By Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 11:11 PM
TEHRAN - With new international financial sanctions already taking a toll on Iran's currency, the Obama administration is stepping up pressure on the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with a fresh set of penalties against eight senior officials for alleged human rights abuses.
Sanctions recently implemented by the United Arab Emirates precipitated a sharp drop this week in the value of Iran's currency, the rial, disrupting the country's markets and triggering skirmishes between money changers and security forces. The sanctions flowed from an international effort to punish Iran for expanding its uranium enrichment program in defiance of U.N. resolutions.
Under a new executive order signed by President Obama and announced Wednesday in Washington, a separate, more targeted set of sanctions is intended to punish top Iranian officials deemed responsible for the arbitrary detention, killing, torture, beating and rape of Iranian citizens since the country's disputed 2009 presidential election.
Among the blacklisted officials are the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, the interior and intelligence ministers, and top police and military commanders. They are subject to individual financial sanctions and ineligible to obtain U.S. visas in accordance with a U.S. law passed in June.
Iran's finance minister, Shamseddin Hosseini, vowed Wednesday that the government would intervene to shore up the rial "if the drop leads to a bubble." But he did not say how this would be done.
The rial has lost about 15 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar since Sunday and has also dropped against the euro.
Money changers clashed with security forces in front of the Central Bank of Iran's headquarters Tuesday after learning that they would not be able to buy dollars at a lower rate as promised. No foreign currency was being sold.
But Central Bank Governor Mahmoud Bahmani insisted that "there is no problem" and that foreign currency is freely available.
The United Arab Emirates, which functions as a trade hub for Iran, has come under increasing U.S. pressure in recent months to curtail business and financial dealings with the Islamic republic.
"It is still possible to send money abroad, but prices are increasing," said Mohammad Taheri, spokesman for the Tehran Chamber of Commerce. "If the government doesn't quickly stop the devaluation of our currency, there will be a rush on foreign currency, which will undermine our financial stability."
The new U.S. executive order, meanwhile, marks the first time that the Obama administration has levied sanctions against Iran for human rights abuses - in this case offenses allegedly committed against dissidents protesting Ahmadinejad's disputed June 2009 reelection.
The targeted officials include Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; Sadegh Mahsouli, minister of welfare and social security; Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, Iran's chief prosecutor; Saeed Mortazavi, the former chief prosecutor in Tehran; Heydar Moslehi, minister of intelligence; Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, interior minister; Ahmad-Reza Radan, deputy chief of the National Police; and Hossein Taeb, deputy Revolutionary Guard commander for intelligence.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the sanctions represent "a statement of our values" and express "solidarity with victims of these kinds of actions around the world."
Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner told reporters that such sanctions "can be very effective" without hurting the Iranian people as a whole. "We have found that when we single out individuals and expose their conduct, banks, businesses and governments around the world respond by cutting off their economic and financial dealings" with them, he said.
Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, said the executive order is significant because "it sends a message to the Iranian public that U.S. sanctions are tied to something they care about, not just to something that the Americans care about."
He said it also means that resolving the nuclear issue "will not by itself be enough for full normalization, since sanctions against the most abusive elements of the Iranian government will remain."
Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.