Wednesday’s revelation that an Iranian operative had been charged with trying to arrange the assassination of former National Security Adviser John Bolton was “long overdue” — and suggests the Biden administration was staying silent about Tehran’s nefarious activities to keep alive ongoing talks about re-entering the 2015 nuclear deal, former US officials tell The Post.
The Justice Department unsealed the indictment against Shahram Poursafi two days after negotiators in Vienna settled on a “final text” of an agreement, with all parties now consulting in their capitals on whether to consent to it.
“The negotiations are pretty much complete at this point,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House Aug. 4, later adding: “We’re not going to wait forever for Iran to take this deal — the deal on the table. They ought to take it.”
The Poursafi indictment traces his attempts to set up a hit on Bolton on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from October of last year through April of this year and says the operation was “likely” in retaliation for the US killing of IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.
But longtime Iran watchers have dismissed that timeline and said the threat against Bolton and other US officials was prevalent as soon as Soleimani was wiped out in a US drone strike at Baghdad’s international airport.
“It’s been going on since 2020,” said Gabriel Noronha, a fellow with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and former special adviser to the State Department’s Iran Action Group.
“This is just sort of the first official unveiling of an indictment, which is sort of long overdue.”
In March, the Washington Examiner reported, citing a DOJ official, that “at least two Iranians belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ covert-action Quds Force” were plotting to rub Bolton out, but other Biden officials were resisting announcing an indictment “for fear that it could delay their drive for a nuclear deal.”
Simone Leeden, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, told The Post that the administration “clearly could have acted sooner” to unseal the indictment of Poursafi, who is unlikely to ever stand trial.
“If they had this level of information for such a long time and didn’t indict for ‘diplomatic reasons,’ you know why? They’re protecting the [Iranian] regime,” Leeden said. “I mean, there’s no other way of looking at it. Instead of protecting John Bolton, they’re protecting the regime. So yeah, I mean, it’s hard to understand, it’s hard to come up with any other reason why they would have delayed this much.”
“I don’t blame the DOJ,” said Noronha, who added that the department has done “the Lord’s work” and been “the most aggressive” executive agency against the Iranian government. “I blame NSC and State, who are trying to meddle in this … [and] trying to temper DOJ’s sort of public comments and prosecution.”
A former national security official also noted that the timing of the Poursafi indictment “leads one to wonder whether the administration was keeping this assassination plot quiet, so as not to complicate their efforts to entice Iran back into a nuclear deal.”
“The assertion that [DOJ] held a public indictment out of concerns it would impact the JCPOA negotiations is categorically false,” a White House spokesperson told The Post. “As the Department of Justice said in March, ‘In every case, the Department’s decision whether to charge would be made based on the facts and law and in accordance with the principles of federal prosecution.’”
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment.
Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator during the Trump administration, also raised an issue with the language used in Wednesday’s indictment.
“The Iranian official hasn’t been charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization, which seems like an obvious charge to bring,” Sales said, “particularly considering that a material support charge carries a more severe sentence than the murder for hire charges that they’ve actually leveled against him.”
Deepening the confusion, the FBI’s wanted poster for Poursafi says he is being sought for “providing and attempting to provide material support to terrorists,” though the DOJ announcement of his indictment doesn’t mention the words “terrorist” or “terrorism.”
“We have said this before and we will say it again: the Biden Administration will not waiver in protecting and defending all Americans against threats of violence and terrorism,” current National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a Wednesday statement. “Should Iran attack any of our citizens, to include those who continue to serve the United States or those who formerly served, Iran will face severe consequences.”
“I’m glad Jake Sullivan is saying what he’s saying. But that is not going to stop the Iranians from trying to shed American blood,” Sales said in response. “You’re going to have to take a much tougher line to show the regime that targeting Americans on American soil is going to result in a ferocious response that would far outweigh any benefit the Iranians hope to achieve by committing an act of terrorism here at home.”
Leeden agreed, calling the DOJ’s statement, “in some ways more political.”
Meanwhile, the experts say Iran still poses a threat to US officials, with Noronha telling The Post the danger has “steadily increased” over the past 18 months.
According to the former State Department official, any investigation of Tehran’s dark deeds should also focus on “Iranian government operatives” based out of the country’s United Nations mission in New York and the Iranian Interest Section in Washington.
“It’s fairly well know they do shady stuff there,” Noronha said.
US officials like Bolton or former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom Poursafi reportedly said he would pay $1 million to have killed, aren’t the only ones to be targeted by Tehran.
On July 31, a man with an assault rifle was arrested outside of the Brooklyn home of dissident journalist Masih Alinejad — who has previously been targeted by alleged Iranian operatives.
“I think there are [a] substantial number of people who are vulnerable to these Iranian efforts,” Bolton himself told CNN Wednesday, later adding: “I think the nature of the regime drives it to this kind of action. And I think it’s a big mistake for the administration to continue to show weakness to Iran by begging to get back into the 2015 nuclear deal. I think it encourages Tehran to engage in just these kinds of terrorist activities.”
“The Iranian regime has continually provoked us and we have effectively said there is no provocation too great that is going to result in us walking away from the table,” Sales said. “That’s bad policy, but it’s also bad diplomacy because it gives the Iranians the upper hand. It makes us look weak. And any deal that comes out of that kind of imbalanced arrangement is going to be dreadful for American national security.”
A White House spokesperson defend the administration’s desire to revive the nuclear deal on Wednesday, saying: “President Biden has been clear that he will ensure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. He believes diplomacy is the best path to achieving that goal. As long as he believes pursuing JCPOA talks is in US national security interests, we will continue to do so.”