Recently, a new tool has been added to America’s soft power” arsenal, one that may be useful to the incoming Trump administration as it crafts its policy toward Iran. the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act was passed by the U.S. Senate on December 6th as part of its authorization for 2017 defense spending. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., championed the law, which is an outgrowth of a 2012 sanctions law designed to penalize Russian authorities for the untimely death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. 

In 2008, Magnitsky ran afoul of the Kremlin, when in the course of his work for hedge fund Hermitage Capital he uncovered a massive tax fraud scheme implicating a slew of government officials. Magnitsky was arrested and imprisoned in Moscow’s notorious Butyrskaya prison. He died there the following year as a result of improperly treated and neglected medical conditions. 

Magnitsky’s death attracted a lot of international attention, thanks in large part to the efforts of his employer, Bill Browder. In 2012, it resulted in the U.S. Congress passing human rights legislation that blacklisted nearly two-dozen Russian officials and functionaries for their complicity in the graft and corruption that cost the Russian lawyer his life. 

The Global Magnitsky Act, however, has a broader scope, and expands the penalties envisioned in the original act, things like visa bans, asset freezes and commercial blacklists to apply to any foreign officials found to be responsible for human rights violations or significant instances of corruption. It has become an effective weapon against human rights abuses as a tool of U.S. foreign policy. 

Iran may prove to be the test case for these new restrictions. The Islamic Republic has long been a human rights abuser, and over the past two years, the regime’s domestic practices have become more repressive than ever before, according to the United Nations.  Public executions within the Islamic Republic are at a 27-year-high, averaging more than four daily between April and June of 2015. Regime repression of ethnic minorities has also increased, rights activists say. Freedom of expression and the press are virtually nonexistent. Most tellingly, Iran ranked 169th out of 180 nations in the most recent World Press Freedom Index, a key metric of media liberty. 

Within the Islamic Republic, corruption is endemic. Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, is believed to be one of the Middle East’s richest rulers, with a financial empire of nearly $100 billion. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commands as much as one-third of the national economy, and is deeply enmeshed in illicit and black market activities. Even the ostensibly “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani has been rocked by allegations of massive graft. 

Ordinary Iranian citizens chafe under the systemic corruption” of the country’s clerical regime, but they have been ignored by the West, who has turned a blind eye so that they can pursue diplomatic détente. 


As the incoming Trump administration ponders a new approach to Iran, highlighting Iran’s repressive domestic practices, and targeting its most egregious actors, could send a powerful signal that the United States once again stands with the country’s captive population. The new White House now has a critical tool to do just that,” Berman writes.