Sanctions-dodging Iran oil exec could be back on US financial blacklist

Ahmad Ghalebani was the chief executive of the sanctioned National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) until he stepped down last month. (Tasnim/File Photo)
Ahmad Ghalebani was the chief executive of the sanctioned National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) until he stepped down last month. (Tasnim/File Photo)
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Updated 12 July 2021

Sanctions-dodging Iran oil exec could be back on US financial blacklist

Ahmad Ghalebani was the chief executive of the sanctioned National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) until he stepped down last month. (Tasnim/File Photo)
  • Ahmad Ghalebani was head of the National Iranian Oil Company before stepping down in June
  • His positions in other enterprises working closely with Tehran could violate US sanctions

LONDON: A senior Iranian oil executive removed from US financial blacklists last month now holds senior positions in two Iranian energy firms linked to the Iranian regime, in what experts say is a potential violation of US sanctions.

Ahmad Ghalebani was the chief executive of the sanctioned National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) until he stepped down last month, a resignation that saw his name removed from American financial blacklists due to a “verifiable change in behavior.” 

The NIOC was sanctioned by the US government for allegedly providing funding for the Islamic Republic’s weapon’s program.

Ghalebani’s removal from the sanctions list meant that financial blocks placed on his US-held assets were removed and that he was provided unfettered access to US and other foreign markets.

But now Ghalebani has been found to have roles at two other companies with direct links to the Iranian regime-backed energy firms.

Ghalebani serves as an adviser to the chief executive of Iranian oil-services firm Global Petro Tech Kish, according to a representative of the company and, in late May, was chosen as chairman of petrochemical firm AzarAb Industries, according to a filing with the Iranian stock exchange.

Iran has long faced sanctions for its perceived pursuit of nuclear weapons, as well as destabilizing behavior across the Middle East and support for global terrorism.

US sanctions place strict controls on foreign businesses and governments seeking to do business with the government of Iran and the Iranian energy sector as a whole. They also target individuals within the regime, restricting their financial freedom and access to the global economy.

Washington and Tehran are currently in the middle of talks to ease the sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs to the country’s nascent nuclear weapons program, but Biden administration officials denied that Ghalebani’s removal from the blacklist was linked to these talks.

US officials said that it was part of a normal, law-based process after he filed a petition for removal.

The Treasury’s sanctions unit had “determined, through a rigorous, evidence-based, administrative reconsideration process, that the individuals are no longer in these positions within government of Iran entities,” a spokesperson said. 

But the department “continues to monitor for any changes in circumstances” that led to their delisting, she added.

Jason Brodsky, senior Middle East analyst at London-based Iran International TV, said that Ghalebani’s continuing activities appear to be violating sanctions, given the expansive reach of the powers authorizing punitive action against Iran.

Besides working with a company that signed a major drilling contract with NIOC last year, Brodsky said, Ghalebani is also affiliated with AzarAb Industries, which “means he is still connected to a regime-affiliated company that was sanctioned by the EU for providing manufacturing support to Iran’s nuclear program.”

His previous roles included senior positions at Azarb Industries and Global Petro Tech Kish — neither of which are on US sanctions lists, despite their connections to regime entities.

Global Petro Tech Kish works closely with sanctioned energy entities, including the NIOC, and AzarAb is owned in part by a state-owned and US-sanctioned agricultural bank.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow specializing in Iran and arms control at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said: “It’s unlikely that Iranian oil executives and sanction-busters have suddenly ditched their skill set.”

The US treasury department, which manages the implementation of US sanctions, said that it was authorized to impose sanctions against any person or entity found “to have provided material support for, or goods or services in support of the National Iranian Oil Company.”