EU sanctions imposed upon close relatives and business associates of President Bashar al-Assad over the repression in Syria have also targeted commanders of Iran‘s Revolutionary Guard.
Syria has denied that Iran has been helping to crush unrest, despite claims by western governments and Syrian opposition groups, so the measures against regime figures in Tehran and Damascus, announced in Brussels on Friday, sent a strong message to both countries.
Britain denounced Iran’s support for its Arab ally as “absolutely unacceptable” and “blatant hypocrisy”.
General Muhammad Ali Jafari, the Revolutionary Guard commander, and General Qasem Soleimani, who leads its elite al-Quds force, both now face EU asset freezes and travel bans. They are already subject to US sanctions.
The EU document cites three Iranians as “providing equipment and support to help the Syrian regime suppress protests”. Hossein Taeb is described as the Revolutionary Guard’s deputy commander for intelligence. The guard answers directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and works closely with Iran’s allies in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas. It is a priority target for western intelligence agencies.
Iran is accused of equipping Syria to block the internet, drawing on its own extensive experience of crushing protests, especially after its disputed 2009 elections. Israeli sources have claimed Iran supplied sniper rifles to Syria and organised a protest march by Palestinians to the occupied Golan Heights.
Turkish media reported this week that President Assad’s brother Maher, who has masterminded the military crackdown, is working with Iranian intelligence organisation Savama, which has also been tracking Syrian opposition figures in Turkey.
The Sabah daily also claimed Maher has recruited former Iranian Revolutionary Guards for $5,000 (£3,100) a month.
Reports from Syrian troublespots have described mysterious bearded men who did not speak Arabic, or others speaking Arabic in the accent of Ahwaz, capital of Iran’s Khuzestan province. Others suggest Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen, allies of Syria, have been involved.
Iran has denied any role and accused the US and Israel of “provoking terrorist groups in Syria and the region to carry out terrorist and sabotage operations”.
Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, said: “The Iranian government’s provision of equipment and technical advice to help suppress peaceful protests is absolutely unacceptable.
“Iran’s actions are in stark contrast to the will of the Syrian people. They also highlight again Iran’s blatant hypocrisy, claiming publicly to support freedom in the Arab world, while privately assisting in violent repression.”
Western governments say the latest sanctions are designed to increase political and economic pressure on the Assad regime. They apply to Zou al-Hima Shalish, the president’s cousin and security chief who controls a huge contracting firm; Riyad Shalish, his brother and director of military housing, and Khalid Qaddur and Raif al-Quwatli, both business associates of Maher al-Assad. The EU has also targeted four Syrian business entities, two of them owned by Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, the country’s richest businessman, who said last week he intended to make his profits available for public use.
EU leaders adopted a declaration condemning the “unacceptable and shocking violence the Syrian regime continues to apply on its own citizens”.
“By choosing a path of repression instead of fulfilling its own promises on broad reforms, the regime is calling its legitimacy into question,” it said.
“Those responsible for crimes and violence against civilians shall be held accountable.”