US puts sanctions on top aide of Iran's ayatollah

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By BRADLEY KLAPPER, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. issued sanctions Thursday against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's deputy chief of staff and more than 50 other Iranian government officials for alleged human rights abuses, while making it easier for Americans to export advanced communications equipment to Iranian civilians.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. is trying to help Iranians exercise freedom of expression, even as they face Internet blockages and a lack of communications access in the run-up to Iran's June 14 presidential election. The U.S. says it is part of an effort by Tehran to stifle dissent.

Thursday's sanctions target an Iranian intelligence unit responsible for blocking information and senior Khamenei aide Asghar Mir-Hejazi.

Mir-Hejazi is culpable in violent crackdowns on Iranians, Psaki said. She said almost 60 other officials involved in abuses also were added to a U.S. blacklist.

The Treasury Department, meanwhile, eased export restrictions on personal communications hardware and software to Iranian civilians.

"Freedom of speech, assembly and expression are universal human rights," said David S. Cohen, the department's sanctions chief.

"We will use all the tools at our disposal," he said, "to help the Iranian people exercise these basic rights."

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