Iranian IRGC member charged for plot to kill John Bolton

The IRGC member offered $300,000 to a potential hitman in the US to kill the former national security advisor.

National Security Advisor John Bolton adjusts his glasses as US President Donald Trump speaks while meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, April 2, 2019. (photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS)
National Security Advisor John Bolton adjusts his glasses as US President Donald Trump speaks while meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, April 2, 2019.
(photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS)

A member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has been charged with attempting to hire hitmen to murder former national security advisor John Bolton in an apparent retaliation attempt for the January 2020 assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, the US Justice Department announced on Wednesday.

Shahram Poursafi, aka Mehdi Rezayi, a resident of Tehran, Iran, attempted to pay individuals in the US $300,000 to murder Bolton in Washington, DC or Maryland on behalf of the Quds Force, according to court documents.

On October 22, 2021, Poursafi asked a US resident he had previously met online to take photographs of Bolton, claiming that the photos were for a book he was writing. The US resident told the IRGC member that they could introduce him to another person who would take the pictures for $5,000-10,000 and later introduced him to an associate.

On November 9, the IRGC member contacted the associate on an encrypted messaging app and then directed them to a second encrypted messaging app for further communications. According to court documents, he offered the associate $250,000 to hire someone to "eliminate" the former national security advisor and this amount was later negotiated up to $300,000.

 Wanted poster for IRGC member Shahram Poursafi (credit: Screenshot of FBI Wanted poster) Wanted poster for IRGC member Shahram Poursafi (credit: Screenshot of FBI Wanted poster)

The IRGC member directed the associate to open a cryptocurrency account to facilitate the payment, but stressed that they would likely have to carry out the murder before they could be paid and that Poursafi's "group" would be angry if the person was paid and the murder was not completed.

The associate updated the IRGC member that he had found someone to conduct the murder and later informed him that the person was from Mexico and maintained contacts with a cartel. Poursafi assured the individual that "his group" had people in both Iran and the US who could provide protection for both them and the person they had found to carry out the murder.

The associate also told the IRGC member that he wanted to come to Iran after the job was done and Poursafi said he would take care of it.

The associate informed Poursafi that he had traveled from Texas to DC and sent him two photos of Bolton's office.

Poursafi told the associate that it did not matter how the murder was carried out, but that his "group" would need video confirmation of Bolton's death. When the individual asked the IRGC member what would happen if the killing was attributed to Iran, he told them not to worry and that his "group" would take care of it.

"It's like crossing the street: it's better not to spend too much time looking in one direction, but just to do it."

Court documents citing IRGC member Shahram Poursafi

During their conversations, the associate told Poursafi that he did not have experience in the spy world or any training in killing people and asked him what his experience was with killing and this "type of work." The IRGC member responded that "it was like crossing the street: it was better not to spend too much time looking in one direction, but just to do it" and cautioned the associate against taking too much time figuring things out, according to court documents.

Poursafi also told the associate that he had been in "this business" for thirty years and knew "how things worked." 

The IRGC member also advised the individual that if they used a "small weapon" they would have to get close to the target, but that if they used a "larger weapon" they could stay farther away.

In January, Poursafi told the associate that he was under pressure from "his people" to complete the murder and expressed regret that the murder would not be completed by the anniversary of Soleimani's assassination. He expressed concerns that if the job was not carried out soon, it would be taken from Poursafi.

"Our message to Iran is clear: we will not tolerate threats of violence against Americans — and that certainly includes former government officials. Any attack would be met with severe consequences," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted in response on Thursday. 

The IRGC member provided information about Bolton that was not publicly available

Also in January, the associate sent Poursafi publicly available information that suggested Bolton would be travelling out of DC when the murder was intended to take place. Poursafi responded that he needed to "check something" and within an hour told them that Bolton was not travelling and provided specifics about the former national security advisor's schedule that do not appear to have been publicly available, according to the Justice Department.

The IRGC member advised the associate to discuss the plot in construction and building terms, using terms like "the method of construction" when referring to the way to kill Bolton. In late December, Poursafi asked the associate when the murder would be carried out, adding that his "group" wanted it done quickly.

The associate informed Poursafi in mid-January 2022 that he had three different vans and was going to darken the windows and had weapons, silencers and bullets ready. Poursafi cautioned the associate against saying such things on the phone.

