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

Ansar-e Hizbullah leader Hussein Allahkaram, seen here, was recently sanctioned by the US Treasury. [Photo courtesy of Sheyar Turko]

Ansar-e Hizbullah leader Hussein Allahkaram, seen here, was recently sanctioned by the US Treasury. [Photo courtesy of Sheyar Turko]

Experts and observers of Iranian affairs tell Al-Mashareq they welcome the imposition of sanctions on entities that operate inside Iran that are responsible for many of the crimes committed against the Iranian people.

These entities operate as internal branches of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and are directly responsible for the repression of freedoms and other restrictions on the Iranian people, they said.

The US Treasury recently imposed sanctions on six Iranians and three Iran-based entities -- Ansar-e-Hizbullah, the Hanista Programming Group and Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

The sanctions also target three Ansar-e-Hizbullah officials, including the one in charge in Mashhad, for his role in an attack on the Saudi consulate in 2016.

Ansar-e-Hizbullah members gather around the leader of their group, an IRGC-affiliate that has been sanctioned by the US Treasury on May 30th, 2018. [Photo courtesy of Sheyar Turko]

Ansar-e-Hizbullah members gather around the leader of their group, an IRGC-affiliate that has been sanctioned by the US Treasury on May 30th, 2018. [Photo courtesy of Sheyar Turko]

The US Treasury "is taking action to hold the Iranian regime accountable for ongoing human rights abuses, censorship and other despicable acts it commits against its own citizens", said Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Tool of internal suppression

"It is very important to pressure the IRGC to weaken it internally with sanctions imposed on its branches inside and outside Iran," Abbas Mohammadi, a lecturer at Tehran University’s faculty of law told Al-Mashareq.

"Over time these pressures will undoubtedly lead to easing the restrictions imposed on the Iranian people that severely strangle their freedom," he said.

"The Ansar-e-Hizbullah group is the main tool of suppression inside Iran, and the matter has to do not only with these direct pressures, but also the pressure on personal freedoms through the Hanista Programming Group," he said.

According to the US Treasury, Hanista creates and distributes messaging apps meant to be alternatives to Telegram, which has been blocked by the government, that allow the government to monitor and track users' phones.

The messaging app is designed to monitor and detect any internal dissent, especially among students or youth groups, he said, noting that social media has become the most effective means of calling for strikes and protests in Iran.

Sanctions target internal groups

"It is not possible to impose sanctions on the IRGC’s arms outside Iran without imposing them on its arms inside it," Col. Rashid Mohammed al-Marri, formerly of the Dubai Police Anti-Narcotics Department, told Al-Mashareq.

"All the IRGC’s security, military and economic arms work as one on the principle of preserving the revolution and ensuring external expansion," he said.

"This explains the type of entities, institutions and the identity of the individuals on whom the sanctions are imposed by the US and some Gulf countries, wherein the sanctions list is updated periodically," he said.

These internal and external pressures will undoubtedly diminish the capabilities of those covered by the sanctions, and consequently the capabilities of the IRGC itself, he noted.

Al-Marri stressed the need for constant updates of the list with continuous follow-ups "to prevent evasion by these groups, who may change their names or officials in charge in an attempt to escape the restrictions imposed by the sanctions".

IRGC behind Ansar-e-Hizbullah

Researcher Sheyar Turko, who specialises in the IRGC and its funding methods and proliferation, told Al-Mashareq that Ansar-e-Hizbullah "is one of the arms of the IRGC, established in 1995, to execute its policies and plans".

It is "similar to the Hizbullah groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, and is now headed by Hussein Allahkaram", who was also designated in the latest US sanctions for committing serious human rights abuses on behalf of the Iranian government.

Its work is confined to Iran, and it can be described as a mix between an internal intelligence agency, an internal security force and the hesbah ("religious police") apparatus used by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), he said.

The group receives direct support "from IRGC officers close to the highest authorities in Iran affiliated with the leader of the Iranian revolution", he said, adding that this comes in the form of financing, military training and armament.

This is a group "that exists outside government institutions, and was deliberately established and managed in this fashion to distance the government from any responsibility for its actions and the behaviour of its members", he said.

"The Iranian authorities rely heavily on this group to suppress any protest, such as those that took place in 1999 and 2009, and the protests that took place over the past months," Turko said.

"The group claims as a cover for its proliferation and actions that it maintains religious discipline," he said, such as by pressuring women to wear the hijab.

It also "conducts regular patrols in most of Iran's major cities, and is active in universities and places known as sites for rallies held by dissidents or university students", he added.

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