The Biden administration imposed sanctions on the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Federal Security Service of Russia on Thursday for illegally holding Americans.
It is the first use of new sanctions powers put in place by President Joe Biden last year to be used against anyone keeping Americans against their will. Although both groups are already subject to broad penalties for a range of evil deeds, including support for terrorism, election meddling, and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the restrictions are primarily symbolic.
Senior administration officials refused to name the individual detentions that were the basis for the penalties, claiming that they were in reaction to a pattern of behavior by the two nations that included keeping Americans illegally in the past and present.
According to a news release from the U.S. Treasury, Iranian officials often detain and question prisoners at Tehran's Evin Prison and have a “direct role in the repression of protests and arrest of dissidents, including dual nationals.”
Senior administration sources pointed out that Thursday's moves were planned long in advance of Wall Street Journal writer Evan Gershkovich's arrest in Russia last month, whose detention was promptly condemned as unfair by the American government. With that title, he joins American Paul Whelan in Russia.
The government is imposing new sanctions on four IRGC commanders in addition to the two organizations it has already named as targets because it believes they are complicit in hostage-taking attempts.
According to Brian E. Nelson, Treasury's assistant secretary for financial intelligence and terrorism, the United States is “committed to bringing home wrongfully detained U.S. nationals and acting against foreign threats to the safety of U.S. nationals abroad.”
In discussions to attempt to obtain the release of the Americans detained abroad, the top administration officials stated that relief from the sanctions may be used as an incentive.
Last year, Biden issued an executive order based on a provision of the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, which allows the president to impose sanctions, including visa revocations, on people thought to be involved in the unjustified detention of Americans. The act is named after a retired FBI agent who went missing in Iran 15 years ago and is now presumed dead.
The statement comes ahead of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation's annual dinner, which will be held the following week. Several former hostages and prisoners, as well as advocates for that community, are anticipated to attend. A news conference outside the White House and a candlelight vigil are also organized for next week in order to raise awareness of the situation of individuals who are jailed.