US Administration Has Not Been Strictly Enforcing Arms Embargoes on Iran for Two Years

Critics of the Iran deal have long voiced concerns that the arms sanctions under the deal may not be enforceable.  Robert Satloff raised questions about the degree to which sanctions would be available in the event of violations. Senators Menendez and Corker had questioned administration officials along the same line, receiving little by way of answer.  In August, Secretary of State John F. Kerry finally admitted that so-called “snap-back” sanctions would not be tied to arms embargo violations.  Meanwhile, the State Department made a concession to Iran that would dissolve the international body monitoring whether or not Iran was violating the arms embargoes.

This week it became clear that the State Department of the United States has been pressuring other parts of the American executive branch not to enforce the laws on Iran for the last two years.  A Reuters report found that prosecutions for violations of sanctions has been way down since the administration began negotiating with Iran, long before the final concession this summer to allow the arms embargoes to expire.

In the 2014-15 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, U.S. law enforcement officials filed fresh charges just twice against those suspected of attempting to smuggle weapons and related technology from the United States to Iran, according to court records.
Eight such cases were brought in 2013-14. By comparison, around 10 to 12 such cases were brought in each of the preceding six years….  Some prosecutors and agents were wary of investing years of time and money in cases that might suddenly become moot, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “No one distributed a memo saying, ‘Don’t work these cases’ – no one is that stupid,” the official said. “But with this deal coming, everything was thrown up in the air, everyone was looking for guidance.”

Though the one source disputed that a memo had gone around, another source provided an example of just such a memo.

There are also indications that this summer, as negotiations with Iran reached a critical point, Obama administration officials were concerned with how sanctions enforcement could affect the talks.  In a June 2015 email seen by Reuters, a Treasury official contacted an official from New York’s Department of Financial Services expressing alarm about an Iran-related investigation.  “Any actions that are taken in connection with sanctions violations pertaining to Iran may have serious impacts on the ongoing negotiations and U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives,” wrote the official, whose name was redacted in the email.

It is unlikely that the United States government under President Obama will move aggressively to enforce the arms embargoes now, given that such renewed enforcement could wreck a deal that the President regards as his signature foreign policy accomplishment.  Nor will it be likely that the international community will do so, as the State Department is now agreeing to the dissolution of the international body monitoring Iranian compliance with arms embargoes.

Michael Singh, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute think tank and a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the White House, says that Iran’s policy of shipping arms to Hezbollah, Hamas and others means that these concessions on arms — which the US administration views as a minor concession in order to line up the nuclear deal — are greatly alarming to Iran’s neighbors.  “In the region, the lifting of an arms and missile embargo is seen as more serious than the nuclear issue.”

Meanwhile, this week Iran displayed what it describes as a new type of supercavitating torpedo.  In fact, it appears to be identical to a Russian model that was demonstrated for the Iranian military by Russian sailors some years ago.  How Iran developed an apparently identical model in the face of international embargoes against the transfer of weapons technology to Iran is not clear, though given the recent trip by Qassem Suleimani to Moscow in violation of an international travel ban to jointly plan Iranian/Russian operations in Syria, it seems likely that here also Russia has been complicit in helping Iran dodge international obligations.