WASHINGTON – The Biden administration on Thursday imposed sanctions on the Federal Security Service, Russia’s intelligence agency, for its role in detaining Americans like Evan Gershkovich, The Wall Street Journal reporter who has been accused of espionage.
The administration also announced sanctions on Iran’s intelligence services and four senior Iranian officials, who the administration says have participated in a pattern of holding Americans and other nationals hostage.
The actions are the first attempt by the United States government to formally punish foreign governments for taking Americans by seeking to cut off access to the international financial system.
In a statement on Thursday afternoon, President Joe Biden urged both countries to let their hostages go.
“Today – and every day – our message to Russia, Iran and the world is holding hostage or wrongfully detaining Americans is unacceptable,” Mr Biden said. “Release them immediately.”
He said that the sanctions meant that “all of the designees’ property and interests in property in the possession or control of US persons are now blocked”.
But administration officials acknowledged that the sanctions were designed primarily as a way to send a message of disapproval to Russia and Iran, as both countries’ intelligence agencies had already been subject to stiff financial sanctions for actions in other areas.
Still, the officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the sanctions before they were officially announced, said imposing the punishments on the two regimes was an important part of the often difficult effort to bring Americans home.
They hinted that the sanctions could become a bargaining chip in future negotiations over the release of Gershkovich or other detained Americans.
When asked whether lifting the sanctions could be part of negotiations, one official pointed to language in an official announcement by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
“The power and integrity of OFAC sanctions derive not only from OFAC’s ability to designate and add persons” to the sanctions list, the Treasury announcement says, “but also from its willingness to remove persons”.
“The ultimate goal of sanctions is not to punish”, the statement adds, “but to bring about a positive change in behaviour”.
In addition to the two agencies, four Iranian officials were targeted for sanctions.
They include the commander of the IRGC-IO, the intelligence arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the two deputies and a counter-intelligence official at the agency.
Officials said all four men have been involved in wrongfully detaining Americans and other activities, including assassination plots.
The officials added that they anticipated other sanctions would be imposed for hostage taking in the coming months. NYTIMES