A debate is raging in Tehran about how far Iran should go to get itself removed from a global blacklist of countries with a permissive approach to money laundering and terror finance. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental standards-setting body, decides who belongs on the blacklist. After seven failed efforts to get off the blacklist, Iran has another shot at the FATF plenary that commences in Paris on February 17.
In 2016, Iran committed to a FATF-backed reform plan aimed at bringing its anti-money laundering (AML) and counterterrorism finance (CFT) laws in line with international norms. The debate now raging focuses on AML and CFT reform bills and whether to join related international conventions, which is a FATF requirement.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has denigrated President Hassan Rouhani’s proposed reforms as something “cooked up” by foreign enemies, while Rouhani says their ratification will “neutralize US conspiracies against Iran’s banking and financial sectors.”
Meanwhile, Ahmad Vahidi, former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force and a member of Khamenei’s advisory council, called FATF “an intelligence system” through which the West wants to “undermine our scientific nuclear power.”
The Iranian parliament, or Majlis, has taken up four bills required to satisfy FATF conditions. Yet when the Majlis previously passed the AML and CFT bills, it inserted exemptions for terrorist organizations— ones that didn’t pass muster with FATF. Moreover, Iran conditioned its acceptance of international conventions and protocols on whether FATF first removes it from its blacklist.
Often, foreign media fail to notice such loopholes and exceptions. Last month, for example, Iran’s Expediency Council, a body appointed by Khamenei to arbitrate disputes between the Guardian Council and the Majlis, approved the new AML bill. The Guardian Council decides whether the bills passed by the Majlis are consistent with the country’s constitution and Islamic Sharia law.
What English language media did not report is that the Expediency Council directed the Majlis to omit language that imposes an absolute ban on changing the identity of those who conduct financial transactions. In effect, the Council granted legitimacy to deceptive actions that abet money laundering.
The domestic law created a loophole that allowed Iran to conceal the identity of account holders. Some in the Majlis had sought to remove this loophole. The Councils didn’t want it removed. On January 19, Expediency Council head Sadeq Larijani sent a letter to the Majlis affirming the January 5 decision. The law is now final, thus making it legal to knowingly change the name of a sanctioned entity in a transaction.
This outright encourages, facilitates, and enables money laundering to help Tehran in its sanctions-busting and proliferation operations.
FATF has already given Iran several years to make the needed changes to its AML and CTF laws and to join the required international conventions dealing with AML/CTF issues. But the problem is not one of time. It is that Iran has not made a strategic decision to stop bankrolling terrorism through its financial system.
Iran not only bankrolls Hezbollah and Hamas, but has allowed al-Qaeda to operate what the State Department calls a core facilitation pipeline through Iran since at least 2009. The State Department made the same determination under the Obama administration. Iran enables al-Qaeda, which is designated by the United Nations as a terrorist organization, to move funds and fighters to Syria and South Asia.
Iran earned its place on the FATF blacklist because of its pervasive corruption, systematic money laundering, persistent support for foreign terrorist organizations, nontransparent corporate structures, and shadow companies that seek to hide their true ownership interests.
The loopholes reflect Iran’s desire to have things both ways: Iran wants access to the global financial system without safeguards required to protect that system. And, it wants to be regarded as a safe place to do business, without a cessation of supporting al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist organizations.
Iran’s desire to have things both ways was on display this week, when Germany, France, and the United Kingdom (the E3)announced the formation of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) that would facilitate trade with Iran that bypasses sanctions.
The E3 stated that the mechanism, which avoids use of the US dollar, “will function under the highest international standards with regards to anti-money laundering, combating the financing of terrorism and EU and UN sanctions compliance…” and that “the E3 expect Iran to swiftly implement all elements of its FATF action plan.” Instead of working to earn the trust of its hoped-for trading partners, Iranian leaders shot back, insisting that tying the new trade vehicle to adherence to FATF anti-money laundering standards was “humiliating” and “unacceptable.”
The regime in Tehran has sought to blame everyone and everything but itself for its financial miseries. Despite the well-meaning intention of some members to encourage Iranian compliance, FATF should not abandon its credibility by prematurely removing Iran from the blacklist, a place Tehran has earned with its persistent deception and criminal behavior.
Toby Dershowitz is Senior Vice President of Government Relations and Strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior advisor on Iran specializing in Iran’s economy and financial markets, sanctions and illicit finance. FDD is a non-partisan think tank focusing on national security issues. Follow them on @tobydersh and @SGhasseminejad