Victory for enforcement

The Standard Chartered case should stand out as a positive symbol of US regulators trying to make sure the sanctions are enforced.

August 19, 2012 12:14
3 minute read.
Standard Chartered bank.

Standard Chartered bank 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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One of the most effective tools the international community has against Iran, short of war, is the enforcement of sanctions. However, they are only as effective as the institutions that adhere to the rules.

In a case that drew shock and scorn, the New York State Department of Financial Services accused the British bank Standard Chartered of being a front for money-laundering schemes involving the Islamic Republic. Labeling it a “rogue” institution, Benjamin Lawsky, the regulatory head, claimed the bank carried out as many as 60,000 transactions designed to funnel money to Iran’s central bank.

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According to a New York Times article one of the schemes was nicknamed “project gazelle.” When an American executive warned the bank about the problem he received a dressing down. “Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians.”

Lawsky’s accusations last week sent the bank’s shares plunging 16 percent, wiping out billions in market value. However, the regulator’s decision to go public with the claims did not sit well with British regulators or with other American agencies, such as the FBI, which were also investigating the bank. But Lawsky, a protégé of New York heavyweight politician Andrew Cuomo, pressed ahead with his accusations.

On Tuesday the bank agreed to pay $340 million in penalties for its actions. The stiff penalty appears to reflect that the bank knew it faced an uphill battle in defending itself against the accusations and risked losing its ability to carry out banking operations in the US.

This is a victory for Mr. Lawsky. But is it a victory for those that want sanctions against Tehran to be strictly enforced? The banks that have been accused of involvement in transfers to Iran are often said to hide the transactions by providing only minimal or confusing details about the source and destination of wire transfers. In one model the money from oil exports is moved into a foreign currency in a third country. A foreign bank in that country transfers the money to a bank operating in the US and the details of the transfer to another foreign bank are cleaned of certain information that would link it to Iran. In this way the money is “laundered.” The banks involved make only a small percentage on the transfers, but this money and ongoing relationships with foreign banking clients add up quickly.

In a case that came to light on Wednesday, three men were charged in Germany with violating sanctions against Iran. The men shipped valves for use in a nuclear reactor to shell companies in Turkey and Azerbaijan, knowing that the components would look less suspicious if they were exported to these Iranian neighbors.

Breaking arms embargoes and circumventing sanctions is an old game. In the well-known story of Iraq’s quest to build a “supergun” in the 1990s a Canadian engineer named Gerald Bull got around sanctions by disguising the gun barrel as oil equipment.

Countries that have gotten used to operating under a siege economy find ways to survive.

Through 1986, Apartheid South Africa was able to use Britain’s opposition to sanctions to bolster its economy.

The Standard Chartered case should stand out as a positive symbol of US regulators trying to make sure the sanctions are enforced. However, there is still a lack of punishment for the individuals involved. The banking case and the German case both illustrate that Tehran is using whatever means it can to find loopholes to its predicament. It has established a well oiled and skilled regime of shell companies and financial agents in third countries to keep its economy fit and to keep bringing it material for its nuclear program. This is evidence that the diplomatic game Iran plays is primarily a game for time. It wants to drag out diplomacy with the hopes that it can continue to avoid some of the stiffest sanctions.

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