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Turkey’s Illegal Gold Trade with Iran

In our Iconoclast post on Harold Rhode’s speculations regarding a possible alliance of convenience between the Gulenists and Secularists that might topple Premier Erdogan, he drew attention to the illicit gold trading conducted by the state-owned Halkbank.  Suleyman  Aslan, the head of Halkbank at the center of the illicit  gold trading  had been prominent among the 52  arrested in the swirl of events in the current Turkish corruption  scandal.  Jonathan Schanzer and  Mark Dubowitz of the Washington, DC-based Foundation for Defense of Democracy published an article in Foreign Policy Magazine  (FPM) covering  research into the “gas for gold ” scheme that the Obama Administration failed to stop, “Iran’s Turkish Gold Rush”.

Messrs. Schanzer and Dubowitz drew attention to the two principals at the center of the gas for gold trade between Turkey and Iran:

The drama surrounding two personalities are particularly eye-popping: Police reportedly discovered shoe boxes containing $4.5 million in the home of Suleyman Aslan, the CEO of state-owned Halkbank, and also arrested Reza Zarrab, an [Azeri] Iranian businessman who primarily deals in the gold trade, and who allegedly oversaw deals worth almost $10 billion last year alone.

The FPM article on the Turkey Iran  ‘gas for gold” trade  described  how it worked:

The Turks exported some $13 billion of gold to Tehran directly, or through the UAE, between March 2012 and July 2013. In return, the Turks received Iranian natural gas and oil. But because sanctions prevented Iran from getting paid in dollars or euros, the Turks allowed Tehran to buy gold with their Turkish lira — and that gold found its way back to Iranian coffers.

Earlier this year in May 2013 the FDD teamed with Roubini Global Economics and conducted an investigation into the dynamics of the gold trade and its significant alleviation of currency restrictions under sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. The FDD report, “Iran’s Golden Loophole” indicated the scope and impact of the gas for gold scheme:

These foreign exchange reserves are Iran’s principal hedge against a severe balance of payments crisis, and help Iran withstand international pressure over its nuclear program. Since July 30, 2012, when the Obama administration issued an executive order prohibiting gold exports to the government of Iran, Iran has received over $6 billion in payment in gold for its energy exports—the value of the lack of enforcement of the golden loophole—mainly as gold payments to the Central Bank of Iran. These gold exports to the Central Bank of Iran already are a sanctionable activity under existing U.S. law; gold exports to any entity in Iran will become sanction able as of July 1, 2013. This report estimates that, unless gold sanctions are enforced, Iran could receive up to $20 billion a year, representing around thirty percent of Iran’s projected 2013 energy exports.

Schanzer and Dubowitz questioned why Turkey, a NATO ally of the US, had engaged in the Gold trade with Iran, and why the Obama Administration hadn’t closed it:

The Turks — NATO allies who have assured Washington that they oppose Iran’s military-nuclear program — brazenly conducted these massive gold transactions even after the Obama administration tightened sanctions on Iran’s precious metals trade in July 2012.

Turkey, however, chose to exploit a loophole that technically permitted the transfer of billions of dollars of gold to so-called “private” entities in Iran. Iranian Ambassador to Turkey Ali Reza Bikdeli recently praised Halkbank for its “smart management decisions in recent years [that] have played an important role in Iranian-Turkish relations.” Halkbank insists that its role in these transactions was entirely legal.

The U.S. Congress and President Obama closed this “golden loophole” in January 2013. At the time, the Obama administration could have taken action against state-owned Halkbank, which processed these sanctions-busting transactions, using the sanctions already in place to cut the bank off from the U.S. financial system. Instead, the administration lobbied to make sure the legislation that closed this loophole did not take effect for six months — effectively ensuring that the gold transactions continued apace until July 1. That helped Iran accrue billions of dollars more in gold, further undermining the sanctions regime.

In defending its decision not to enforce its own sanctions, the Obama administration insisted that Turkey only transferred gold to private Iranian citizens. The administration argued that, as a result, this wasn’t an explicit violation of its executive order.

