May 31, 2023

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday imposed sanctions on the FSB, Russia’s intelligence agency, for its role in detaining Americans like Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter accused of espionage.

The government also announced sanctions against Iran’s intelligence services and four senior Iranian officials, whom the government says participated in a pattern of hostage-taking of Americans and other nationals.

The actions are the first attempt by the US government to formally punish foreign governments for kidnapping Americans by attempting to cut off access to the international financial system.

But government officials acknowledged that the sanctions were primarily intended as a way to send a message of disapproval to Russia and Iran, as both countries’ intelligence agencies were already subject to severe financial sanctions for actions in other areas.

Still, the officials, who asked for anonymity to discuss the sanctions before they were officially announced, said imposing the sentences on the two regimes was an important part of the often difficult effort to bring Americans home.

They hinted that the sanctions could become a bargaining chip in future negotiations over the release of Mr Gershkovich or other detained Americans. When asked if lifting the sanctions could be part of the negotiations, an official pointed to the language in an official announcement from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

“The strength and integrity of OFAC sanctions derive not only from OFAC’s ability to designate and add individuals” to the sanctions list, the Treasury Department announcement says, “but also from its willingness to to delete.”

“The ultimate purpose of sanctions is not to punish,” the statement adds, “but to bring about positive behavior change.”

However, it is unclear how much weight the intelligence agencies in Russia and Iran would place on the imposition of the sanctions, or the prospect of eventually having them lifted.

If the FSB or Iran’s Revolutionary Guards intelligence service had financial assets abroad at some point, those assets were likely frozen or cut off long ago due to sanctions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

In addition to the two agencies, four Iranian officials were targeted for sanctions. Among them are the commander of the intelligence service of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, two deputies and a counterintelligence officer from the agency. Officials said all four men have been involved in wrongful detention of Americans and other activities, including assassination attempts.

The officials said they expected other sanctions for hostage-taking in the coming months.

Mr. Gershkovich was the last American to be detained by Russia when he was detained and charged with espionage on March 30. The Biden administration has said Mr Gershkovich is not a spy and has labeled him as wrongfully detained by Russia.

After speaking to Mr Gershkovich’s family several days after his arrest, President Biden said his administration “made it very clear that what is happening is completely illegal”.

Officials said the decision to prepare sanctions against Russia and Iran began long before Gershkovich was detained by Russia, but added that his case added to the “pattern of activity” that justified the government’s punishment.

In addition to Mr Gershkovich, Russia continues to hold other Americans, including Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who has been held in Russia since 2018 on what the US government says are trumped-up espionage charges. Russia is also detaining Marc Fogel, an American who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for possession of a small amount of medical marijuana.

Brittney Griner, an American basketball star detained on similar drug charges, was released late last year after serving nearly 10 months in a prisoner exchange for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer known as the “Dealer of Death.”

In October, Iran briefly released Siamak Namazi, a 51-year-old bi-national Iranian-American businessman who had been in prison since 2015, on temporary leave and lifted the travel ban on his father, Baquer Namazi, 85, a former government official. United Nations.

But Mr. Namazi is back in Iranian prison and went on a week-long hunger strike earlier this year to protest his detention. At the time, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said that “Iran’s use of wrongful detention as political leverage is outrageous.”

Iran also has control over Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz. Mr Tahbaz, 67, a businessman and conservationist, has been in jail since 2018. Mr Sharghi, also a businessman, was arrested in January. Both are being held by the Iranian government on charges of espionage and threats to national security.

In January, Ms. Jean-Pierre said the Biden administration “continued to work to bring him home, along with U.S. citizens wrongfully detained in Iran, including Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz.”