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US imposes sanctions on Iran's information minister amid nationwide internet shutdown

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Iran's Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi

The United States has imposed sanctions on Iran's Minister of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi over the nationwide shutting down of the internet during the recent protests against fuel price hikes in the country.

In a press release on Friday, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said it took action against Azari Jahromi for his role in the "widescale internet censorship" in Iran.

It added that all property and interests in property of the Iranian minister that are in the United States or in the possession or control of US persons must be blocked and reported to OFAC. 

OFAC’s regulations generally prohibit all dealings by US persons or within (or transiting) the United States that involve any property or interests in property of blocked or designated persons, it said.

Abolfazl Hosseinbeigi, who sits on the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian parliament, told the ISNA agency on Wednesday that the main reason for cutting internet access across Iran last weekend was that a group of “saboteurs” were using online services like navigation and maps to coordinate their activities in large cities.

A member of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the body that ordered the internet blackout on Saturday, said that restoration of services would need a “collective decision” at the highest levels of the Iranian government.

The Iranian government raised gasoline prices on November 15 in order to moderate the national consumption rate, which stands at 110 million liters per day, 40 million liters per day above the maximum domestic requirement.

The move prompted some peaceful protests, but riotous elements, abusing the situation, quickly entered the scene, destroying public property, setting ablaze banks and gas stations among other facilities, and opening fire on people and security forces.

There have been reports of fatalities among both security forces and civilians in different locations, with an official tally not available yet.

The sanctions on Azari Jahromi came a day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to impose even more sanctions on Iran over the country’s handling of the recent riots, even though the unrest is believed to be the result of Washington’s unilateral sanctions.

In meddlesome comments on Thursday, Pompeo urged Iranians to send photos and other information documenting what he called “repression,” while vowing to sanction "abuses" by the Iranian government.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday hailed the people’s firm response to the recent wave of foreign-backed riots that hit several Iranian cities, voicing gratitude towards the nation for withstanding the enemies’ subversive plots despite their economic grievances.

“The Iranian nation came victorious out of yet another historic test, and showed that despite the country’s economic problems and existing grievances about the manner of its management, they would never allow the balance to tilt in favor of the enemy,” the president said, addressing a government meeting in Tehran.

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