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US: Senators propose bill to sanction Iranian human rights abusers

Legislation intended to hold Iran accountable for plot to kidnap US citizen and prominent activist from her Brooklyn home
Masih Alinejad speaks during the Women In The World Summit at David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, New York City, on 12 April 2019 (AFP)

Republican Senator Patrick Toomey and Democrat Ben Cardin introduced a bill on Thursday that would impose sanctions on individuals responsible for targeting dissidents on behalf of the Iranian government.

The pair of US lawmakers announced the legislation alongside Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-born US journalist who was the victim of an alleged kidnapping plot by Iranian intelligence agents.

"Never before has this regime in Tehran tried to abduct a US citizen on US soil. This is a brazen escalation... and it requires a proportionate response," Toomey said at a press conference introducing the bill.

Alinejad is a journalist with Voice of America’s Persian service and a prominent human rights activist known for leading a campaign against Iran’s compulsory hijab law.

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 According to the US Department of Justice, which charged four Iranians in relation to the plot in July, Alinejad and her family were under surveillance at their home in Brooklyn by Iranian agents.

The agents reportedly spent half a million dollars plotting how to abduct Alinejad from the US and take her back to Iran. One plan included ferrying her by speed boat to Venezuela, a close Iranian ally, before bringing her back to Iran.

"If you dare to attempt to come to our nation and kidnap an American citizen, there will be dire consequences," Cardin said at the press conference on Thursday.

If it becomes law, the bill would require the State Department to regularly report on the state of human rights and the rule of law inside Iran and provide an assessment of Tehran's targeting of dissidents at home and abroad.

The president would then be required to impose sanctions on any individual knowingly involved in surveillance, harassment, kidnapping, or assassination of Iranian or US citizens who are critics of the Iranian government.

A Senate staffer familiar with the legislation told Middle East Eye the bill's requirement that mandatory sanctions be implemented was a new addition to current law.

The bill would also introduce a law that authorises secondary sanctions on banks doing business with agents of Iran who engage in transnational targeting of dissidents.

Toomey called the added ability to impose sanctions on foreign financial institutions doing business with parties working to suppress dissent for the Iranian government "an important new element" of the United States' sanctions toolbox. 

"Let me tell you there is no mainstream, no western, bank in the world that wants to be subject to US sanctions. It creates a powerful incentive for reputable institutions around the world not to do business with anybody who shows up on this list."