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US sanctions 4 Iranian intel operatives over plot to abduct American journalist

Campaign allegedly targeted reporter Masih Alinejad as well as other dissidents in Canada and the UAE

In this file photo taken on April 7, 2016, Journalist Masih Alinejad speaks onstage at the 7th Annual Women In The World Summit at the Lincoln Center in New York City. (Jemal Countess / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)
In this file photo taken on April 7, 2016, Journalist Masih Alinejad speaks onstage at the 7th Annual Women In The World Summit at the Lincoln Center in New York City. (Jemal Countess / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)

The US Treasury on Friday announced sanctions on four Iranian intelligence operatives behind a plot to kidnap an American-Iranian journalist as well as Iranian dissidents elsewhere.

The four operatives were charged in Manhattan in July, in absentia, with the plot that targeted Masih Alinejad.

Any financial assets of the four in the US or under American control will be blocked. Any financial dealings with the four by other parties could lead to sanctions on those parties.

The operatives are Alireza Shahvaroghi Farahani, Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi and Omid Noori.

“The Iranian government’s kidnapping plot is another example of its continued attempt to silence critical voices, wherever they may be,” said Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control Andrea Gacki. “Targeting dissidents abroad demonstrates that the government’s repression extends far beyond Iran’s borders.”

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the abduction plot “an egregious violation of fundamental international norms” that would not be tolerated.

He added that the US “remains aware of ongoing Iranian interest in targeting other American citizens, including current and former US officials.”

The indictment against the four alleged that the plot was part of a wider plan to lure three individuals in Canada and a fifth person in the United Kingdom to Iran. Victims were also targeted in the United Arab Emirates, authorities said.

According to the indictment, all of the targeted victims had been critical of Iran, including Alinejad, a Brooklyn resident described as a journalist, author and human rights activist who has publicized Iran’s human rights abuses.

Tehran has denied the allegations.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, on August 25, 2021. (Olivier DOULIERY / POOL / AFP)

Alinejad has said she was shocked by the Iranian plot. A dual US-Iranian citizen, Masih told CNN she was alerted by the FBI months ago that she was being watched and that her home was not safe.

They showed her intimate photographs of her Brooklyn home and of her family that they said were taken by an investigator doing surveillance for the Iranians, to demonstrate that her home had been compromised.

She said she was moved to a series of safe houses while the FBI investigated the plot, which also involved a California-based Iranian who helped hire private investigators to follow her, according to the indictment.

“It’s unbelievable. I still cannot believe it that in New York, the Islamic Republic was allowed actually to threaten and follow me, an American-Iranian citizen,” she told CNN.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh called the US charges “baseless and absurd.”

In this file photo taken on November 1, 2018 Masih Alinejad attends TheWrap’s Power Women Summit-Day 2 at InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown in Los Angeles, California.(Presley Ann / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called the plot “dangerous and despicable.”

Tehran’s “attempt to silence the voices of those peacefully working to address the situation both inside of Iran and outside of Iran are appalling,” she said. “We will forcefully defend US citizens and US interests.”

According to the indictment filed in New York federal court, the Iranian intelligence officers tried in 2018 to force Alinejad’s Iran-based relatives to lure her to a third country to be arrested and taken to Iran to be imprisoned.

When that failed, they hired US private investigators to surveil her during the past two years.

The Iranian agents researched possible ways to move her out of the United States, including hiring a “military-style” speedboat to whisk her from Manhattan.

They also researched routes to travel by sea to Venezuela, an Iranian ally.

The 44-year-old journalist left Iran in 2009, studied in Britain and worked for the US government-backed Voice of America’s Persian-language service.

Since 2014, Alinejad also has maintained a Facebook campaign, “My Stealthy Freedom,” to support Iranian women who don’t want to wear the hijab covering — required for women in the country.

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