Most of Iran’s partners in such international crime have come from the Middle East region or have been predictable associates because of their similarly antagonistic relationship with the West. But now, in light of an investigation and the testimony of a whistleblower, a more unlikely partner in Iranian sanctions-busting is facing punishment, to the tune of nearly nine billion dollars.
BNP Paribas S.A., a French bank, has pled guilty to violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act, and has agreed to pay 8.9 billion dollars in penalties to the US. Over an eight year period, BNP Paribas knowingly violated US sanctions against Iran and other countries, going “to elaborate lengths to conceal prohibited transactions, cover its tracks, and deceive US authorities,” according to a statement by US Attorney General Eric Holder.
Holder also said that he hopes the punishment will act as a deterrent to other institutions that have considered taking similar steps to help Iran while sanctions against it technically remain in place. But the extent of this deterrence is doubtful in light of international overtures towards Iran in advance of the potential removal of sanctions in the event of a nuclear agreement with the P5+1, which includes both the US and France.
Some of these moves towards expanded trade with Iran are coming from France, even amidst the BNP Paribas case. And those moves are not just coming from independent French institutions, much less from rogue agents. Rather, they are poised to be supported by government activity that may further expand Iran’s ability to defy sanctions, even in the event that a nuclear agreement is not reached.
The French Senate is considering the possibility of using state-owned BanquePostaleas a channel for all transactions with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since it has no dealings with the US, BanquePostale cannot be subject to the types of punishment that have fallen on BNP Paribas.
Philippe Marini, the French Senate’s Finance Committee Chairman explained his government’s rationale for aiding and abetting Iranian sanctions evasion by suggesting that the US is positioning itself to take full advantage of the Iranian market ahead of all other countries, beginning the moment that it decides to remove sanctions. “Everyone knows that the US is the sole superpower in the world today,” Marini said, “but that is no reason for it to guarantee itself the market or to take a step ahead of all the others.”
This situation goes to show that the US may be opening a door that it cannot close. Its recent soft approach to dealings with Iran has led to considerable anticipation among international businesses that the Iranian market will open up soon after the July 20 nuclear deadline. This has led firms from many nations to begin jostling to be the first in line to open up trade relations as soon as it is legal to do so. Chances are good that some have seen fit to jump the gun and establish relationships or future agreements before the outcome is determined.
If other eager firms have taken steps similar to those taken by BNP Paribas, their efforts may help to establish a larger infrastructure for the Iranian regime’s sanctions defiance. The same effect may now be realized at a national level if the French Senate’s proposal is carried out. While these efforts may have initially been motivated by the belief that the US would inevitably drop sanctions, France and other governments may lack motive to withdraw those efforts if the US changes its mind without also exerting renewed pressure on those governments to enforce sanctions.