An Iranian man has been charged alongside two Canadians with plotting to kill two people, including a defector from Iran, who had fled to the United States.
Prosecutors say Naji Sharifi Zindashti operates a criminal network that targets dissidents and activists abroad
The criminal case is part of what US Department of Justice officials have described as a troubling trend of transnational repression, in which operatives from countries including Iran and China single out dissidents and defectors for campaigns of harassment, intimidation and sometimes violence.
In this case, prosecutors say, Zindashti conspired with two Canadian men between December 2020 and March 2021 to murderer two residents of the State of Maryland.
The intended victims of the murder-for-hire plot were not identified, but prosecutors described them as having fled to the US after one defected from Iran.
The plot was ultimately disrupted, the Justice Department said.
“To those in Iran who plot murders on US soil and the criminal actors who work with them, let today’s charges send a clear message: the Department of Justice will pursue you as long as it takes – and wherever you are – and deliver justice,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said in a statement.
Zindashti is believed to still be living in Iran.
Officials describe him as a drugs trafficker who, on behalf of the Islamic republic’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, operates a criminal network that orchestrates assassinations, kidnappings and other acts of transnational repression against critics of the regime.
In a separate but related action, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against Zindashti and multiple associates that will bar them from engaging in business transactions in the US or with a US person.
The UK has also imposed sanctions with British security officials warning 15 Iranians in the UK about threats to their lives in the past two years.
Britain says Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard often enlists organised crime groups to carry out attacks.
According to the American indictment, Zindashti coordinated his efforts with two Canadian men, Damion Patrick John Ryan and Adam Richard Pearson, using an encrypted messaging service to recruit potential assassins to travel into the US to carry out the murders.
Prosecutors say Ryan, identified in the indictment as a “full-patch member of the outlaw Hells Angels motorcycle club” and Pearson are currently imprisoned in Canada on unrelated charges.
Court records do not identify lawyers for any of the three men, who are all charged in federal court in Minnesota – one of the defendants was “illegally” living there under an assumed name while the plot was being developed – with conspiracy to use interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire.
Pearson faces additional firearms crimes.
This is not the first criminal case directed at Iranian efforts against perceived political opponents of the regime.
Another three men have previously been charged over a plot, said to have originated in Iran, to kill an Iranian American author and activist who has spoken out against human rights abuses there.
Charges in connection with a failed plot to assassinate John Bolton, the former Trump administration national security adviser, have also been brought in the past.