Perhaps as the authors point out, the Administration had other concerns  not disturbing the relations with the Erdogan regime regarding  the latter’s role in the regional  alliance contending with the 33 month Syrian civil war . There was Turkey’s support for rebel factions and the safe haven it provided the massive stream of 1.5 million refugees.  However could  it have been  the  nearly $6 billion “they estimate the golden loophole” could have provided  Iran in the way of an ”olive branch” used during the secret negotiations  by the Obama Administration that led up to the November 24, 2013 P5+1  interim agreement?

According to a Zaman Today article, cited by the authors,  the illicit “gas for gold” trade between Iran could be vastly more  significant: “The  suspicious transactions between Iran and Turkey could exceed $119 billion — nine times the total of gas-for-gold transactions reported. “

There are suspicions about whether the “gas for gold” scheme enabled Iran to pay for machinery used in the production a new class of centrifuges announced by AEOI head Ali Akbar Salehi this week. Then there is the question of payments for Russian contractors and personnel engaged in projects like the Arak heavy water reactor that would enable Iran to produce plutonium.  And lest we also not forget  could have been used  to fund payments in the  waivers granted  by the US  for the Iranian  oil trade with China and others.  Clearly, the current corruption probe in Turkey may lift the veil on a vast underworld of transactions with Turkey  that may have enabled Iran to continue, if not accelerate, achievement of their nuclear weapons program objective: nuclear hegemony destabilizing the Middle East and the World.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.

The Military Option may be the Only Way to Stop Iran’s Nuclear Program

The other night I attended a Shiva (Memorial Service) for a revered member of the local Jewish community here in Pensacola. During the collation that followed I was approached by two acquaintances, and asked for my views on the US engagement with Iran.  There was a lunch and learn session sponsored by the local Federation the following day on the Iran P5+1 interim agreement to halt its nuclear program. In response to this question from my acquaintances, I said I believed in the reverse of the Reagan doctrine, i.e., “verify then trust’”. I cautioned one of my acquaintances how can you trust a country whose Islamic extremist rulers never miss an opportunity to spout propaganda to wipe the Zionist enterprise off the map of the world.

What I also expressed is that the US and the West has been consistently deceived about the Iranian  nuclear program and intentions. Witness the infamous National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 that noted Iran’s temporary stoppage of their nuclear program when the US and Coalition forces invaded Iraq in 2003. Or the trumpeting by current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that he fooled the West in the period from 2003 to 2005 when he was the Islamic Regime’s  chief nuclear  negotiator.  “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”.  Perhaps multiple times given what has been revealed in the wake of the roll back in sanctions, part and parcel of the P5+1 agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.

US and EU Sanctions may have worked to bring Iran to the table given estimates that the Iranian economy suffered a 1% drop in GDP, and nearly a halving of its oil revenues.  While the Obama Administration said that sanctions relief for Iran was in the neighborhood of $6 to 7 Billion, according to independent estimates by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) it may exceed $20 billion.  Let’s take one example, the lifting of auto trading sanctions.  Mark Dubowitz and Dr. Jonathan Schanzer of FDD in an Iran Sanctions Analysis noted:

The White House fact sheet on the JPA notes that this relief, plus the easing of “certain sanctions” on gold, other precious metals and petrochemicals, will provide Tehran with “approximately $1.5 billion in revenue.” Of those funds, the White House projects that easing auto industry sanctions will yield only $500 million over the six-month interim period.

Note what Dubowitz and Schanzer reported happened after the lifting of the auto trade sanctions:

Shortly after the signing of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran held an international automotive conference attended by representatives from German, Indian, Japanese and South Korean auto companies. France’s PSA Peugeot Citroen and Renault SA have expressed optimism that they will be able to reap significant benefits in the coming months. A spokeswoman for Renault recently said, “Renault is satisfied by the signing of this accord… If the sanctions are lifted, our activity which is currently slowed could return to its normal course.” For Renault, this “normal course” could mean the sale of approximately 100,000 vehicles in Iran, while for Peugeot it could mean more than 450,000 vehicles.

