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Iranian charged in alleged plot to kill ex-Trump adviser John Bolton

The foiled attempt is one of several audacious efforts by Tehran to target Americans on U.S. soil, officials say

John Bolton has long been a hawk on Iran. He said in a statement after the indictment, “Iran’s rulers are liars, terrorists, and enemies of the United States.” (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

The Justice Department has charged a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, one of a number of audacious efforts to kidnap or kill perceived enemies of the Iranian government on U.S. soil, officials said.

The suspect, Shahram Poursafi, 45, remains at large — presumably in Iran, the Justice Department said. He was accused of attempting to pay individuals $300,000 to kill Bolton at his office in D.C. or his home in Maryland.

Federal officials said the assassination of Bolton would have been retaliation for the U.S. military’s killing in January 2020 of Qasem Soleimani, a top commander of the IRGC, which is a branch of Iran’s military. Soleimani was killed in a drone strike in Baghdad. Iran vowed at the time to respond at a time of its choosing. Officials said Poursafi was acting on behalf of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force.

In January, after Tehran imposed sanctions on 51 Americans, national security adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement saying that Iran was threatening “to carry out terror operations inside the United States and elsewhere around the world” and warning that if any Americans were attacked, Iran would face “severe consequences.”

Bolton served as national security adviser for 17 months under President Donald Trump, resigning in 2019 after reportedly disagreeing with the president over whether to lift some sanctions on Iran as a negotiating tool.

Bolton’s departure allegedly pegged to disagreement over lifting sanctions on Iran

Bolton, who did not want the sanctions lifted, was a main architect of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of escalating economic sanctions and threats of retaliation for Iran’s alleged support of terrorism. The idea was to cripple Iran’s economy to the point that its leaders felt they must bargain away any nuclear ambitions and missile technology.

Bolton, in a phone interview, said he had been warned by the FBI at first generally and then with a little more specificity last fall that there was a threat from Iran. “It got more and more serious, and that’s where ultimately in 2021, I asked the FBI if it was appropriate to have the Secret Service come in.”

By December, he had Secret Service protection, initially in unmarked cars, then after Christmas with uniformed personnel in marked cars in front of his house, he recalled.

Bolton is one of several former high-ranking officials who have been provided security details after leaving office to protect them from potential targeting by Iran. These former officials include Trump’s former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and his former Iran envoy Brian Hook.

Poursafi was identified with the help of an FBI informant, posing as a hit man who could do the job. Poursafi was put in touch with this person in November through another unidentified individual. The informant strung an increasingly frustrated Poursafi along for months, never carrying out the assassination and constantly asking to be paid, while Poursafi said payment would follow completion of the job, according to the FBI affidavit supporting the criminal complaint.

Bolton assisted the FBI where he could, he said. At one point the informant, with Bolton’s permission, took two pictures of Bolton leaving his office to send to Poursafi. “They [the FBI] wanted to see how far these people were willing to go,” Bolton said. “I was happy to help out.”

According to the affidavit, the informant asked Poursafi if there were another individual “who had done worse to Iran and whom they should target instead,” and named another former senior U.S. official who is not identified in the affidavit. Poursafi replied that targeting that official was dangerous because there were a lot of people around, “but that his/her time would come.”

At one point, in searching one of Poursafi’s online accounts, the FBI found two screenshots from November taken from a maps application showing a street view of Bolton’s office building.

The indictment comes after 18 months of start and stop negotiations between Iran and five other countries, with the United States participating indirectly, over a new nuclear agreement to replace the one Trump withdrew from in 2018. The parties convened again last week to consider what the European Union, which has facilitated the talks, called a “final” text. Negotiators adjourned after several days to consult with their respective governments.

Conservative critics have charged in the past that the Biden administration has failed to pursue indictments related to the assassination threats to preserve the nuclear talks. But both Tehran and Washington have said the that the negotiations are separate from other issues.

Bolton said that Iran’s nuclear program “and their terrorist activities” are “two sides of the same coin.” He said, “It makes no sense for an American government to think this regime in Tehran will honor any commitments when it’s conducting these operations on the terrorist side.”

Last year, the Justice Department charged four Iranians in federal court in Manhattan with conspiring to kidnap Masih Alinejad, an exiled journalist and women’s rights activist who has long been critical of the regime in Tehran. Alinejad was not identified by prosecutors, but she confirmed on Twitter that she was the intended target.

And a decade ago, an Iranian American used-car salesman and Texas resident, Manssor Arbabsiar, who had a cousin high up in the Quds Force, pleaded guilty to a charge of murder for hire and two counts of conspiracy to kill the then-Saudi ambassador at a Georgetown restaurant. Arbabsiar hired a man he thought was a Mexican drug trafficker who was in fact an undercover informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. The following year, Arbabsiar was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“This is not the first time we have uncovered Iranian plots to exact revenge against individuals on U.S. soil, and we will work tirelessly to expose and disrupt every one of these efforts,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew G. Olsen said in a statement.

But some former officials said that the government of Iran has suffered no meaningful consequences for past attempts. “That means touching the equities of the senior-most leaders of Iran, for instance banning meetings with Iran’s foreign minister,” said Norman T. Roule, former national intelligence officer for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “The Iranian government’s ability to escape serious consequences have highly likely convinced senior Iranian leadership that they can take these actions with impunity.”

Karen DeYoung and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.