Iraqis linked to Iran use money-laundering scam to beat US sanctions

A vendor inspects Iranian rials at a currency exchange shop in Baghdad, Iraq August 8, 2018. (Reuters)
Updated 01 August 2019

Iraqis linked to Iran use money-laundering scam to beat US sanctions

  • They employ middlemen to buy US dollars and transfer funds out of country
  • Rate of dollar purchases surged after sanctions imposed, exchange dealers tell Arab News

 

BAGHDAD: Iraqi individuals and companies linked to Iran are smuggling cash out of the country to avoid financial sanctions imposed by the US Treasury.

Despite technically being denied access to US dollars by Iraq’s central bank, they are exploiting the bank’s daily auction of hard currency by employing middlemen to convert Iraqi dinars into dollars. The funds are then transferred out of Iraq using private exchange offices.

“In previous months, the daily release rate of the dollar at the currency auction was between $150 million and $180 million, sometimes up to $200 million. In the past few days it has reached $270 million,” the owner of a large currency exchange and financial transfer office in Baghdad told Arab News.

There is “no noticeable justification” for the sudden increase in dollar purchases, exchange operators said. Traders at Shorja Market, the largest wholesale market in Baghdad, told Arab News the surge in remittances could not be explained by any changes in the market, where there had been a shortage of hard cash since the end of last year.

Daily buying and selling remained weak, they said. One prominent banker told Arab News:

“Traders have nothing to do with this fever; 80 percent of the remittances that were made this week were cash transfers, and will be delivered by hand.”

On July 18, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed financial sanctions on groups and individuals including two commanders of pro-Iranian paramilitary groups and two former governors supported by Iran. The sanctions were imposed under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, targeting “perpetrators of serious human rights abuses and corruption,”and banned any financial dealings with those named.

In response, the Central Bank of Iraq issued a circular to all Iraqi banks ordering them to freeze the accounts of anyone targeted by sanctions, and prevent their access to funds.

There was a wave of criticism and anger from Iraqi politicians and leaders of armed factions, especially those associated with Iran, who complained of “unilateral sanctions that violate Iraqi sovereignty and target Iran and its allies in Iraq under the pretext of human-rights abuses and corruption.”

The protests were accompanied by heavy pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and the governor of the central bank to change the policy. Four days later the bank issued a new circular that limited the financial freeze to US dollars only, permitting withdrawal of Iraqi dinars. It was then that the surge in dollar purchases through middlemen began.

Bankers said depositors were withdrawing their funds in Iraqi currency "to avoid attracting the attention of the US Treasury, which monitors the movement of the dollar in Iraq.”

Iraqi security officials, members of parliament and armed faction leaders told Arab News that most politicians and commanders associated with Iran, or who enjoyed its support, were “deeply concerned” as they believed they could be targeted by US Treasury sanctions at any time. This has prompted them to withdraw their money from Iraqi banks and transfer it abroad to “minimize the damage.”

“The sanctions have deeply confused and concerned them,” a senior Iraqi national security official said. “They began to withdraw their money from Iraqi banks and settle their financial assets with the Iraqi government to reduce the damage and avoid having their assets frozen and property seized in the event of sanctions.

“Our information suggests that they transfer most of the money to private companies in Dubai, and use some of it to buy property, both inside and outside Iraq.

“Actually, this is not new. They have been laundering their money for years, but what has happened now is that the sanctions have entangled them and forced them to change how they do it.”


British MPs urge UK government to recognize Palestine

Updated 21 January 2020

British MPs urge UK government to recognize Palestine

  • Palestinian envoy welcomes cross-party call ahead of visit by Prince Charles

LONDON: A group of British MPs has called for the UK to recognize the state of Palestine ahead of a visit by Prince Charles to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

In a letter to The Times, the MPs, along with figures from think tanks and pressure groups, said the move was long overdue and would help fulfill Britain’s “promise of equal rights for peoples in two states.” 

The call comes as the heir to the British throne travels on Thursday to Israel and the occupied West Bank. 

During the visit, he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem. 

Prince Charles will also attend the World Holocaust Forum to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

The letter said since 2014, no meaningful progress has been made in the peace process, and Israel’s actions are pushing a two-state solution beyond reach.

“Illegal Israeli settlements, described by the Foreign Office as undermining peace efforts, are expanding,” the letter said.

Among the signatories are Emily Thornberry, a candidate for the Labour Party leadership, and Crispin Blunt, chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council.

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to the UK, welcomed the move but said full recognition from the British government should have happened many years ago.

“Recognition doesn’t contradict peacemaking and negotiations,” Zomlot told Arab News, referring to the main argument used by the UK against taking such a step. 

“It reinforces the vision (of a Palestinian state) and a negotiated two-state solution. It should happen now because of the threat of annexation (of Palestinian territory) and the killing of the two-state solution.”

FASTFACT

Prince Charles will also attend the World Holocaust Forum to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

Alistair Carmichael, a Liberal Democrat MP who signed the letter, told Arab News that the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government toward Palestine “makes the achievement of a two-state solution more and more remote with every week that passes.”

He said: “The UK has historic and political obligations toward Israelis and Palestinians. There’s now no longer any good reason not to recognize the state of Palestine.”

A spokesman for Labour MP Fabian Hamilton, who also signed the letter, told Arab News: “The fact that this has cross-party support shows the growing desire across Parliament for the recognition of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution.”

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said the international community needs to finally stand up for the solution that it has had on the table for decades.

Doyle, an Arab News columnist, said the letter is an “indication that many people in British politics think we should be doing this, we should be standing up for the Palestinian right to self-determination, the legal rights, at a time when the state of Israel is doing everything to stop this, to take more land from the Palestinians.”

The letter was timed to coincide with a meeting of European foreign ministers on Monday, who discussed the Middle East peace process.

The Palestinian Authority, which runs parts of the West Bank, has been increasing calls for European countries to recognize the state of Palestine as the US has shifted to a more pro-Israel stance, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.

Writing in The Guardian on Monday, Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Europe could strengthen its role in the peace process if it recognized Palestine.

“European recognition of this state is not only a European responsibility but a concrete way to move towards a just and lasting peace,” he said.

Only nine out of the 28 EU countries have so far recognized Palestine as a state, compared to 138 out of the 193 UN member states.

In 2011, the UK’s then-Foreign Minister William Hague said the British government “reserves the right” to recognize Palestine “at a time of our own choosing, and when it can best serve the cause of peace.”

In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestine’s status to that of “nonmember observer state.”