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The Media Line: HUNT Act, Sanctioning Agents, Banks Targeting Iranian Dissidents, Introduced in US Senate

HUNT Act, Sanctioning Agents, Banks Targeting Iranian Dissidents, Introduced in US Senate

Bill, sponsored by Sens. Toomey and Cardin and named forjournalist targeted in kidnapping plot, applies sanctions to individual Iranian agents who will no longer be able to hide behind their government

Mike Wagenheim / The Media Line

It’s called the HUNT Act. Masih Alinejad feels it’s appropriate.The Iranian American journalist and Islamic Republic dissidentwas the target of an audacious Iranian kidnapping plot on NewYork City soil, as revealed by the US Federal Bureau ofInvestigation this summer.

The Masih Alinejad Harassment and Unlawful Targeting(HUNT) Act of 2021 was introduced on Thursday inWashington. The bipartisan effort, led by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) seeks to sanction Iranianagents and related banks involved in operations targeting Iranianor US citizens who oppose the regime within Iran or abroad.

The introduction of the legislation comes in the shadows ofongoing indirect negotiations in Vienna between the US and Iranregarding re-entry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action(JCPOA), the nuclear agreement signed in 2015 by Tehran,Washington and other world powers, and which was thrown intochaotic uncertainty following US withdrawal from the deal in2018.

The legislation would mandate sanctions on Iranian governmentofficials and agents – including those affiliated with proxiessuch as Hizbullah – who “are knowingly responsible for,complicit in or involved in ordering, conspiring, planning orimplementing the surveillance, harassment, kidnapping, illegalextradition, imprisonment, torture, killing, or assassination ofcitizens of Iran (including citizens of Iran of dual nationality) orcitizens of the United States inside or outside Iran” who seek toexpose corruption or defend human rights. But those sponsoringthe bill say there is a critical new element that they feel won’tjust serve as a punishing mechanism but as a deterrent.

“What this legislation does is it requires the State Department toidentify the individuals that are guilty of carrying out thisrepression and then – and this is an important new element –banks doing business with those people would be subject tosanctions. They are not mandatory sanctions but it would beavailable to impose sanctions on financial institutions. This isimportant because not only do these people repress their ownpeople and not only do they engage in this malign activity butthey usually have a way, through their own personal corruption,of getting some of their wealth out of Iran, into either Americanor European banks, so that their fortune is safe and secureoutside of their own regime,” Toomey’s office wrote to TheMedia Line.

“There’s no mainstream Western bank in the world that wants tobe subject to US sanctions. And so, it creates a powerfulincentive for reputable institutions around the world not to dobusiness with anybody who shows up on this list. Is that goingto be sufficient to modify their behavior? I hope so. There’s noguarantees. But at a minimum, we have to take this step to makeit very, very clear just how outrageously unacceptable theirbehavior has been,” said the statement.

Some may wonder whether the shocking plot to kidnap Alinejadmay show that the Iranian regime doesn’t care aboutconsequences. While the HUNT sanctions may have a punitiveimpact, Cardin believes they can reasonably be expected tochange individual behavior, as well.

The new bill is in the mold of the Magnitsky Act, a bipartisanbill introduced by Cardin and the late Republican Senator JohnMcCain, which was passed by Congress and signed into law byPresident Barack Obama in December 2012. The Magnitsky Actaimed to directly punish Russian officials responsible for thedeath of Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscowprison in 2009. Since 2016, the bill, which applies globally,authorizes the US government to sanction those it sees as humanrights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from enteringthe US.

“Like Magnitsky, these are sanctions targeted at individuals –agents of the regime – to give them a warning that theypersonally will not be able to hide behind their government. Italso would create some disincentives to follow orders. Thesecondary sanctions against financial institutions also will crimpthe ability of any individuals designated to do business and sowill shrink their ability to travel and such,” a Cardinspokesperson told The Media Line.

“This bill is one of a growing range of constraints on badbehavior by Iran. During the Obama Administration, it becameclear that comprehensive sanctions did drive the government inTehran to come to the table to negotiate on their nuclearprogram. So, Iran and Iranian officials are affected by sanctionsand can be pressured to change behavior,” the spokespersonsaid.

Ironically, Alinejad revealed she had to leave a safe house inorder to come to Washington on Thursday for the legislation’sunveiling. She told The Media Line that even in the aftermath ofthe revelation of the kidnapping plot, she has been forced to seekshelter due to continuing, credible threats against her.

“A lot of people think that when the FBI announced thekidnapping plot in July, so then it was the end. It was not. Sincethat, I was twice forced to leave my house and go to differentsafe houses. Kidnapping, torturing and murdering – it becomeslike diplomacy for the Islamic Republic. It’s in the DNA of theIslamic Republic. That is why I call on all Democrats andRepublicans to see human rights violations as a bipartisanissue,” Alinejad told The Media Line.

While Alinejad may be the legislation’s namesake, the bill’s textenumerates a range of other Iranian foreign operations targetingenemies of the regime in recent years, including surveillance ofthe Hillel and Chabad centers at the University of Chicago in2020, a plot in Ethiopia to attack Israeli citizens in 2021 and thecollection of information in Germany in 2018 about the localJewish community, including kindergartens.

The bill is being introduced in the midst of nuclear talks withIran in Vienna, which Toomey criticized multiple times duringhis remarks. Toomey, though, denied that the bill is linked tothose negotiations.

