WASHINGTON — The Justice Department charged a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps on Wednesday with planning to assassinate John R. Bolton, who served as the national security adviser to President Donald J. Trump, as payback for the killing of a senior Iranian official.
The charging document, filed in federal court, read like the synopsis of an international espionage novel — but the scheme, had it been carried out, would have resulted in the murder of a prominent American critic of the government in Tehran, and the plot’s disclosure has further jolted an already shaky relationship between the United States and Iran at a critical moment in negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program.
The plan was ultimately foiled by a confidential federal informant who posed as a would-be assassin. But the court documents suggested a chilling level of sophistication in the planning, if not execution: At one point, an operative in Tehran provided details of Mr. Bolton’s movements that could not have been known through public sources.
The accused plotter, Shahram Poursafi, 45, is not in custody and remains at large, presumably in Iran. Pictures purporting to be Mr. Poursafi show a man with fashionable glasses, wearing Revolutionary Guards fatigues or clad in stylish Western-style clothes.
“While much cannot be said publicly right now, one point is indisputable: Iran’s rulers are liars, terrorists and enemies of the United States,” Mr. Bolton said in a statement released by his office after the charges became public. “Their radical, anti-American objectives are unchanged; their commitments are worthless; and their global threat is growing.”
Nasser Kanaani, the spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, accused American officials of making “baseless accusations” without “credible proof or documents” in comments posted to the foreign ministry’s website. He said Tehran was prepared to defend itself in international courts.
U.S. officials told a much different story. In October 2021, prosecutors said, Mr. Poursafi, a revolutionary guardsman who lives in Tehran, reached out to an unnamed resident of the United States online with a seemingly innocent request: Would the person be willing to track down Mr. Bolton and take a few pictures of him for a book he was writing?
It was a ruse, prosecutors said. Mr. Poursafi was working on behalf of his government to recruit a network to murder Mr. Bolton, likely in retaliation for the United States military’s killing in January 2020 of Qassim Suleimani, the top commander of the Revolutionary Guards, a branch of Iran’s military that is a power base for the country’s ruling military and political elites, officials said in the court filing.
Some senior Iranian officials, including Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, have in the past openly vowed to avenge Mr. Suleimani by killing American officials — demanding that the U.S. officials responsible for his death face “ghesas,” or “eye for an eye” justice.
“Iran has a history of plotting to assassinate individuals in the U.S. it deems a threat,” said Larissa L. Knapp, the executive assistant director of the F.B.I.’s national security branch, which worked on the case with the Justice Department and Secret Service.
By November, Mr. Poursafi had been introduced to several other Americans on an encrypted messaging platform, and made a stunning offer to one of them, the person who turned out to be the informant: He would pay $250,000 to “eliminate” Mr. Bolton, who had left the White House in late 2019 after a tumultuous year-and-a-half tenure.
Mr. Poursafi later hiked the offer to $300,000, then added that he had an unspecified follow-up “job,” for which he would pay $1 million, officials said.
Mr. Poursafi never tried to conceal his connection to the Revolutionary Guards. In fact, he seemed to use his status to intimidate would-be conspirators, U.S. officials said.
By early 2021, he was sharply increasing pressure on the informant to move ahead with the assassination, sending detailed information on the location of Mr. Bolton’s office and residence. In January, he provided the informant “with specifics regarding the former national security adviser’s schedule that do not appear to have been publicly available,” according to a narrative of the case provided to reporters by the Justice Department.
Mr. Poursafi also urged the informant to set up a cryptocurrency account for payment. He made it clear, however, that he would make the deposit only after the job was done, and he demanded the informant videotape the killing. He warned the informant, darkly, that his bosses in Tehran would be “angry” if the job were not completed to their satisfaction.
He expressed regret that the murder would not take place on Jan. 3, the anniversary of Mr. Suleimani’s death.
Mr. Poursafi was vague about how he wanted Mr. Bolton killed, but he suggested the hit should happen in a parking garage, according to the documents.
If captured and convicted, Mr. Poursafi would face up to 10 years in prison for using interstate commerce facilities in the plot and another 15 years for attempting to provide material support for a transnational murder plot.
The charges came at a particularly delicate moment in the two countries’ relations, as they consider a “final text” proposal to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that the European Union offered this week. American officials have said they are losing patience with the talks, which began in April of last year.
One major obstacle in those talks has been an Iranian demand that President Biden reverse a 2019 move by Mr. Trump to officially designate the guard corps a terrorist organization.
Mr. Biden refused, aware that a reversal would have drawn condemnation from Congress and Israel’s government. Wednesday’s charges, depicting an organization plotting to murder a prominent former U.S. official on American soil, turn what would have been a politically difficult act into a virtual impossibility.
The Biden administration said nothing publicly about whether the charges might affect their posture in the nuclear talks, which they have generally compartmentalized from other friction points in the relationship.
“We have said this before, and we will say it again: The Biden administration will not waver in protecting and defending all Americans against threats of violence and terrorism,” Jake Sullivan, the current national security adviser, said in a 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.”
Yet it is unclear what those consequences are likely to be. Little came as a result of another alleged Iranian plot, more than a decade ago, to kill another high-ranking official in Washington.
In 2011, as President Barack Obama was preparing to began secret negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, the Justice Department alleged a plot by Iran’s Quds Force — an elite clandestine wing of the guard corps — to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington by detonating a bomb at Georgetown’s upscale Cafe Milano restaurant.
Even as Mr. Obama’s administration placed broad sanctions on Iran’s economy, however, it never imposed a specific punishment for the plot.
American officials have long been aware of Iran’s intention to kill prominent Americans. At a Senate hearing in April, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, asked Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken whether the United States had demanded during the nuclear talks that Iran cease such plotting, including against former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Mr. Blinken declined to discuss the matter specifically in a public forum but did concede “that there is an ongoing threat against American officials, both present and past.”
Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting.
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