Bring Back Sanctions on Iranian State TV, Too

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- An 18-year old gymnast named Maedeh Hojabri is the latest Iranian to confess to a crime on state television. Her offense? Posting videos on Instagram that featured her dancing to popular music without wearing a hijab.

Crying on camera, she said she made the videos herself and apologized, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran. She has yet to be sentenced, but Friday’s confession was followed by a vow from Iran’s internet authorities to target indecent posts on social media.   

This kind of repression is not uncommon in Iran, and there’s usually very little the U.S. can do about it besides issue a public condemnation. In this case, however, President Donald Trump has a more forceful option: Re-imposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, or IRIB, the umbrella organization that controls the regime’s foreign and domestic state-run media.

Those sanctions have been suspended since 2014, but that suspension expires on Thursday. The administration could simply decline to renew its waiver, thereby placing satellite providers in legal jeopardy if they carry any IRIB stations, including English and Arabic propaganda that is beamed abroad.

Given its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May, one might think that sanctioning the IRIB would be an easy call for the Trump administration. But it has declined to do so, though it has imposed sanctions on IRIB’s executive director.

The sanctions on IRIB date to a 2012 law designed to get Iran’s leaders to negotiate over its nuclear program.  The bill specifically mentions broadcast confessions — a practice associated with Stalin’s Soviet Union — as a justification. The Center for Human Rights in Iran has documented how IRIB stations broadcast these confessions. “Detainees are routinely forced, often under torture or threats to themselves and their families, to ‘confess’ to crimes,” reads its 2014 report. “IRIB films and broadcasts these forced confessions as a form of public intimidation and humiliation.”

Nonetheless, IRIB has evaded sanctions. In 2013, IRIB and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, the intergovernmental body that establishes rules for satellite providers, reached an agreement: Iran agreed to stop jamming of other satellite providers in Iran, and in exchange the U.S. State Department agreed to waive congressional sanctions on IRIB. This deal remains in effect.

As recently as January, State Department officials said the waiver was justified because it allows for the free flow of information into Iran. Saeed Ghasseminejad, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, finds this argument “bizarre.” It can’t be in U.S. interests, he notes, to allow the broadcast of forced confessions or anti-American propaganda, which is also common on Iranian state television.

Ghasseminejad is not alone in his views. Some 56 Iranian dissidents have sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which Ghasseminejad helped coordinate, urging the U.S. to bring back sanctions on IRIB. On Twitter, Iranian activists are using the hashtag #BanIRIB. Human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel laureate, did not sign that letter but tells me she hopes sanctions on IRIB would force companies like Intelsat to drop all IRIB networks, whether they broadcast inside Iran or to foreign audiences.  

Sanctioning IRIB is also a way to weaken the regime’s campaign against its own population. With protests increasingly sprouting up throughout the country, over such issues as drinking water shortages and laws forcing women to wear the hijab, the government is facing a crisis of legitimacy. It uses IRIB as a tool to undermine these protests.

Again, this should not be a hard decision for the Trump administration. The president has already withdrawn the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal. U.S. diplomats are now fanning out across the world in a campaign against buying Iranian oil, and the State Department says it plans to begin enforcing sanctions on Iran’s oil exports by November. Enforcing U.S. sanctions against Iranian state television which plays a crucial role in enabling the regime’s brutality against its own people should be just as high a priority.

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