On April 27, 2023, the United States announced new sanctions on Iran for taking Americans and Iranian-Americans hostage. The Treasury Department specifically designated four senior officials in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Intelligence Organization (IRGC-IO), including:
- Mohammad Kazemi, the IRGC-IO commander
- Mohamad Mehdi Sayyari, an IRGC-IO deputy chief
- Brig. Gen. Mohammad Hasan Mohagheghi, an IRGC-IO deputy chief for counterespionage.
- Ruhollah Bazghandi, an IRGC-IO official for counterintelligence.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the actions were “a clear and direct warning to those around the world who wrongfully detain U.S. nationals of the potential consequences of their actions.” Iran’s practice of seizing and imprisoning foreign nationals, including dozens of Americans and dual Iranian-American nationals, has been a recurrent international issue since the 1979 revolution. Hostage-taking became a major tool of Tehran’s diplomacy and shadow warfare against adversaries.
Related Material: Profiles: Iran’s Intelligence Agencies
Washington has repeatedly tried to win freedom for detained Americans and end the trend by trading arms for hostages in the 1980s; multiple rounds of behind-the-scenes diplomacy and layers of sanctions by at least four presidents; negotiations over a nuclear deal in 2015; unfreezing Iranian assets held by U.S. financial institutions in 2016; and swapping prisoners. But no tactic has sufficed to convince Tehran to abandon hostage-taking, which is widely recognized as a major violation of international law.
Related Material: Profiles: Detainees in Iran
The announcement is not the first time that Washington has imposed economic sanctions on Iran’s most powerful military branch. In an unprecedented move, President Trump designated the entire IRGC in 2019. No other major military, including the Soviet Army at the height of the Cold War or the Nazi military in Germany during World War 2, had ever been sanctioned by Washington. The following are statements by President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Treasury Department, which also imposed sanctions on Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).
President Joe Biden
“Today, I am proud to announce that my Administration will for the first time deploy a new tool to impose severe economic costs on governments and groups that hold hostage or wrongfully detain Americans around the world.
“Since the first day of my Administration, we have prioritized the safe return of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad. We have now brought home dozens of Americans, many of whom had been held since before I took office. Still, too many are suffering and separated from their loved ones—including Americans who remain wrongfully detained in Russia, Iran, and elsewhere. We remain unflinching in our efforts to keep faith with them and their families, to pursue new ways to bring them home until we succeed, and to prevent this from happening to other families in the future.
“Today, the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury have announced the U.S. Government’s first-ever sanctions against actors for engaging in the wrongful detention of Americans. These sanctions against four individuals and two security services in Russia and Iran mean that all of the designees’ property and interests in property in the possession or control of U.S. persons are now blocked. These steps to cut off these actors from the legitimate financial system make use of the Executive Order that I issued last summer that, itself, built on the 2020 Hostage Recovery and Hostage Taking Accountability Act. That law passed in large part due to the perseverance of the families and so many others in this community who have worked to turn pain into purpose.
“Today – and every day – our message to Russia, Iran, and the world is holding hostage or wrongfully detaining Americans is unacceptable. Release them immediately.”
“The United States has no higher commitment than bringing home wrongfully detained Americans. Today, we are promoting accountability for those responsible for wrongfully detaining U.S. nationals abroad. Our actions are a clear and direct warning to those around the world who wrongfully detain U.S. nationals of the potential consequences of their actions.
“The Department of State is designating Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) for its involvement in the wrongful detention of at least one U.S. national abroad. The FSB has repeatedly been involved in the arrest, investigation, and detention of U.S. nationals wrongfully detained in Russia.
“The Department is also designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Intelligence Organization (IRGC-IO) for its involvement in the wrongful detention of at least one U.S. national abroad. Concurrently, the Department of the Treasury is designating four senior officials in the IRGC-IO.
“Russia’s and Iran’s continued pattern of wrongfully detaining U.S. nationals is unacceptable. The United States will never stop working to secure the release of U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage and reunite them with their loved ones. Today’s actions are one tool furthering that cause, and we will continue to use all authorities at our disposal to bring our people home.
“In July 2022, the President signed E.O. 14078 to provide the U.S. government with expanded tools to deter and disrupt hostage-taking and wrongful detentions of U.S. nationals, including imposing financial sanctions and visa restrictions. State’s designations of the FSB and IRGC-IO are pursuant to Section 6(a)(i)(A) of E.O. 14078 for being responsible for or complicit in, directly or indirectly engaged in, or responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing, the wrongful detention of a U.S. national abroad. Treasury designations of senior IRGC-IO officials are under E.O. 14078 for acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the IRGC-IO, a person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to E.O. 14078.”
Today, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned four senior officials of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Intelligence Organization (IRGC-IO), an entity that is being concurrently designated by the State Department for its role in the hostage-taking or wrongful detention of U.S. nationals in Iran. The IRGC-IO frequently holds and interrogates detainees in the notorious Evin Prison, in addition to the IRGC-IO’s direct role in the repression of protests and arrest of dissidents, including dual nationals. Today’s action is the first under Executive Order (E.O.) 14078, “Bolstering Efforts to Bring Hostages and Wrongfully Detained U.S. Nationals Home,” which reaffirms the fundamental commitment of the U.S. government to bring home those U.S. nationals held hostage and wrongfully detained abroad.