The bottom line FDD estimate of auto trading relief in the six month time frame of the P5+1 is:

Even if Iran’s auto sector contributed only ten percent of the sector’s previous $50 billion annual contribution in GDP to Iran’s overall economy, that would be worth $2.5 billion in additional economic activity over the next six months not included in the White House’s calculations.

By helping to revive the auto industry, the most important economic sector after energy, the Obama administration may end up providing far greater economic benefits to the Iranian government, and to the IRGC, than previously believed.

Yesterday, the National Journal (NJ) drew attention to a new push for strengthened sanctions by US Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman, Robert Menendez (D-NJ), “Iran Sanctions Bill is Coming”. This despite Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and  Banking Chairman Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) acceding to White House and Secretary of State Kerry requests  to a ‘pause’ in new sanctions  legislation  until we see what eventuates in the P5+1 six month interim discussions with Iran.  The NJ noted:

Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois told reporters on Tuesday that he’s optimistic an Iran sanctions bill will come out soon and that members involved can push it forward.

Kirk said that the timing of a bill rollout and any consideration in the Senate will be up to his top Democratic partner on sanctions, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and of course Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“The timing will be up to Harry and Bob,” he said. “It’s coming up.”

[…]

Kirk sought to debunk perceptions that intense Obama administration lobbying has had a chilling effect on interested members, particularly Democrats.

Morton Klein and Dr. Daniel Mandel of The Zionist Organization of America in an Algemeiner op ed argued  in the opposite direction  that the P5+1  deal  and  a restart with strengthening of sanctions will simply afford time for Iran to reach nuclear breakout, “With Geneva, Military Force Only Remaining Option to Stop Iranian Nukes”.

Their principal argument was:

The Geneva interim agreement permits Iran to retain intact all the essential elements of its nuclear weapons program.

Klein and Mandel cite Emeritus Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton Bernard Lewis who said, “MAD, mutual assured destruction … will not work with a religious fanatic. For him, mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement.”

They concluded:

It will be extremely hard now for President Obama to credibly threaten military action: if he failed to honor his red line and take military action when Syria actually murdered thousands with chemical weapons. Iran is unlikely to take seriously any red line he might lay down now on building nuclear weapons. Yet he should do so without delay. But even if he does, there is now probably no way Iran can be prevented from going nuclear, except through military action.

Even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during a recent meeting in the Gulf Emirates indicated that diplomacy alone would not bring Iran to heel, without the equivalent of a steel fist in a velvet glove approach.

The realities of how rapier like military action can work against rogue nuclear powers is reflected in a Wall Street Journal Letter to the editor  today from the writer,  Bill Bloomfield of Manhattan Beach California,  “What’s Worked for Limiting Nukes?”:

What worked? Limited military action, in the case of Syria and Iraq. While both countries are still a hotbed of violence and political strife, fortunately they don’t have nuclear weapons to make matters much worse. Their reactors were destroyed by Israel. In the case of Ukraine, economic strangulation worked. The arms race bankrupted the Soviet Union, leading to its breakup. The newly independent Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, all former Soviet republics, gave up their nuclear weapons.

What didn’t work? Threats of economic retaliation, in the cases of India and Pakistan, and negotiation, in the case of North Korea. In 1994, the Clinton administration traded aid for a North Korean promise to give up its nuclear activity—a promise it did not keep. If history is our guide, it will take more than diplomacy to keep Iran free of nuclear weapons.

I hope this answers my acquaintances in Pensacola and across America asking why military force coupled with improved sanctions may be the only option that brings the Islamofanatics in Tehran to heel.  Israel demonstrated that in both Iraq (Operation Opera 1981) and Syria (Operation Orchard 2007). Despite initial criticism, the US subsequently showed begrudging respect. That is not lost on the worried Saudis and the Gulf Emirates, critical of US policies in the roiling Middle East.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.