Discussions continued between the two, but the associate informed Poursafi of difficulties in completing the job. In March, Poursafi told the associate he had another assassination job for him in the US and to "keep [Bolton] in the back of your mind."

A source close to former secretary of state Mike Pompeo told Axios on Wednesday that Pompeo was the second target of Poursafi.

Poursafi's connection to the IRGC

During their conversations, the associate made several references to Poursafi being associated with the IRGC and a search of his online accounts showed him wearing a uniform with an IRGC patch. Poursafi never denied his involvement with the terrorist group and even told the associate that he had known Soleimani.

A few days after beginning communications, the associate asked Poursafi for help locating Bolton and the IRGC member subsequently provided them with the target's work address in DC. On November 25, 2021, Poursafi took screenshots of a map application showing a street view of the former national security advisor's office.

Poursafi orchestrated more than one assassination attempt

Poursafi added during their communications that he had a second job for them for which would pay $1 million after the first job was completed and that he had completed surveillance of the second target with information gathered from the US and not "via Google." The Justice Department announcement did not detail what this job was.

The associate also asked Poursafi about targeting other US government officials from the Trump administration and the IRGC official responded concerning one named official that targeting them was dangerous because they were surrounded by a lot of people, but that "their time would come."

In April 2022, the associate told Poursafi that he would not work on the second job until he was sent money from Iran and Poursafi agreed to send $100 to the associate via crypto currency. Within a day, two payments adding up to $100 were sent to a crypto currency wallet set up by the FBI and provided by the associate to Poursafi.

Details of how the plot was thwarted remain unclear

The court documents did not detail how the FBI uncovered the plot or got in contact with the associate. There was also no mention of criminal proceedings against the associate or the person they had found to carry out the murder.

In January 2022, Forbes reported that Secret Service Police vehicles had begun monitoring Bolton's home for an unknown reason.

In March, the Washington Examiner, a conservative news site and magazine, claimed that at least two Iranians belonging to the IRGC Quds Force had been plotting to assassinate Bolton, citing an anonymous Justice Department official. The report at the time claimed that the Biden administration was resisting publicly indicting the men due to concerns that it could derail attempts to return to the JCPOA nuclear deal.

'This is not the first time we have uncovered Iranian plots to exact revenge against individuals in the US'

“The Justice Department has the solemn duty to defend our citizens from hostile governments who seek to hurt or kill them,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “This is not the first time we have uncovered Iranian plots to exact revenge against individuals on US soil and we will work tirelessly to expose and disrupt every one of these efforts.”

“Let there be no doubt: The FBI, the US government, and our partners remain vigilant in the fight against such threats here in the US and overseas.”

Executive Assistant Director Larissa L. Knapp of the FBI’s National Security Branch

“Iran has a history of plotting to assassinate individuals in the US it deems a threat, but the US Government has a longer history of holding accountable those who threaten the safety of our citizens,” said Executive Assistant Director Larissa L. Knapp of the FBI’s National Security Branch. “Let there be no doubt: The FBI, the US government, and our partners remain vigilant in the fight against such threats here in the US and overseas.”

Bolton thanked the Justice Department for initiating the criminal proceeding against Poursafi, the FBI for discovering and tracking the threat from Iran and the Secret Service for providing protection against the Iranian effort.

"While much cannot be said publicly right now, one point is indisputable: Iran's rulers are liars, terrorists and enemies of the United States. Their radical, anti-American objectives are unchanged; their commitments are worthless; and their global threat is growing," said Bolton in a statement.

"Iran's nuclear weapons and terrorist activities are two sides of the same coin. No responsible US government shoul think otherwise," added the former national security advisor. "America re-entering the failed 2015 Iran nuclear deal would be an unparalleled self-inflicted wound, to ourselves and our closes Middle East allies. I remain committed to making sure it does not happen."

The United States does not believe charges against the IRGC member should affect nuclear diplomacy with Iran, a US official said on Wednesday.

"In our view, it shouldn't," said the official on condition of anonymity, adding that the Justice Department pursued charges against Shahram Poursafi independent of US diplomacy with Iran.

If convicted, Poursafi faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 the use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire, as well as up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for providing and attempting to provide material support to a transnational murder plot.

Reuters contributed to this report.