Concurrent with this action, OFAC implemented the Department of State’s designation of Russia’s Federal Security Service, in addition to the IRGC-IO, for their involvement in the wrongful detention of U.S. nationals abroad.
“Today’s action targets senior officials and security services in Iran and Russia that are responsible for the hostage-taking or wrongful detention of U.S. nationals abroad,” said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson. “We are committed to bringing home wrongfully detained U.S. nationals and acting against foreign threats to the safety of U.S. nationals abroad.”
The E.O. draws on the authority of the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage Taking Accountability Act, which is a credit to the perseverance of the Levinson family and others who have worked to turn their family’s extraordinary hardships into constructive and meaningful action.
WRONGFUL DETENTIONS IN IRAN
Ruhollah Bazghandi is the IRGC-IO Counterintelligence official. In this role, Bazghandi has been involved with the detention of foreign prisoners held in Iran. Bazghandi has worked on behalf of the IRGC-IO in several capacities, including involvement in IRGC-IO’s operations in Syria, and assassination plots against journalists, Israeli citizens, and others deemed enemies of Iran.
Mohammad Kazemi became the commander of the IRGC-IO in June 2022. Kazemi oversees the IRGC-IO’s operations suppressing civil society in Iran and arresting Iranian dissidents, including dual nationals. He has also overseen the regime’s brutal crackdown against protests across the country in response to the killing of Mahsa Amini. Kazemi was previously designated by OFAC on October 26, 2022, for having acted for or on behalf of the IRGC.
Mohamad Mehdi Sayyari is the IRGC-IO Co-Deputy Chief. Sayyari has been directly involved in arranging logistics for prisoners in Iran.
Mohammad Hasan Mohagheghi, the IRGC-IO Co-Deputy Chief Brigadier General, has reported to several of the senior most IRGC Commanders on IRGC-IO operations. Mohagheghi served as a liaison between senior IRGC officials and IRGC-IO officials on counterespionage operations in Syria.
Ruhollah Bazghandi, Mohammad Kazemi, Mohammad Mehdi Sayyari, and Mohammad Hasan Mohagheghi are being designated pursuant to E.O. 14078 for acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the IRGC-IO, a person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to E.O. 14078.
As a result of today’s action, all property and interests in property of the designated persons described above that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. In addition, any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, individually or in the aggregate, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are also blocked. Unless authorized by a general or specific license issued by OFAC, or exempt, OFAC’s regulations generally prohibit all transactions by U.S. persons or within (or transiting) the United States that involve any property or interests in property of designated or otherwise blocked persons.
In addition, financial institutions and other persons that engage in certain transactions or activities with the sanctioned entities and individuals may expose themselves to sanctions or be subject to an enforcement action. The prohibitions include the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any designated person, or the receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services from any such person.
The power and integrity of OFAC sanctions derive not only from OFAC’s ability to designate and add persons to the SDN List, but also from its willingness to remove persons from the SDN List consistent with the law. The ultimate goal of sanctions is not to punish, but to bring about a positive change in behavior. For information concerning the process for seeking removal from an OFAC list, including the SDN List, please refer to OFAC’s Frequently Asked Question 897 here. For detailed information on the process to submit a request for removal from an OFAC sanctions list, please click here.
Excerpts from White House Press Briefing
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We will be announcing sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Intelligence Organization — better known as “IRGC-IO” — for being responsible for or complicit in, directly or indirectly engaged in, or responsible for ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing the wrongful detention of a U.S. national abroad.
The IRGC-IO frequently holds and interrogates detainees, including at least one wrongfully detained U.S. national, in Evin Prison. And Evin Prison has a long and sordid history of human rights abuses, including extensive reports of torture.
In addition, four IRGC-IO leaders will also be designated today for their support to or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the IRGC-IO’s conduct in this area.
So, okay, in terms of entities and individuals: So, in addition to the two entities, the FSB and the IRGC-IO, that are being sanctioned today, there are four individuals associated with the IRGC-IO also being sanctioned under these authorities.
I’ll give you a quick rundown on the four. Mohammad Kazemi became the commander of the IRGC-IO back in June 2022. He has been responsible for suppressing civil society, arresting Iranian dissidents, and has overseen the brutal crackdown against protests, and obviously, as with all of these folks, we think is tied to wrongful detention of Americans. So that’s one — Mohammad Kazemi.
The second, Mohamad Sayyar, is the deputy — co-deputy chief, I should say — of the IRGC-IO. And in addition to wrongful detention activities, we believe Sayyari has been directly involved in arranging logistics for those held prisoner in Iran.
The third individual target is Mohammad Mohagheghi, the co-deputy chief, brigadier general of IRGC-IO. And, in addition to wrongful detention activities, has been involved in counter espionage operations in Syria among other activities.
And finally, the fourth individual target is Ruhollah Bazghandi, the — a IRGC-IO counterintelligence official we think has been, of course, involved in wrongful detention of U.S. and other foreign prisoners, but has also been involved in assassination plots and other activities.
So you have those four individuals as well. Again, this does not mean this is the end of the universe of sanction targets under this authority — certainly globally, but with respect to Russia or Iran, as well. But we think it’s a really important start. So that’s one.
Click here for a complete transcript.