Washington urges crackdown on Iran’s financing amid confusion over policy objectives

Mandelker’s remarks appeared to leave Democrats in the US Congress unconvinced.
Sunday 10/06/2018
Baring the teeth. The US Treasury Department building in Washington.   (AFP)
Baring the teeth. The US Treasury Department building in Washington. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration and its allies have tried to clarify and bolster their policy towards Tehran after the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal sparked criticism that US President Donald Trump does not have a viable plan to deal with Iran.

Sigal Mandelker, the US Treasury Department under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, portrayed the Trump administration as trying to protect the world and Iranians from Iran’s ruthless leadership, saying the agency is “using all of the tools at our disposal” to block Iran’s attempts to destabilise the Middle East, finance terrorism and develop ballistic missiles.

She sought to rally support of US allies as European leaders, angered at the US withdrawal, sought to sustain the nuclear accord.

“To our allies and partners around the world, we ask that you add your voices to ours in condemning Iran’s deceptive, exploitive and destructive policies. We must work together to pressure Iran to make tangible, demonstrated and sustained shifts in its policy,” Mandelker said in a June 5 speech at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a conservative think-tank in Washington.

“We share the same goals in countering the regime’s support for terrorism, missile proliferation and brutality against its own people, in addition to keeping it from developing nuclear weapons.”

In a panel discussion after Mandelker’s speech, Richard Goldberg, an FDD senior adviser, acknowledged “huge political resentment in Europe” over what political leaders say is an “America-first policy meant to hurt European businesses.”

Goldberg said, however: “Europe is misunderstanding. This is not an ‘America-first’ policy when it comes to Iran. This is a ‘terrorism-last’ policy.”

Mandelker exhorted businesses operating in Iran to make sure they do not become entangled in the country’s “deceptive web” of “illicit actors” that use front companies and forged documents to conceal their efforts to fund terrorists.

“Companies doing business in Iran face substantial risks and those risks are even greater as we reimpose nuclear-related sanctions,” Mandelker said. “We will hold those doing prohibited business in Iran to account.”

Mandelker’s remarks focused on broad strategies outlined by Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose recent comments prompted speculation that the administration wants to trigger regime change by weakening Iranian leadership and empowering citizens and protesters. Mandelker avoided direct appeals to Iranians and declarations of support for protesters, which both Trump and Pompeo made during speeches in May.

Mandelker’s remarks appeared to leave Democrats in the US Congress unconvinced. At a hearing June 6, US Representative Peter Welch, a Democrat from Vermont, criticised the Trump administration and got into a heated exchange with a witness over whether the United States was pursuing regime change in Iran.

“What is the Trump plan? The president has not laid that out and he is playing a very high-stakes poker game with American national security,”  Welch said at the start of a hearing of the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security.

Welch later clashed with Goldberg, who, as a hearing witness, said regime change “is not the policy” of the Trump administration, which instead wants “behavioural change.”

Welch read a comment made by John Bolton in January — four months before Bolton was named national security adviser — in which Bolton told a TV interviewer: “Our goal should be regime change in Iran.”

“Should I take him seriously or you seriously?” Welch snapped at Goldberg.

“Congressman, are you for repression of the Iranian people? Yes or no,” Goldberg shot back.

“I’m asking the questions,” Welch replied.

Goldberg said in his testimony that the United States should cut off the Central Bank of Iran and other Iranian financial institutions from SWIFT — the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications — messaging network that financial institutions use to send each other information, such as wire-transfer instructions. SWIFT calls for institutions to be removed if they violate “generally accepted business conduct principles,” which Goldberg

said should disqualify the Central Bank of Iran and other Iranian

financial institutions.

Another hearing witness, Michael Rubin, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said radio programmes broadcast run by the US government such as Radio Farda and the Voice of America’s Persian service “should systematically attack the legitimacy of the Iran’s ruling class by exposing the rampant corruption of its leaders.”

Republicans used the hearing to voice strong support for Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord. “The president made the right decision,” said subcommittee Chairman Ron DeSantis, a Florida Republican. “The Iran deal was built on lies.”

DeSantis, echoing other administration allies, stressed that, because the agreement was not ratified by Congress and was approved only by former US President Barack Obama, Trump had every legal right to cancel it.