Why US imposed new sanctions on Russia, Iran

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The Biden administration on April 27, announced a first round of sanctions targeting Russia and Iran for engaging in hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of U.S. citizens abroad.

The U.S. sanctions take aim at Russia’s Federal Security Service, often known as the FSB, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Intelligence Organization, or 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.”

Two senior administration officials, who spoke with CNBC, on the condition of anonymity, said Thursday’s sanctions were underway before Russian authorities detained American citizen Evan Gershkovich last month.

Gershkovich, a journalist for The Wall Street Journal, was arrested in late March on allegations of espionage. The State Department has formally moved to declare Gershkovich’s detention a wrongful one, which opens up additional resources to secure his release.

The Biden administration and leadership at The Wall Street Journal have denied Russian claims that Gershkovich is a spy.

The administration has identified at least two American citizens who are wrongfully detained in Russia and three in Iran, along with one legal permanent U.S. resident.

One administration official said relevant families were briefed on the new sanctions ahead of Thursday’s announcement.

The Department of Treasury also announced sanctions on the following individuals in Iran:

Ruhollah Bazghandi, an IRGC-IO counterintelligence official, has been involved in the detention of foreign prisoners held in Iran. The department says his work for the IRGC-IO includes assassination plots against journalists, Israeli citizens and others deemed enemies of Iran.

Mohammad Kazemi, commander of the IRGC-IO, oversees operations suppressing civil society in Iran, including the regime’s crackdown against protests across the country in response to the killing of Mahsa Amini, according to the department. He was previously designated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control in October.

Mohamad Mehdi Sayyari, co-deputy chief of the IRGC-IO, has been directly involved in arranging logistics for prisoners in Iran.

Mohammad Hasan Mohagheghi, co-deputy chief of the IRGC-IO, serves as a liaison between senior IRGC officials and IRGC-IO officials on counterespionage operations in Syria, the department said.

“Our action is a warning to those around the world who would wrongfully detain U.S. nationals, the potential consequences of their actions,” a senior administration official said on a call with reporters.

“These actors in Russia and Iran have tried to use Americans for political leverage or to seek concessions from the United States. These actions threaten the stability and integrity of the international political system. It also threatens the safety of U.S. nationals and other persons abroad,” the person added.

“Sanctions are meant to change behavior and to incentivize better behavior and we hope that these can contribute to doing that now and into the future,” the second official said.