Iran calls in UK ambassador over ‘murder for hire’ sanctions

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Iran has summoned Britain’s ambassador in Tehran after the UK and US imposed sanctions on Iranian officials and intelligence officers accused of running a global “murder-for-hire” scheme targeting dissidents and activists.

Iran’s foreign ministry said it had called in UK diplomat Simon Shercliff in protest at what it called London’s “baseless accusations”. Its move came after the UK said senior officials in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had plotted to assassinate two television presenters in Britain by hiring out the job to organised criminal gangs.

The British government said on Monday that the UK-based murder plots were against journalists for the London-based Iranian opposition television channel Iran International.

It added that the operations had been co-ordinated by officials from a division of the IRGC called Unit 840 and that there had been at least 15 Iranian state-backed attempts to intimidate or kill British-based people since the start of 2022.

Tensions have been rising between Iran and the UK. The Royal Air Force began a joint bombing campaign with the US against Iran-backed Houthi military targets this month in an effort to curb attacks against Red Sea shipping.

Monday’s co-ordinated US-UK sanctions against Iran follow warnings from western officials that Tehran’s intelligence agencies are outsourcing assassination operations to foreign gangsters to maintain plausible deniability when pursuing dissidents abroad.

The US Department of Justice unsealed an indictment this week accusing Naji Sharifi-Zindashti, a resident of Tehran, of ordering the contract killings of two unnamed people in Maryland through an encrypted messaging platform in 2020 and 2021.

Zindashti, who according to the indictment is known as “Big Guy”, has been sanctioned by the US Treasury for being a narcotics trafficker who carries out missions for Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

The Treasury department said Zindashti’s network was connected to murders in the United Arab Emirates, Canada and Turkey, and that the protection he enjoyed from the intelligence ministry allowed him “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”.

As part of the murder plot, Zindashti is accused of hiring Damion Ryan, a senior member of Canada’s Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, to carry out the murders on behalf of the Iranian state for a price of $350,000, plus $20,000 in expenses.

Ryan, it is alleged, instructed another Canadian man called Adam Pearson to assemble a murder team with “proper equipment”, telling him he needed the style of the job “to be overkill”.

According to the indictment, Pearson was then illegally living in Minnesota under an assumed name. He responded to Ryan by saying he would instruct his recruits to “shoot [the victim] in the head a lot [to] make an example”, later telling him “we gotta erase his head from his torso”, the indictment says.

Later an unnamed third man, called “co-conspirator 1” and who is based in Iran, sent Ryan photographs, maps and the targets’ addresses using the encrypted messaging platform SkyECC.

All three defendants were charged with one count of conspiracy to use interstate commerce facilities in a murder-for-hire commission. Pearson also faces charges for possessing a firearm as a fugitive from justice and as a foreign national who is illegally in the US. The trio could not immediately be reached for comment. Pearson and Ryan are incarcerated in Canada for unrelated misconduct, while Zindashti currently resides in Iran.

Setting out the sanctions, the US Treasury explicitly linked Iran’s use of organised crime groups to the kidnapping of the Iranian-German activist Jamshid Sharmahd in Turkey in 2020, the murder of Ahmad Molla Nissi, a Netherlands-based separatist, in The Hague in 2017, and the kidnapping and execution of the dissident Ruhollah Zam.

Sharmahd, who Iranian authorities have accused of a deadly attack on a mosque in 2008 that killed 14 people, was sentenced to death last year.

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