Diplomacy: Blocking banks before bombing
Wallace, head of United Against Nuclear Iran, praises this week’s SWIFT action but says it did not go far enough.
A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor Photo: Reuters/ Raheb Homavandi
Before you "consider bombing the hell out of a country," you should "first at least be willing to enact and measure the impact of the most robust sanctions in history."
That, at least, is the view of Mark
Wallace, the US representative for UN management and reform under the Bush
administration and now the head of a New York-based organization called United
Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a non-partisan advocacy group lobbying hard for
economic sanctions against Iran.
The sanctions-first policy is both
morally and tactically the right way to go, Wallace said in a telephone
“On a moral basis, we should be prepared, if debating a
military option, to first enact truly the most robust sanctions on Iran,” he
And from a tactical perspective, such sanctions may convince the
Iranians that all that talk about a military option being “on the table” is
Harsh economic sanctions will show the Iranians the West’s
“seriousness of purpose,” he said. In other words, why should the Iranians ever
believe the West would take military action if it is unable to even take robust
economic action? But a willingness to impose crippling sanctions will send a
message about a readiness, if necessary, to use military force.
reason, Wallace – who formed his organization in 2008 with late US ambassador
Richard Holbrooke, former CIA director Jim Woolsey and former White House Middle
East expert Dennis Ross – said the move this week by the Society for Worldwide
Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) to cut off a number of Iranian
banks out of its system was significant.
Significant, but not enough
because the move cut off some – but not all – Iranian banks out of the structure
through which the financial world conducts its business. Anyone who has ever
wired money anywhere has used the Brussels-based SWIFT system.
At the end
of January, Wallace wrote to Yawar Shah, the chairman of SWIFT’s board of
directors, and urged him to take action against Iran.
institution in Iran would be able to process funds transfers in any EU country
without access to SWIFT. It is the means of communication on which the financial
world wholly depends for certainty of transaction,” he wrote.
according to SWIFT’s own annual review, in 2010 Iran’s 19 SWIFT member banks and
25 connected institutions had sent 1.160 million messages and received 1.105
messages through the system. That is a lot of transferred
“Unfortunately, the global SWIFT system is used by Iran to finance
its nuclear weapons program, to finance terrorist activities and to provide the
financial support necessary to brutally repress its own people,” Wallace
He added that without access to SWIFT, Iran would be impeded in
financing those activities.
Impeded, but not completely shut down. One of
the problems, Wallace said, is that not all the Iranian financial institutions
were cut out of the SWIFT system and until they are, Iranian banks still in the
system will carry out transactions.
If implemented correctly, the SWIFT
measure could be a “silver bullet.” But, he said, “implemented correctly” means
that all the banks should be sanctioned.
There are currently three levels
of sanctions against Iran. The lowest level is the sanctions agreed upon by the
UN Security Council and the toughest are measures taken by the US
In between the two are the EU steps.
What that means
regarding SWIFT, Wallace said, was that a few of the banks sanctioned by the US
were not on the EU list. And since they were not on the EU list, the
Brussels-based SWIFT system did not cut them off.
SWIFT had a couple of
choices and decided to follow the more narrow EU sanctions, Wallace said, adding
that SWIFT should be compelled to go by the stricter US
Wallace said that what is needed but has yet to be
implemented is a complete banking blockade on Iran whereby “all Iranian
financial institutions must be cut off by the international banking system and
whereby communications are denied to all Iranian financial
Otherwise, he said, comparing it to a US arcade game call
Whac-a-Mole, what you have is a situation where each time you knock one bank out
of the international system, another one will just come and take its
In addition to banks in Iran still able to operate inside the
international system, Wallace said there are concerns about Lebanese banks doing
Iran’s bidding, as well as a system whereby if an Asian country purchases
Iranian oil, it could pay for it into an Iranian account outside of Iran, with
the money used to buy goods and service then brought into the country.
“We think this is a significant first step, but more needs to be done,” Wallace
said of this week’s SWIFT action.
Even Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
Netanyahu raised the SWIFT move in talks he held earlier this
month in Ottawa and Washington, and praised it as “positive” at Sunday’s cabinet
The SWIFT move, coupled with the decision by the EU to ban
Iranian oil imports starting on July 1, were the types of “crippling” sanctions
Netanyahu has been talking about, and lobbying for, over a period of months,
Netanyahu hedged his enthusiasm, however, by saying that more
still needed to be done. He has not publicly given any details of what exactly
he has in mind.
One direction in which UANI is channeling its energies is
to get multinational corporations to end their business dealings with
For instance, last week UANI called on US Congress to ensure that
the InterContinental Hotels Group end its business with the Iranian regime or
lose its lucrative contacts with the US government, including the US
The InterContinental hosted Iran;s delegation at this week;s
meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and has hosted
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York during the UN General
According to Wallace, the Iranians should be forced to do what
the delegations of poorer countries do when travelling abroad – stay at the home
of the ambassador.
Asked about the likelihood of the sanctions actually
working, Wallace – sounding like Netanyahu – said the proof is in the pudding:
we will know they work when the Iranians stop their nuclear program.
he said, there are signs that the economic isolation is extracting a price, that
the Iranian economy is “on the precipice: and its economy – as evident by the
reeling rial – was feeling the sanctions.
The problem with this scenario,
one Asian diplomat pointed out this week, is that it assumes an economic squeeze
could get the Iranians to stop. North Korea was squeezed so bad economically
that its people were starving, the source said, yet Pyongyang continued its
But, said Wallace, who in his UN role uncovered a
corruption scandal in North Korea involving the UN Development Program, there
are significant differences between the North Koreans and the
Primarily, he said, North Korea is a closed society with a very
Iran, by contrast, is more open and more business
oriented toward the West and has a 42-percent minority population. It is, he
said, susceptible to sanctions.
There are only four ways from the outside
to move a country’s policy, Wallace pointed out: through diplomacy; economic
sanctions to isolate it; special operations, such as computer viruses or “work
accidents”; and military action.
The private sector can only impact on
one those areas.
But it is an area, he said, well worth exhausting before
the bombers are called in.