The United States Department of Justice has charged three people in an alleged, foiled murder-for-hire plot to assassinate an Iranian-American journalist, a scheme that Washington says was directed from Iran.
US Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the charges on Friday, saying the Iranian government had previously targeted the intended victim, who is a critic of Tehran.
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Garland did not identify the journalist, but Khalid Mehdiyev, one of the three defendants, was arrested outside of the home of outspoken Iranian-American activist Masih Alinejad in New York last year.
“These charges arise out of an ongoing investigation into the government of Iran’s efforts to assassinate on US soil a journalist, author and human rights activist who is a US citizen of Iranian origin,” the attorney general said.
The other two defendants are Rafat Amirov and Polad Omarov. The trio face murder-for-hire and money laundering charges, and Mehdiyev is accused of an additional count of possessing a firearm with an obliterated serial number.
The Department of Justice said Omarov was arrested in the Czech Republic earlier this month, and Washington will request his extradition. Amirov, who is described as the leader of an Eastern European criminal organisation, is currently in US custody.
Garland said the third man in the group, Mehdiyev, was surveilling the victim and sending reports to Omarov, who in turn shared them with Amirov.
It is not clear how the US was able to arrest Amirov, who was based in Iran.
“All we can say is that he was lawfully arrested outside the United States and is now in the custody of the United States in New York,” Garland said.
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said the indictments exposed a “dangerous menace” to the US — a “transnational crime group” operating on behalf of what she called a “rogue nation”, in reference to Iran.
“This case began with our investigation of Iran’s efforts to project power and to extend its tentacles of oppression to American shores, to the targeting of an Iranian-American journalist who has stood up to the brutal regime,” Monaco told reporters.
This is not the first time that Iran has been linked to plots on US soil. Last year, the US accused an alleged member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of planning to assassinate former US national security adviser John Bolton, who served under former President Donald Trump.
In 2021, the Department of Justice also charged four Iranians it said were intelligence officials over an alleged plot to kidnap an American journalist, also believed to be Alinejad.
Tehran has dismissed allegations of government involvement in the kidnapping plot as “ridiculous and baseless”.
“I’m not scared [for] my life, but this is scary that it’s happening in front of the eyes of the whole world, especially the US administration,” Alinejad told CNN after news of Mehdiyev’s arrest near her house became public last August.
Alinejad has promoted videos of women violating Iran’s head-covering law to her millions of social media followers. She has also lobbied for a stronger US and Western response in support of the Iranian anti-government protests that broke out last year.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday’s charges highlighted Washington’s commitment to protecting Americans everywhere.
“From the very beginning of this Administration, we have been clear that Iran’s apparatus of transnational repression and terrorism must be confronted through exposure, arrests, sanctions, and other means of accountability,” he said in a statement.
The Iran-linked charges came amid stalled efforts to revive the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal that saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions against its economy.
US-Iranian relations have been further complicated by the crackdown on protests in Iran and Washington’s allegations that Tehran was supplying Russia with drones to be used in Ukraine.
“We still believe that diplomacy is the best way to ensure, on a sustainable and verifiable basis, that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon,” US Department of State spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters on Thursday. “But as of now, as we’ve said previously, we don’t see a deal coming together anytime soon,”
Earlier this week, the US and Israel, both staunch Iran foes, concluded the largest joint military exercise in their history