US sanctions Iran clerics for vetoing election candidates

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration on Thursday ratcheted up pressure on Iran by slapping sanctions on top members of a powerful clerical body that disqualified thousands of candidates from running in that country's parliamentary elections.

A day before Iranians go to the polls, the administration imposed sanctions on two senior officials of the Guardian Council, including its chief, and three members of its elections supervisory committee. Officials said those targeted were responsible for silencing the voice of the Iranian people by rejecting more than 7,000 candidates.

The penalties announced by the State and Treasury departments include freezes on any assets the five may have in U.S. jurisdictions, or that they try to move through the U.S. banking system. Also, Americans are barred from doing business with them. It was not immediately clear if the sanctions would have any practical effect, but Brian Hooks, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, said it's important to highlight the role of clerics who are not widely known outside of Iran.

Thursday's announcement was the latest move in the Trump administration's “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran that began after the president withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal and began to re-impose sanctions that had been eased under that accord.

Barely a week goes by without new sanctions. U.S. officials have said the campaign will continue until Iran changes its behavior. “There's always plenty of targets," Hook said, when asked if the administration was running of out of Iranians to penalize.

The five Iranians targeted Thursday “have denied the Iranian people free and fair parliamentary elections,” Hook told reporters. “Together these five official oversee a process that silences the voice of the Iranian people, curtails their freedom and limits their political participation.”

Those targeted include the chief of the council, Ahmad Jannati and senior member Mohammad Yazdi. َJannati is a 92-year-old hard-line cleric who once was supporter of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yazdi is another influential member of the council who served as the Iran's judiciary chief in the 1990s. The sanctions also affect Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, who serves as the council's spokesman.

The 12-member Guardian Council is a panel of six clerics appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and six jurists nominated by Iran’s judiciary approved by its parliament. The council approves all parliamentary and presidential candidates and must agree to all legislation passed by parliament before it becomes law. It rules out candidates if it believes their views or behavior are incompatible with Iran's theocratic system.

Ahead of Friday's elections, the council has barred thousands of candidates who had registered to run. Among them are 90 sitting lawmakers seeking re-election.

“The Trump administration will not tolerate the manipulation of elections to favor the regime’s malign agenda, and this action exposes those senior regime officials responsible for preventing the Iranian people from freely choosing their leaders,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

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