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Illicit Iranian programs targeted by sanctions and criminal charges, US says

By Michael Conte and Sean Lyngaas, CNN

Washington (CNN) — The US announced a number of measures including sanctions and criminal charges targeting a range of malicious Iranian initiatives, including their cyberwarfare and drone programs, as well as Iran’s alleged illegal oil trafficking to fund foreign terrorist organizations.

The actions come as the Biden administration vowed to carry out a “multi-tiered” response to a drone strike by Iran-backed militants on a US military outpost in Jordan on Sunday, which killed three US service members and wounded more than 40 others.

The Justice Department announced charges Friday against four Iranian nationals, including a “senior official” in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and three Turkish nationals for allegedly participating in a “long-running scheme” to facilitate the “black-market sales of Iranian crude oil and other petroleum products” according to the indictment. The seven defendants face charges including supporting a foreign terrorist organization.

In a separate case announced Friday, prosecutors also charged a Chinese individual and an Omani individual with sanctions evasion and money laundering allegedly connected to “the trafficking and selling of Iranian oil to Chinese government-owned refineries,” according to a news release.

“The Justice Department will continue to use every authority we have to cut off the illegal financing and enabling of Iran’s malicious activities, which have become even more evident in recent months,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland in a statement.

DOJ also charged a Chinese individual and an Omani individual in Washington, DC with sanctions evasion and money laundering allegedly connected to “the trafficking and selling of Iranian oil to Chinese government-owned refineries,” according to a press release.

The Justice Department also announced the seizure of more than $108 million, and efforts to seize an additional $8.5 million and 500,000 barrels of fuel in connection with Iran’s alleged oil trafficking.

“Iran presents a constant threat to the United States – trying to murder Americans right here within our borders, conducting a cyber-attack on a children’s hospital, supporting terrorists around the world, and more. … And the FBI will remain committed to enforcing U.S. sanctions that keep money out of its coffers,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray in a statement.

Earlier in the day, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against several Iran- and Hong Kong-based companies for allegedly supporting Iran’s drone program and missile production. The three alleged front companies in Hong Kong and an Iranian subsidiary allegedly obtained components, such as engines and carburetors, for Iran’s drone program.

“We will not hesitate to leverage our full suite of tools to disrupt the illicit procurement networks that supply the components for these weapons systems, as well as hold accountable those who seek to export these weapons to terrorist proxy groups,” said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson in a statement.

Treasury also announced sanctions targeting the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Cyber–Electronic Command and five other senior officials for alleged cyberattacks against critical infrastructure in the US and other countries.

Iran allegedly hacked into “programmable logic controllers” used in critical infrastructure “to display an anti-Israel message” on their interfaces, according to State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller.

That’s a reference to a series of hacks that defaced computers at multiple water utilities in the US in November. While the hacks didn’t cause damage to the facilities or affect drinking water, they alarmed US officials for their brazenness.

“The ultimate purpose of these hacks is to scare us and attack our trust in our own basic safety. Unfortunately, they can be effective even when they fail to disrupt the services they target, which this actor knows,” John Hultquist, chief analyst at Google-owned cybersecurity firm Mandiant, told CNN.

US officials have long seen Iran’s considerable cyber capabilities as an unpredictable and potentially destabilizing variable in the US-Iranian rivalry.  US government blamed Iran for an attempted cyberattack on Boston Children’s Hospital in 2021 in what FBI Director Christopher Wray called “one of the most despicable cyberattacks I’ve ever seen.” (Tehran denied the allegations.)

“Although [the recent hacks at water facilities] did not disrupt any critical services, unauthorized access to critical infrastructure systems can enable actions that harm the public and cause devastating humanitarian consequences,” the Treasury Department said in a statement on Friday.

CNN’s Hannah Rabinowitz contributed to this report.

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