U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley strongly condemned Iran for its alleged recruitment and use of child soldiers in battlefields across the Middle East.
"The use of child soldiers is a moral outrage that every civilized nation rejects while Iran celebrates it," Haley said Thursday during a U.N. Security Council meeting.
Haley's remarks came two days after the U.S.Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control announced new sanctions targeting businesses that provide financial support to the Basij Resistance Force, a paramilitary force under the command of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
"Iran's economy is increasingly devoted to funding Iranian repression at home and aggression abroad," she said. "In this case, Iranian big business and finance are funding the war crime of using child soldiers. This is crony terrorism."
The latest sanctions are part of the U.S. efforts to pressure Iran economically for what the Trump administration has described as Iran's destabilizing role in the Middle East and its sponsorship of terrorism in the region.
The U.S. Treasury Department has listed a network of some 20 companies and economic entities that are believed to be funding the recruitment and training of child soldiers for the IRGC.
"Any company or individual that does business with this Iranian network is complicit in sending children to die on the battlefields of Syria and elsewhere," Haley said.
The network providing financial support to the Basij is known as Bonyad Taavon Basij.
"This vast network provides financial infrastructure to the Basij's efforts to recruit, train and indoctrinate child soldiers who are coerced into combat under the IRGC's direction," U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement earlier this week.
"The international community must understand that business entanglements with the Bonyad Taavon Basij network and IRGC front companies have real-world humanitarian consequences, and help fuel the Iranian regime's violent ambitions across the Middle East," Mnuchin added.
Tehran called the U.S. sanctions a violation of international law.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote in a tweet on Wednesday that the latest U.S. sanctions violated two orders by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
"Utter disregard for rule of law & human rights of an entire people. U.S. outlaw regime's hostility toward Iranians heightened by addiction to sanctions," Zarif said in a tweet.
Bahram Qassemi, a spokesperson for Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on Thursday it's part of a psychological war waged by the U.S. against Iran.
"Such actions show the spitefulness of the U.S. government towards the Iranian people and are a clear insult to legal and international mechanisms," the state-run IRNA news agency quoted Qassemi as saying.
Some Iranian rights activists have welcomed the U.S. move, however, and described it as a positive step to discipline the Iranian government for its actions in the region.
"Any action focused on children's rights is important because it highlights the importance of protecting children's rights and puts the issue of child soldiers under the spotlight," Hamed Farmand, a Virginia-based children's rights activist, told VOA. "Any international action with the purpose of condemning child soldiers is widely appreciated but it needs more action than just financial sanctions on some institutes involved in it."
A 2017 Human Rights Watch report accused Iran of committing war crimes by recruiting and sending Afghan refugee children "as young as 14" to fight in Syria. The New York-based organization also has documented how the IRGC has recruited Afghan immigrant children living in Iran to fight in Syria along Syrian regime troops.
Maryam Nayeb Yazdi, also an Iranian human rights activist, said there should be an effective mechanism to force Iran to improve its human rights record.
"To change the behavior of the Iranian government, the international community needs a human rights-focused approach and must take multiple actions simultaneously," she said during a recent Geneva Summit on Human Rights and Democracy.
Effects of sanctions
But Sadegh Hosseini, a Tehran-based analyst, said U.S. sanctions on the Basij force actually are indirect punishment inflicted on the Iranian people.
"Sanctioning the Basij could affect many Iranians who have voluntarily become members of it or have joined it in the past," he said.
He told VOA "the purpose of this embargo is unclear but many Iranians who have bank accounts with those financial institutes could be affected, since many of them receive their employment salaries only through accounts at those targeted banks."
Other experts say that following the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the U.S. Treasury Department has stepped up its efforts on this front because it is the main pillar that can block Iran's sale of oil and impose banking restrictions on the country.
"The latest move by the [U.S.] Treasury to sanction Iran's Basij Resistance Force is an important part of that campaign," said Farhang Jahanpour, a professor of international law at Oxford University.
"So far, other signatories to the [nuclear deal] have refused to go along with American sanctions on Iran, but many major European companies have cut back or have completely ended their dealings with Iran in fear of U.S. retaliation," Jahanpour added.
Behnam Ben Taleblou, a researcher at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the recent designations were different from previous measures "because they focused on the role of select financial institutions in generating revenue that was ultimately used to benefit the Basij."
"The [U.S.] Treasury Department's willingness to go after the entities in the Basij financial support network highlights the challenge of doing due diligence in Iran, as well as signals to the international community that the U.S. is serious about putting the squeeze on all elements of the Iranian economy tied to the IRGC," Taleblou added.