The US is imposing new sanctions on groups in Russia and Iran accused of taking Americans hostage as it works to prevent more captive-taking and potentially secure the release of citizens currently being detained.
The move comes amid several high-profile cases of Americans being wrongfully detained. Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, and Paul Whelan, a former Marine, are being held in Russia on espionage charges they each vehemently deny.
American citizens Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz are all being held in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, where there have been reports of torture.
The sanctions ordered up Thursday would punish organizations the US accuses of being responsible for holding hostage or wrongfully detaining Americans. In Iran, four individuals are also coming under new sanctions.
The groups are Russia’s Federal Security Service and the Intelligence Organization of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Officials said the steps should act as a warning to those thinking of taking Americans hostage.
“We are also showing that one cannot engage in this sort of awful behavior using human beings as pawns, as bargaining chips, without paying consequences and these are some of the consequences,” a senior administration official said.
But questions remain about the real impact of these sanctions because many of the entities hit on Thursday were already sanctioned under different authorities by the US.
On Thursday, Neda Sharghi, the sister of Emad Shargi, praised the White House for taking the action, but urged President Joe Biden to bring home those who are wrongfully detained.
“Deterrent actions like this one are an important tool in our country’s efforts to stop countries from engaging in detentions with impunity,” she said. “But they are deterrents of future behavior and no deterrent is going to resolve the ongoing detention of Americans that is going on right now.”
She also urged Biden to meet with the families of the three men held in Iran – a request that the families have made for months.
“Regardless of how positive this action is, it does not absolve the president for refusing to meet with the families of the three Americans being held in Iran – collectively for a total of 18 years. We continue to plead with the White House to let us meet with our president,” Neda Sharghi said.
Wednesday’s sanctions are the first actions taken in conjunction with an executive order signed by Biden nine months ago.
The executive order seeks to punish organizations or criminals responsible for holding Americans captive.
It draws heavily from an existing law – the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act – which laid out the criteria for who is considered wrongfully detained, expanded the tools to help free those US detainees and hostages, authorized sanctions and was meant to foster increased engagement with families. That law was named in honor of Robert Levinson, an American detained in Iran for decades and who is believed to have died there.
Following Wednesday’s sanctions, Levinson’s family said in a statement that he “spent his life working for justice.”
“As Americans continue to be targeted around the world, we hope today’s action serves as a warning that those looking to deprive innocent U.S. citizens of their freedom, just as he was, to use them as political pawns, will be held accountable for their abhorrent behavior,” he said.
The executive order mandated a better flow of information to the families of Americans held hostage or detained overseas, and was signed the measure amid criticism from the family members of some hostages, who said the administration wasn’t being aggressive enough in securing their loved ones’ releases.
Since then, the administration has secured the release of numerous Americans being held overseas, including American basketball player Brittney Griner from Russia and seven jailed Americans from Venezuela.
But several high-profile cases remain unresolved. Officials said the sanctions issued Thursday were only a part of the overall strategy in preventing Americans from being taken hostage and in returning those currently in detention.
“Sanctions are a piece of holding accountable bad actors for their role in perpetrating appalling activity in the world,” the official said, noting assets would be frozen and cut off from the global financial system.
Officials said they consulted throughout the US government before deciding on the sanctions. They said they were confident the steps would not hamper current efforts to secure Americans’ releases.
“From time to time diplomacy requires some consequences being introduced, negative consequences be introduced, toward bad actors, particularly in this area of detaining, wrongfully detaining, taking hostage Americans,” a second senior administration official said.
In taking these actions the US government has to be careful not to put more barriers in the way of getting out Americans who remain wrongfully detained. Officials said it was possible the sanctions could be lifted if Americans held in Russia or Iran were released.
“I don’t think we rule things out if they could be the difference between Americans being in detention, where they never should have been, versus home with their families,” the second official said.
This story has been updated with additional developments.