WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration on Thursday sanctioned Russia’s Federal Security Service and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps intelligence organization, accusing them of wrongfully detaining Americans.
It’s the first rollout of new sanctions authorizations 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 sanctions for an array of malevolent behavior — from election interference and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to support for terrorist activity.
Biden said the safe return of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad has been a priority since the first day of his presidency.
“Today, and every day, our message to Russia, Iran, and the world is holding hostage or wrongfully detaining Americans is unacceptable. Release them immediately,” he said in a written statement.
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 before 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, there is a candlelight vigil planned for next week and a news conference scheduled outside the White House to raise the plight of those detained.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.