The United States announced Thursday sanctions against Russian and Iranian security and intelligence services, accusing them of being responsible or complicit in the wrongful detention of Americans overseas.
The move against Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) intelligence organization marks the first rollout of new sanctions authorities established last year by President Joe Biden for use against those holding Americans unjustly captive.
Still, the sanctions are largely symbolic, since both organizations already are under sweeping existing sanctions for an array of malevolent behavior – from election interference and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to support for terrorist activity.
Senior administration officials declined to specify which detentions specifically underpinned the sanctions, saying they were a response to a pattern of actions by the two countries in unjustly holding Americans both currently and in the past.
A U.S. Treasury news release stated that Iranian authorities frequently hold and interrogate detainees in Evin Prison in Tehran and have a “direct role in the repression of protests and arrest of dissidents, including dual nationals.”
Senior administration officials noted that Thursday’s actions were in the works well before the arrest last month of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia, whose imprisonment was swiftly deemed unjust by the U.S. government. He joins American Paul Whelan with that designation in Russia.
In addition to targeting the two organizations, the administration is also adding additional sanctions on four IRGC leaders it alleges are involved in hostage taking efforts.
Brian E. Nelson, Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the U.S. is “committed to bringing home wrongfully detained U.S. nationals and acting against foreign threats to the safety of U.S. nationals abroad.”
The senior administration officials said that relief from the sanctions could be used as an inducement in negotiations to try to secure the release of the Americans held overseas.
Biden last year issued an executive order relying on a section of the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act – named after a retired FBI agent who vanished in Iran 15 years ago and is now presumed dead – that authorizes the president to impose sanctions, including visa revocations, on people believed to be involved in the wrongful detention of Americans.
The announcement comes ahead of the annual dinner of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation next week, an event expected to include as guests multiple former hostages and detainees as well as advocates for that population.
In addition, a candlelight vigil is planned for next week, and a press conference is scheduled outside the White House to raise the plight of those detained.