“What our bill would do is impose mandatory sanctions against agents of Tehran who target critics of the Iranian regime and it would dry up sources for financing transnational repression, by authorizing secondary sanctions on banks that do business with those designated agents. As the administration is discussing economic relief with Iran this week in Vienna, I’m glad to be here with Senator Cardin, working to hold Iran accountable and to demonstrate that human rights and US national security interests have to be paramount and cannot be sacrificed for a flaw nuclear deal,” said Toomey.

Cardin, who voted against the JCPOA’s passage, emphasizedthe need for “maximum pressure” on Iran to prevent it fromreaching nuclear capability and compel it to reach a permanentagreement, said the legislation is important because it addressesareas that the nuclear agreement did not. While the BidenAdministration originally claimed it would pursue and demand a“longer, stronger” deal with Iran that would cover areas such ashuman rights, ballistic missile testing and menacing activitiesthroughout the region, it has since reportedly offered a numberof concessions and a possible “mini-deal” to bring Iran back intothe JCPOA fold.

“We spend a lot of time concerned about their nuclear program,as we should. We have to recognize that Iran is violating theircommitments to the international community in regards to tryingto become a nuclear weapon state and we take action againstthem for that. We’ll continue to do that. But, we also have torecognize that Iran is an international sponsor of terrorism andit’s violated international commitments. As it relates to humanrights of its own people that are living in Iran, as well as tryingto reach outside of its borders in order to kidnap individuals andto violate their rights, that cannot go unchallenged,” said Cardin.

“My purpose in this is not to try to have a secondary effect onnegotiations that are underway. I am deeply skeptical about thenegotiations that are underway. I will acknowledge that. But themessage I want to send is to the Iranian regime, to the bad actorsin Tehran who are guilty and complicit in this outrageousbehavior. And I’ll point out that this is one of the areas I hadconcerns with the JCPOA. It was limited to the nuclear issuesand didn’t deal with the other issues, and I raised that at the timeas one of my major concerns. So, I am pleased that we are nowdealing with other aspects of nefarious activities by the currentregime,” said Cardin.

Alinejad said that the legislation is being introduced at exactlythe right time, in order to send a signal both to the Iranianregime and to the Biden Administration.

“If you don’t show them that all the murdering, kidnapping,torturing and oppressing your people, suppressing peacefulprotest, is not going to have a consequence, how you can trustthem? So, I have a simple demand: You cannot separate humanrights from nuclear talk. If you do that, then you have to facethese domestic extremists in your own land,” Alinejad said.

“It breaks my heart when I see Democrats saying that they’re forhuman rights, Republicans saying that they respect freedom ofspeech. Now, this is the time you have to get together and askyour allies from European countries and ask the IslamicRepublic to release all the innocent political prisoners. If youreally don’t care about Iranians, there are Swedish citizens,French citizens, the US citizens the UK, in Iranian prisons, andbeing used as a bargaining chip. Ask for their release and standup for your own values,” she said.

Following Thursday’s press conference, Alinejad sidebarredwith Cardin and Toomey and was reported to have said that theissue “needs more Democrats.” She expounded on thosecomments with The Media Line.

“I want to just give you an example about this issue thatDemocrats are not loud enough to condemn the brutality of theIslamic Republic. Imagine there is a law in the US saying thatthe Muslim minority should remove their hijab [a veil worn bycertain Muslim women in the presence of any male outside oftheir immediate family, and compulsory in Iran] and then theywould be able to go to school and get an education. What wouldbe the reaction of [progressive Democratic Congresswoman]Ilhan Omar? What would be the reaction of AOC [progressiveDemocratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]? Whatwould be the reaction of [House of Representatives Speaker]Nancy Pelosi? What would be the reaction of all Democrats?The travel ban happened, the Muslim ban happened. The burkiniban happened. They were loud enough to condemn it,” Alinejadsaid, referring to various government policies enacted in the USand elsewhere.

“But right now, the Islamic Republic says that girls from the age of 7 won’t be able to get an education if they don’t cover themselves. This should be condemned loudly by all the Democrats. Why do you keep silent? That breaks my heart and I call on all the Democrats: If you don’t take strong action against the gender-apartheid regime, and you don’t support your sisters, it is a double standard. None of the female Democrats are supporting my cause. Why? I condemned the burkini ban. I condemned the Muslim ban. Why do you keep silent?” Alinejad asked.

Cardin’s office says that Democrats in Congress do carrycredibility on human rights issues, and Democrats are expectedto get behind the HUNT Act.

“I can relay that Democrats in Congress, led by Senator Cardin,are very strong on human rights advocacy vis-à-vis Iran and therest of the world. Senators Cardin and Toomey will be solicitingco-sponsors in both parties – and bipartisan partners in theHouse – next week,” Cardin’s spokesperson said.

The passage of any piece of legislation – even with bipartisanroots – is hardly a given based on the narrow margins in both theUS House and Senate. Still, there appears to be room foroptimism that the HUNT Act can reach President Joe Biden’sdesk.

“Any time you have two senior senators across the aisle agreeon national security legislation, you create a real possibility thatit can get attached on a larger piece of legislation and passedinto law. And although it has barely followed up on this pledge,the Biden Administration committed to penalize the Iranianregime for its support of terrorism, especially the targeting ofU.S. citizens. Having Senator Cardin – the second-most seniorDemocrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – signonto this bill is a strong message to the administration that theyneed to step up their game and place stronger consequences onIran for its continued targeting of US citizens and officials,”Gabriel Noronha, former special advisor for the secretary’s IranAction Group at the State Department, told The Media Line.

Toomey said he expects the bill to have “extremely broadsupport in the Senate” and that he is “cautiously optimistic giventhe early bipartisan support and what I think will be a broadconsensus that we’ll be able to get this done.”

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