Sources: US enforcement of Iran arms embargo slipped during nuclear talks

US government has pursued far fewer violations of a long-standing arms embargo against Iran in past year compared to recent years, according to court records review and 2 senior officials.

October 5, 2015 08:29
3 minute read.

Iranian military parade showcasing missiles. (photo credit: REUTERS)

WASHINGTON - Addressing concerns that a landmark nuclear deal reached this year could boost Iran's military power, the Obama administration reassured critics that it would maintain and enforce its remaining tough sanctions against the country.

Yet the US government has pursued far fewer violations of a long-standing arms embargo against Iran in the past year compared to recent years, according to a review of court records and interviews with two senior officials involved in sanctions enforcement.

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The sharp fall in new prosecutions did not reflect fewer attempts by Iran to break the embargo, the officials said. Rather, uncertainty among prosecutors and agents on how the terms of the deal would affect cases made them reluctant to commit already scarce resources with the same vigor as in previous years, the officials said.

The more relaxed enforcement raises questions over how strictly the arms embargo and other remaining sanctions will be applied in future, since the nuclear deal still needs to be implemented and Iran will likely remain sensitive to a tough sanctions regime.

In the 2014-15 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, US law enforcement officials filed fresh charges just twice against those suspected of attempting to smuggle weapons and related technology from the United States to Iran, according to court records.

Eight such cases were brought in 2013-14. By comparison, around 10 to 12 such cases were brought in each of the preceding six years.

"There's been a precipitous drop-off," said one of the senior US officials, who declined to be identified. "The facts are the facts - there's no other explanation."

The official added there was already a "reticence" in some agencies and US federal prosecutors' offices to pursue the cases because they are so tough to build and time-consuming.

"And if we're going to normalize things with Iran soon, people are asking, 'Is it worth it?'"

The nuclear deal, reached in July after two years of concerted negotiations, tasks Iran with dismantling much of its nuclear infrastructure in return for the removal of many of the international sanctions placed on it over the past five years.

The US sanctions being lifted are largely nuclear-related measures that barred other countries from dealing with Iran's banking and oil sectors.

US sanctions for Iran's alleged human rights violations and support for militant groups remain in place, as do measures barring US persons from most trade with Iran. A United Nations embargo on conventional weapons will be lifted in five years, and a UN embargo on ballistic missiles in eight.

Multiple US laws and regulations still bar the export of US goods and technology to Iran, especially anything related to defense.

Obama administration officials say they continued to aggressively enforce sanctions against Iran throughout the negotiations, are still doing so, and will strictly enforce the remaining sanctions after the deal is implemented.

"The Justice Department continues to pursue criminal prosecutions against those that seek to circumvent US sanctions involving Iran and other export controls," said Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the department, adding there were numerous ongoing cases.

A senior Commerce Department official said its Office of Export Enforcement "continues to vigorously enforce sanctions on Iran" and that Iran cases make up the bulk of its current file.

A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a Department of Homeland Security agency, did not respond to a request for comment.

Elizabeth Bourassa, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said the department had enforced sanctions at the same pace since a framework deal was announced with Iran in April as it did in the preceding year and a half.

Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) enforces a wide variety of sanctions beyond non-proliferation, including financial, terrorism, and oil measures.

"Since the start of the negotiating period, OFAC imposed sanctions on more than 100 Iran-related individuals and entities, concluded more than 20 Iran-related enforcement actions, and assessed approximately $525 million in penalties for violations of Iran-related sanctions," Bourassa said.

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