As a result, ZTE has been ordered to pay 1.1 billion dollars in fines, and its executives have made statements of contrition, in which they expressed a commitment to “positive change.” But the incident is yet another example of the challenges that the US and its allies face in enforcing sanctions against the Islamic Republic, even in the current environment in which many of those sanctions have been suspended. ZTE joins a number of other companies, banks, and individuals, some of them based in the European Union, that have deliberately taken the risk of flouting the US sanctions in the interest of potential profits.
Naturally, this is also indicative of the pressure that now exists among companies in Europe and beyond to continue enforcement of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, complete with its suspension of nuclear-related economic sanctions. Some companies that had previously been exploring collaborative agreements in Iran’s energy sector are now holding back on the pursuit of those plans until it becomes clear whether the new presidential administration in the US will continue to authorize the suspensions.
There has been a great deal of speculation about what steps President Donald Trump might take to undermine or counteract the JCPOA, which he repeatedly described as the worst deal ever negotiated while campaigning for the office. Last week, Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson held his first talks with officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with enforcing the deal. Tillerson had previously called for a full review of the agreement with an eye toward strengthening its enforcement, but neither his office nor the IAEA revealed details of what was discussed during the meeting.
Among critics of the JCPOA and the previous administration’s handling of Iran policy, one major concern is the lack of restrictions on how foreign capital can be used, or on which Iranian businesses can be partners to Western investors. Some companies remain subject to sanctions over human rights violations and support for terrorism, and some have been newly sanctioned on the basis of their connection to the Iranian ballistic missile program. But opponents of the Iranian regime, among them the National Council of Resistance of Iran, insist that a wide range of non-sanctioned companies stand ready to use Western capital in support of familiar, nefarious Iranian activities.
The NCRI’s Washington, DC office hosted a panel discussion on Wednesday morning to discuss the ongoing development of a “financial empire” controlled by the hardline paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The NCRI had previously held press conferences to reveal the IRGC’s control over 45 percent of all Iranian docks and the ongoing expansion of its terrorist training program, which is scattered across a number of bases and camps in the Islamic Republic.
Fox News also reported upon the revelations of IRGC maritime activities, noting that such activities have been estimated to earn the IRGC 12 billion dollars annually. This is in addition to the earnings from large front companies that are wholly owned and operated by the IRGC, as well as from other companies in which the IRGC, its members and affiliates are minority stakeholders. Furthermore, the Iranian government has continually raised the portion of the national budget that is allocated to the IRGC. It now comprises nearly two-thirds of the total budget for the Iranian armed forces.
All told, the NCRI estimates that the Revolutionary Guards control more than half of the Iranian GDP, and Wednesday’s panel discussion served to emphasize that the paramilitary’s financial and political power was still growing, with regime authorities specifically granting it preferential treatment including low-interest loans and freedom from oversight at IRGC-controlled docks. In this context, there is considerable concern that the Iran nuclear deal will accelerate the IRGC’s acquisition of wealth, unless international measures are taken to contain this trend.
President Trump has apparently taken tentative steps in this direction, having initiated a State Department review process last month that could lead to the IRGC being formally designated as a foreign terrorist organization. While the organization’s role in the support of international terrorism has long been established, Western policy has tended to compartmentalize its dealings with the IRGC, imposing only limited sanctions on the foreign special operations wing known as the Quds Force and leaving the IRGC as a whole relatively untouched.
The February NCRI press conference detailing IRGC terrorist training explicitly criticized this as a false distinction, noting that it is the IRGC as a whole that has a legal mandate from the regime to defend the Islamic revolution at home and to export it abroad. If President Trump’s plans for FTO designation go forward, it would presumably bring an end to this distinction and subject the IRGC to punishing sanctions almost automatically. This is very much in line with what other opponents of the regime have been recommending, as evidenced by the NCRI’s call for an economic “blacklist” of the IRGC and all companies supporting it.
It is clear from violations by ZTE and other international companies that large-scale sanctions are not enough to prevent all such companies from taking risks that involve the potential indirect support of Iran-backed terrorism. But it is also clear from the post-JCPOA rush to invest in Iran that the risk of indirect financing is greater when dealings with IRGC-linked firms are explicitly made legal. If President Trump and his international allies succeed in sanctioning the IRGC as a whole, they may succeed in counteracting some of the perceived negative side-effects of the nuclear deal, but without directly undermining that deal.