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Iranian man and 2 Canadians are charged in a murder-for-hire plot on US soil

WASHINGTON (AP) — An Iranian man who federal prosecutors say operates a criminal network that targets dissidents and activists abroad has been charged alongside a pair of Canadians with plotting to kill two people, including a defector from Iran, who had fled to the United States.

The criminal case unsealed Monday is part of what Justice Department 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, Naji Sharifi Zindashti conspired with two Canadian men between December 2020 and March 2021 to kill two Maryland residents. The intended victims of the murder-for-hire plot were not identified in an indictment, but prosecutors described them as having fled to the United States together after one of them had defected from Iran.

The plot was ultimately disrupted, the Justice Department said.

"To those in Iran who plot murders on U.S. 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.

This is not the first criminal case directed at Iranian efforts to perceived political opponents of the regime.

The Justice Department has previously charged three men, in a plot they say originated in Iran, to kill an Iranian American author and activist who has spoken out against human rights abuses there, and also brought charges in connection with a failed plot to assasinate John Bolton, the former Trump administration national security adviser.

Assistant FBI Director Suzanne Turner of the bureau's Counterintelligence Division said in a statement that the latest charges “show a pattern of Iranian groups trying to murder U.S. residents on U.S. soil.”

“Mr. Zindashti and his accomplices’ alleged plot is reprehensible, and the FBI will not tolerate such acts against U.S. residents, and we will continue to pursue these individuals until they are brought to the U.S. to face justice," she said.

The latest case is being disclosed at a time of simmering tension between the U.S. and Iran, including after a weekend drone strike in northeast Jordan near the Syrian border that killed three American troops and that the Biden administration attributed to Iran-backed militias. On Monday, officials said U.S. forces may have mistaken an enemy drone for an American one and let it pass unchallenged into a desert base in Jordan.

Zindashti is believed to still be living in Iran. U.S. officials describe him as a narcotics trafficker who, at the behest of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security, operates a criminal network that has orchestrated assassinations, kidnappings and other acts of transnational repression against perceived critics of the Iranian regime, including in the U.S.

In a separate but related action, the Treasury Department on Monday announced sanctions against Zindashti and multiple associates that will bar them from engaging in business transactions in the U.S. or with a U.S. person.

The United Kingdom also imposed sanctions. British security officials have warned 15 Iranians in the U.K. about threats to their lives in the past two years. U.K. officials say Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps often enlists organized crime groups to carry out such attacks.

According to the 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 United States to carry out the killings.

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 attorneys 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.

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Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.