With a new round of talks underway this week in Vienna, American officials are brimming with optimism concerning the possibility of a nuclear deal by the summer. Worryingly, Iran appears poised to retain essential elements of its military-nuclear infrastructure. But because Tehran will provide just enough in the way of technical concessions to delay its ability to breakout to a nuclear bomb, it’s likely that the White House will unravel the complex sanctions architecture that has kept Iran’s economy on its heels.
History will judge whether the president was right to compromise with a regime that has a long track record of nuclear mendacity. But with sanctions relief already granted to Iran in exchange for a nuclear pause, and still more to come, Mr. Obama has already undermined the original rationale for the U.S.-led financial sanctions.
As Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen has explained time and again, a primary goal of the strictures on Iran was to “protect the integrity of the U.S. and international financial systems.” So much for that. Companies and banks are now lining up to re-engage with Iran in the event that a nuclear deal is struck. They are working under the assumption that a nuclear deal would expunge Tehran’s long rap sheet of financial crimes in support of terrorism and proliferation since 1984, when the Islamic Republic was first listed by the State Department as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. And Washington has not disabused the international financial community of this assumption.
Iran’s list of financial crimes is too long to document here, but recent highlights are worth noting. Beginning in 2007, the Treasury designated twenty-three Iranian and Iranian-allied foreign financial institutions as “proliferation supporting entities” under Executive Order 13382 for supporting Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. At least eight of these financial institutions also provided banking services to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a group designated in 2007 for both terrorism and proliferation . The Treasury also sanctioned Bank Saderat as a “terrorism supporting entity” under Executive Order 13224 for facilitating fund transfers to Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist organizations.
In 2011, invoking Section 311 of the PATRIOT Act, the Treasury struck again with a designation of the entire “Islamic Republic of Iran as a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern.” The Treasury cited Iran’s “support for terrorism,” “pursuit of weapons of mass destruction,” and “the illicit and deceptive financial activities that Iranian financial institutions…engage in to facilitate Iran’s illicit conduct and evade sanctions.” The Treasury targeted Iran’s Central Bank, and made it clear that the entire country’s financial system posed “ illicit finance risks for the global financial system .”
The goal was to push Iran to cease its illicit financial activity. But Tehran instead chose to find ways to circumvent the sanctions. This prompted additional Congressional penalties against foreign financial institutions conducting transactions with the Central Bank of Iran for the purchase of Iranian crude oil (though some waivers were granted).
With the Islamic Republic as defiant as ever, in 2012, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, better known as SWIFT, came under intense pressure from the U.S. Congress to target Iran. The member-owned cooperative, which provides some 10,000 financial institutions worldwide with the means to exchange secure electronic financial messages, cut off a great many Iranian banks from its system. It was clear that the move was part of a global effort to convince the Islamic Republic to relinquish its illicit nuclear program. Officially, however, the cooperative cited its commitment to protecting the integrity of the formal financial sector.
The ban from SWIFT was not total, however. The Treasury, in an attempt to leave open a channel for humanitarian funds to reach Iran and to prevent a complete financial meltdown that would unfairly punish the Iranian people, struck a deal with SWIFT to leave a handful of Iranian banks on the system. The Treasury assured the international community it would keep an eye on those banks, and prevent illicit funds from coming through.
Fast-forward two years, and a leaked Turkish prosecutor’s report , aimed at exposing corruption in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP government, alleges that Iranian banks used SWIFT for illicit financial transactions (the report included copies of several SWIFT transactions). According to the report, Pasargad Bank, Parsian Bank, Sarmaye Bank, Bank Tose-e-Saderat, Karafarin Bank, and Saman Bank processed transactions for the network of Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who stands accused of having processed more than €87 billion in illicit transactions between 2012 and 2013. Four of these banks were not designated by the Treasury, but were prohibited to U.S. persons as entities of the government of Iran. This probably explains why they were allowed to remain in SWIFT.
While the defiant Erdogan government doesn’t seem inclined to investigate the matter further, the episode underscores the dangers of giving even one bad bank access to the formal financial sector.