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Iran: Future Foreign Investments in Danger as U.S. Continues to Expand Its Sanctions Regime

Many sanctions were suspended under the 2015 nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but the deal left in place sanctions on terrorist activity and human rights abuses. Iranian officials have repeatedly taken issue with ongoing enforcement and have suggested that the US is violating the “spirit” of the nuclear deal by imposing sanctions based on non-nuclear pretenses.

The expectation among advocates of these sanctions is that they will continue to exert pressure on the Islamic Republic to curtail other activities that are threatening to Western interests. But the Iranians have attempted to paint a picture of Iran’s economic prospects which suggests that this pressure is proving ineffective. This is bolstered by Tehran’s claims that various allies of the US are effectively ignoring the American strategy, although numerous international reports have detailed the wariness of potential European investors, as well as their difficulty in securing financing amidst the threat of US sanctions.

Zanganeh attempted to contribute to the rosy picture of the Iranian economy on Thursday, saying of talks with prospective investors, “So far everything is going well. We hope we can sign some contracts before the end of this Iranian calendar year.” His remarks come immediately after an apparent outpouring of optimistic reports in Iranian state media regarding foreign trade, investment deals, and international meetings on the topic of economic cooperation.

But as Iran News Update previously pointed out, the content of these reports is frequently at odds with other, independent reporting on the economy of the Islamic Republic, which the World Bank recently downgraded four places in its annual ranking of the business environments in 190 nations. The mismatched tone of these different reports suggests that Iranian state media is attempting to project a false image of stability for the benefit of prospective investors.

Indeed, CNBC reported that Zanganeh himself acknowledged the need for billions of dollars in foreign investment capital. The acquisition of such capital is by no means assured, despite the Iranian regime’s public declarations. Furthermore, it is apparent that prospective foreign investments will be in even greater danger if the US continues to expand its sanctions regime, thereby making it even more difficult for the companies to do business with the Islamic Republic and not threaten their existing ties to the US and its allies.

The White House has acted on its own authority to expand sanctions several times in recent months, including by designating the entire Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a material supporter of terrorism. The White House is also generally expected to put pressure on Congress to expand sanctions in an even more dramatic fashion. Indeed, some reports conclude that it has already begun doing so, albeit in a somewhat clandestine fashion.

It was reported last week that the Justice Department of the US had begun reviewing legal cases involving Iranian defendants, with an eye toward making them public at the president’s recommendation. Examples of this publicity have apparently already emerged, notably in the form of news stories on the case against a successful Iranian hacker named Behzad Mesri who has known ties to coordinated cyberespionage and cyberterrorism efforts of the IRGC. Closely coinciding with these stories, reports gradually emerged of the supposed cooperation with federal prosecutors of Reza Zarrab, a gold trader who helped Turkey to evade sanctions on Iran.

After evidently pleading guilty in exchange for reduced sentencing, Zarrab began giving testimony on Thursday in the case against several former partners in the scheme, one of whom is in US custody while others are being tried in absentia. Most reporting on the case focus on the impact it will likely have on the Turkish government, which Zarrab says was complicit in the crime. The Financial Times, for instance, says that Zarrab’s testimony is likely to cause further deterioration in relations between the US and Turkey – tensions that had already been strained in large part because of American support for Kurdish forces that, while fighting against ISIL in Syria, were also reportedly close to separatist elements inside Turkey.

Hurriyet Daily News, meanwhile, supported this conclusion with reference to the statements that Turkish government officials made in response to the start of Zarrab’s testimony. In addition to denying the accusations of complicity by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and others, these officials accused the US of holding Zarrab hostage and of handing the prosecution and judgment of the case to persons with ties to the Muslim cleric now residing in the US whom Erdogan blames for coup attempt against his administration last year.

That coup signified marked a turning point in relations between Turkey and not just the US but also Iran. As relations with the US have deteriorated, Turkey has only grown closer to Iran, and has accordingly been cited in a number of the recent reports by Iranian state media regarding the expansion of trade ties with regional nations.

But these particular ties are not expansive enough to represent a serious enticement to Western investors, assuming they are competing with an expanding sanctions regime. What’s more, by highlighting the ties between Turkey and Iran, as well as their mutual animosity toward the US, the Zarrab case may feed into the White House’s efforts to encourage more expansive economic pressures for the Islamic Republic.

This potential outcome is even more evident when one looks beyond the mainstream reports on the Zarrab case, toward those that place greater emphasis on the role of the Islamic Republic in the scheme. Credible sources issued such a report on Thursday, specifically identifying several Iranian officials whom Zarrab claimed to have collaborated with in his sanctions-busting efforts. The defendant disclosed that in direct communication with then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the scheme came to be referred to as a “financial jihad” against the US and its allies.

The same report notes that the value of smuggled goods was approximately 87 billion euros, or more than 100 billion dollars. It also makes mention of ties that Zarrab had established with money-laundering networks in Russia, China, and the United Arab Emirates. This broader context suggests that the subsequent two days of Zarrab’s testimony may reveal more information about the global scale of Iran’s illicit financial activities.

Another report pointed to some of the information that is already known about these activities, and particularly about the primacy of the Revolutionary Guards role in carrying them out. The report primarily consisted of a profile of Mahmoud Seif, one of the IRGC-linked individuals who was added to the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list on November 20, on the basis of his role in a vast counterfeiting scheme in Yemen that may have created hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of false banknotes.

It identifies this as one chapter in a criminal career that dates back at least to sanctions-busting efforts in 2004, after which Mahmoud Seif has sometimes operated under an assumed name. This is significant because of the familiar tendency of the IRGC to use false names for both its operatives and its front companies in order to hide their activities and evade criminal enforcement. It suggests that this may undermine the effectiveness of sanctions being assertively spearheaded by the Trump administration. But defenders of the emerging US strategy would likely argue that the White House’s decision to sanction the IRGC in its entirety is specifically intended to root out the source of the country’s many familiar financial crimes.

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