The U.S. administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran can receive a boost when the Paris-based intergovernmental group chaired by the United States, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), meets this week.
The FATF, which develops policies to combat money-laundering and terrorist-financing, has the power to apply what it calls countermeasures that could further imperil Iran’s economy. Countermeasures in the form of sanctions could require banks to review and terminate correspondent accounts with Iranian banks, preventing them from establishing overseas subsidiary branches and limiting business relations, or imposing enhanced monitoring and reporting requirements on transactions involving the regime in Tehran. Given its failure to implement the FATF’s recommended reforms to prevent money-laundering and its continued funding of terror organizations, the time has come for the FATF to take decisive action on Iran.
This would not be a rash decision. Since June 2016, Iran has repeatedly committed to adopting the necessary reforms recommended by the FATF. Instead, Tehran is stringing the FATF along, delaying changes to its Anti-Money Laundering/Combating the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) infrastructure that would prevent the regime from supporting terror proxies like Hezbollah, while increasing transparency of the Iranian banking sector and the financial dealings of top regime figures.
A longer list of Iran’s deficiencies includes the regime’s failure to criminalize terrorist-financing and money-laundering; identify and freeze terrorist assets; enforce a customer due diligence regime; and establish an independent financial intelligence unit. Until these holes are closed, Tehran will continue to present a danger to the integrity of the global banking system—the very thing that the FATF is intended to ensure.
In October 2018, the FATF determined that Iran had failed to implement 90 percent of its commitments. Despite this, the FATF gave Iran a life raft, setting a deadline of February 2019 to fall in line or face “further steps.” And since then, nothing has changed.
There will be enormous pressure to kick the can down the road yet again when FATF members meet this week and Iran has reason to be hopeful. European Union member states and organizations make up more than 40 percent of the FATF, which comes to its decisions by consensus, and geopolitical considerations may be a key factor in the group’s decision.
Specifically, last month, FATF members Germany, France and the United Kingdom created a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to help European businesses evade U.S. sanctions and maintain ties with Iran. Known as INSTEX, the SPV is a major symbolic achievement for E.U. leaders, even though it is failing to attract users for two reasons.
First, the United States has a long history of tracking the movement of goods as part of sanctions enforcement, and so could readily cut off companies’ access to American consumers and financial markets if sanctioned activities are detected. And second, E.U. businesses are not anxious to sacrifice their profits and assume the tremendous legal and reputational risks that come from trading with Iran and its companies.
If the FATF places Iran on its blacklist and applies countermeasures, INSTEX will be limited to “humanitarian” transactions. It would be nearly impossible for it to function as its designers intended, for businesses large and small, with or without connections to the U.S. market. That would be a big win for the Trump administration—something that the Europeans would loathe.
Still, E.U. leaders must know that a failure to apply FATF countermeasures at this stage would send a dangerous signal to rogue regimes throughout the international community. Just this week, the European Commission itself listed Iran alongside 22 other jurisdictions as having “strategic deficiencies in anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing frameworks.” The FATF would signal that international norms and standards don’t apply to everyone all the time and can be usurped by powerful political players solely for their own commercial benefit.
Iran cannot be a part of the global financial system unless and until it decides to play by the same rules as everyone else. Iran is the chief state financing global terrorism, and it must be held to account by the multilateral body that is most capable of doing so.
David Ibsen is the president of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).