July 21, 2015 | House Financial Services Committee, Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing

The Iran Nuclear Deal and its Impact on Terrorism Financing

Download full testimony here 

Chairman Fitzpatrick, Ranking Member Lynch, members of the Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing, on behalf of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and its Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance, thank you for the opportunity to testify.

This afternoon, I would like to address the flaws in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by examining the sanctions relief and so-called “snapback” sanctions in the deal. The JCPOA dismantles the U.S. and international economic sanctions architecture, which was put in place to address the full range of Iran’s illicit activities. In its place, the JCPOA creates not an effective economic sanctions snapback but rather an Iranian “nuclear snapback” which undermines America’s ability to peacefully prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Instead of this current JCPOA, Congress should work with the administration to amend and strengthen the agreement so that it much more effectively blocks Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb and retains tools of effective and peaceful sanctions enforcement against Iranian illicit behavior on multiple fronts. 


The Iran sanctions regime was designed to respond to the full range of Iran’s illicit activities, not only the development of Iran’s illicit nuclear program. The United States has spent the last decade building a powerful yet delicate sanctions architecture to punish Iran for its nuclear mendacity, its illicit ballistic missile development, its vast financial support for terrorist groups, its backing of other rogue states like Bashar Assad’s Syria, its human rights abuses, and the financial crimes that sustain these illicit activities. More broadly, a primary goal of the sanctions on Iran, as explained by senior Treasury Department officials over the past decade, was to “protect the integrity of the U.S. and international financial systems” from Iranian illicit financial activities and the bad actors that facilitated these. 

The goal of sanctions was to provide the president with the tools to stop the development of an Iranian nuclear threshold capacity and also to protect the integrity of the U.S.-led global financial sector from the vast network of Iranian financial criminals and the recipients of their illicit transactions. This included brutal authoritarians, terrorist funders, weapons and missile proliferators, narco-traffickers, and human rights abusers.

Tranche after tranche of designations issued by the Treasury, backed by intelligence that often took months, if not years, to compile, isolated Iran’s worst financial criminals. And designations were only the tip of the iceberg. Treasury officials traveled the globe to meet with financial leaders and business executives to warn them against transacting with known and suspected terrorists and weapons proliferators.  This campaign was crucial to isolating Iran in order to deter its nuclear ambitions and also to address the full range of its illicit conduct.

Following years of individual designations of Iranian and foreign financial institutions for involvement in the illicit financing of nuclear, ballistic missile, and terrorist activities,  Treasury issued a finding in November 2011 under Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act that Iran, as well as its entire financial sector including the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), is a “jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern.”  Treasury cited Iran’s “support for terrorism,” “pursuit of weapons of mass destruction,” including its financing of nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and the use of “deceptive financial practices to facilitate illicit conduct and evade sanctions.”  The entire country’s financial system posed “illicit finance risks for the global financial system.”  Internationally, the global anti-money laundering and anti-terror finance standards body the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) also warned its members that they should “apply effective counter-measures to protect their financial sectors from money laundering and financing of terrorism (ML/FT) risks emanating from Iran.”

As recently as June 26, 2015, FATF issued a statement warning that Iran’s “failure to address the risk of terrorist financing” poses a “serious threat … to the integrity of the international financial system.”

The Section 311 finding was conduct-based; it would be appropriate, therefore, to tie the lifting of sanctions on all designated Iranian banks, especially the legislatively-designated Central Bank of Iran, and their readmission onto SWIFT and into the global financial system, to specific changes in the conduct of these Iranian entities across the full range of Iran’s illicit financial activities. However, the JCPOA requires the lifting of financial sanctions—including the SWIFT sanctions—prior to a demonstrable change in Iran’s illicit financial conduct.

In the past, Washington has given “bad banks” access to the global financial system in order to secure a nuclear agreement. In 2005, Treasury issued a Section 311 finding against Macau-based Banco Delta Asia,  and within days, North Korean accounts and transactions were frozen or blocked in banking capitals around the world. North Korea refused to make nuclear concessions before sanctions relief and defiantly conducted its first nuclear test.  The State Department advocated for the release of frozen North Korean funds on good faith,  and ultimately prevailed. As a result, however, Washington lost its leverage and its credibility by divorcing the Section 311 finding from the illicit conduct that had prompted the finding in the first place. Undeterred, North Korea moved forward with its nuclear weapons program while continuing to engage in money laundering, counterfeiting, and other financial crimes.

Compromising the integrity of the U.S. and global financial system to conclude a limited agreement with North Korea neither sealed the deal nor protected the system. The JCPOA appears to repeat this same mistake by lifting financial restrictions on bad banks without certifications that Iran’s illicit finance activities have ceased.

The JCPOA stipulates that of the nearly 650 entities that have been designated by the U.S. Treasury for their role in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs or for being owned or controlled by the government of Iran, more than 67 percent will be de-listed from Treasury’s blacklists within 6-12 months. This includes the Central Bank of Iran and most major Iranian financial institutions. After eight years, only 25 percent of the entities that have been designated by Treasury over the past decade will remain sanctioned. Many IRGC businesses that were involved in the procurement of material for Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs will be de-listed as will some of the worst actors involved in Iran’s nuclear weaponization activities. Even worse, the EU will lift all of its economic sanctions on Iran, which were all established only on nuclear grounds, including on the notorious Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. As discussed below, this will enable the IRGC to treat Europe as an economic free zone.

What is especially notable about the lifting of designations is that the Obama administration has provided no evidence to suggest that these individuals, banks, and businesses are no longer engaging in the full range of illicit conduct on which the original designations were based. What evidence, for example, is there for the de-designation of the Central Bank of Iran, which is the main financial conduit for the full range of Iran’s illicit activities, and how does a nuclear agreement resolve its proven role in terrorism and ballistic missile financing, money laundering, deceptive financial activities, and sanctions evasion? In other words, with the dismantlement of much of the Iran sanctions architecture in the wake of a nuclear agreement, the principle upon which Treasury created the sanctions architecture—the protection of the global financial system—is no longer the standard.