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US, UK sanction transnational Iranian assassination network

Iran increasingly works with criminal actors “to obscure links to the government of Iran and maintain plausible deniability,” the U.S. Treasury Department stated.

Masih Alinejad, one of the most outspoken opponents of the Islamic regime in Tehran, was honored by the American Jewish Committee with the global advocacy organization’s Moral Courage Award, June 2022. Credit: American Jewish Committee.
Masih Alinejad, one of the most outspoken opponents of the Islamic regime in Tehran, was honored by the American Jewish Committee with the global advocacy organization’s Moral Courage Award, June 2022. Credit: American Jewish Committee.

The U.S. Treasury Department announced on Monday that it is sanctioning a “transnational assassinations network” it has accused of murdering and kidnapping Iranian dissidents across three continents.

Naji Ibrahim Sharifi-Zindashti, an Iranian drug dealer that the department accuses of working for Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, leads the network.

“Iranian security forces protect Zindashti and his criminal empire, enabling Zindashti to thrive in the country’s drug market and live a life of luxury while his network exports the regime’s repression, carrying out heinous operations on the government’s behalf,” the department stated. 

“The regime increasingly relies on organized criminal groups in furtherance of these plots in an attempt to obscure links to the government of Iran and maintain plausible deniability,” it added.

In 2021, the group plotted to recruit a Canadian member of the Hells Angels outlaw motorcycle group to carry out assassinations in the United States. It has also been linked to murders in Canada, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

Iran has attempted several high-profile assassinations in the United States in recent years, including a plot to kill woman’s rights activist Masih Alinejad. In 2022, a man was arrested outside her Brooklyn apartment with a loaded AK-47-style rifle. He was “about to execute the attack on the victim,” per the Justice Department’s indictment of the man and two co-conspirators.

Treasury announced on Monday that Iran has been more successful in killing dissidents in other countries, citing the example of Habib Chaab, leader of an Iranian-Arab liberation movement who was abducted by Zindashti’s men in Turkey in 2020.

“Chaab was then smuggled into Iran, where he was imprisoned, tortured, forced to confess under duress and ultimately convicted of ‘corruption on earth’ following a trial which lacked fair-trial guarantees,” the statement says. “Iranian authorities executed Chaab in May 2023.”

Monday’s sanctions were also coordinated with the United Kingdom, which will likewise designate Zindashti’s network.

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