WASHINGTON - The United States on Thursday slapped sanctions on five Iranian officials in charge of vetting candidates for the Islamic republic's parliamentary elections, in which thousands, predominantly moderates, have been barred from running.
The officials targeted ahead of Friday's vote include Ahmad Jannati, a 92-year-old cleric who, according to the Treasury Department, oversaw the disqualification of nearly half the 16,033 potential candidates including dozens of sitting MPs.
Along with his role on the election-supervising Guardian Council, the ultra-conservative also plays a key role on the body that selects the regime's supreme leader.
"The Trump administration will not tolerate the manipulation of elections to favor the regime's malign agenda, and this action exposes those senior regime officials responsible for preventing the Iranian people from freely choosing their leaders," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
"The United States will continue to support the democratic aspirations of Iranians," he added.
The sanctions mean that any US assets of the officials will be frozen and that transactions with them will be a crime for anyone in the United States.
While Jannati is unlikely to hold significant assets in the United States, a U.S. official said Washington was hoping to draw attention to his usually behind-the-scenes role.
Most of those disqualified were moderates or reformist candidates, clearing the way for conservatives to make big gains in the election at the expense of moderate backers of beleaguered President Hassan Rouhani.
The Trump administration, despite taking action over the election, has insisted it does not see distinctions between hardliners and moderates such as Rouhani, who has sought better relations with the West and protested the barring of candidates.
Trump bolted from a nuclear accord negotiated under his predecessor Barack Obama with the Rouhani administration and instead slapped sanctions, sending tensions soaring.
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who appointed Jannati and the other sanctioned officials, "still gets to decide anything," Brian Hook, the US pointman on Iran, told reporters.
"We don't get distracted by this question of moderates and hardliners. If you're in the regime, you're a hardliner," he said.
He described the election as "political theater."
Iran "is a republic in name only when the government disqualifies half of the candidates," Hook said.
Also sanctioned was Mohammed Yazdi, a former chief of the judiciary who was recently appointed to the Guardian Council by Khamenei.
Yazdi also serves on the central supervisory committee, as do the others sanctioned -- Siamakh Rahpeyk, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei and Mohammad Hasan Sadeghi Moghadam, all of whom were Jannati appointees to the committee, according to the Treasury Department.