Are sanctioned Iranian banks actually sponsoring anti-Western terror?
On the Web site of the largest bank in Iran, Bank Melli (also known as the National Bank of Iran), there are no details that could interest intelligence units. After all, what is there to look for in the bank when about a third of its investments are in agriculture and mines, and who even wants to find out how a bank based on the principles of Islam, which forbids charging interest, actually operates. But yesterday, when the sanctions imposed by the European Union against the bank - which has assets of about $38 billion and some 3,300 branches in Iran and abroad - went into effect, it turned out that a great deal of information is apparently missing on the Web site.
When the EU froze the assets and activities of the bank's three European branches this week, it relied on information from the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. In October, the department published findings that constituted a basis for other sanctions imposed by Washington on Bank Melli and its U.S. subsidiary, Future Bank. According to these findings, Bank Melli transferred about $100 million to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' "Al Quds Force."
The Al Quds Force is a special unit established by Iran in the 1980s, during its war against Iraq, to train and fund activities by subversive forces in countries that Iran considered enemies. For example, members of the unit funded and trained Kurdish forces who fought against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iran, and the fighters of Ahmad Shah-Masoud who battled against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
But while in Iraq and Afghanistan the Al Quds Force operated against targets that the U.S. administration considered proper at the time, on another front, Lebanon, it established and trained Hezbollah units. Beginning in 2002, it also funded part of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad activities against Israel.
Because in recent years the Al Quds Force, like the Revolutionary Guards in general, have been marked as a terrorist organization and the U.S. has imposed sanctions against them, the next logical step was to restrict the bodies that fund them. But it is actually the American explanations, upon which the sanctions imposed this week by the EU are based, that arouse questions.
For example, the U.S. Treasury claimed that the Iranian export bank, Bank Saderat, served as a pipeline for channeling government funds to terror organizations such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. "Between 2001 and 2006 the bank transferred $50 million from the central bank in Iran to its London-based subsidiary, and via it to the branch in Beirut, in order to help Hezbollah," claimed the U.S. Treasury. "Hezbollah for its part used the bank in order to transfer money to other terror organizations, including Hamas. From 2005 there were deposits totalling millions of dollars for Hamas in Bank Saderat. Last year the bank transferred several million dollars to the organization."
Why does Iran need the services of Hezbollah in order to transfer money to Hamas, if Hamas already has a bank account in Saderat into which money can be deposited directly? There is no explanation. Is this an assumption rather than a fact?
The U.S. administration also claimed that between 2002 and 2006, Bank Melli transferred $100 million to the Al Quds Force. Does this sum include the $50 million that was transferred to Hezbollah? And how much of it went to Hamas?
It is hard to construct a clear picture from this description of how Iran funds terror organizations, particularly when the money is transferred via Hezbollah. If we are talking only about several million dollars over a period of five to six years, that is not enough to fund Hamas activity. In that case, where does the additional money come from? Fatah leaders, for example, suggest examining the system of private donations in Saudi Arabia. But nobody in the West dares to act against this oil giant.
The assistance to the Taliban is also interesting. Why did Iran change sides after years of helping the Taliban's opponents? Shi'ite Iran supported opponents of the Sunni Taliban not only on an ideological basis, but for a political reason also: It was part of Iran's efforts to increase its influence in Muslim countries as a counterweight to Saudi influence. But apparently in recent years Iran has put ideology aside in favor of politics. When the Taliban increases its strength in Afghanistan, Iran wants to be with the strong side, just as in Iraq it helps both the pro-American Kurds and the Shi'ite organizations that operate against the U.S. Army.
According to the U.S. Treasury report, Iran is helping the Taliban to purchase weapons and explosives. But apparently if we want to examine the scope of Iranian activity, we have to visit the branch of Bank Melli in the Afghan capital, Kabul. This branch, like the branches in the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Iraq and Russia, will not be affected by the EU sanctions. Hezbollah and Hamas can continue to receive their monthly allotments.
The sanctions, incidentally, were imposed at a time when the West is still awaiting Iran's official reply to the package of benefits offered by the EU about two weeks ago. These benefits include assistance for developing nuclear energy for civilian purposes, if Tehran gives up its military nuclear program. In addition, if Iran accepts the proposal, the prohibition against selling it spare parts for planes will be canceled and its right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes will be recognized.
But we should pay attention to one paragraph in the proposal, which has also been signed by the U.S. administration. It states that a solution to the issue of Iranian nuclear power will contribute to efforts to check the spread of nuclear weapons, and to realize the goal of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. It would be interesting to know whether the Foreign Ministry noticed this paragraph, which despite its convoluted wording does not conceal the willingness to place Israel's nuclear program on the agenda.
It would also be a good idea not to skip the next paragraph. For the first time, the countries that signed the proposal - including the U.S. - promise to avoid threatening or using force against the territory or political independence of any UN member nation. This is a promise not to use force against Iran - a demand that is often heard from Iran as a condition for stopping its uranium enrichment program. A nice proposal, but it is doubtful whether Iran will accept it.