The State Department Can’t Be Trusted with Iran Sanctions

The U.S. Treasury is far more willing and equipped to make sanctions truly biting.

The U.S. Congress is very close to sending President Barack Obama a bill designed to sanction Iran's energy industry -- and potentially stop Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his coterie from getting a nuclear bomb. The Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act is taking its final steps toward congressional reconciliation. If passed, the new law will hammer Iran's lucrative energy sector, making it even harder for cash-strapped Tehran to finance its illicit nuclear program.

The act as it stands is an important step. But there's one more thing Congress should do to make sure the law's provisions actually work: hand over responsibility for enforcing sanctions to the Treasury Department instead of Foggy Bottom. This is not an issue of inside-the-Beltway turf wars -- it's about effectiveness. Over the past three decades, the Treasury Department has shown that it's far more capable and willing to enforce sanctions than the State Department is -- and the sanctions in the new law are just too important to risk implementing halfway.

As it stands now, the Treasury Department mostly handles the sanctions portfolio stemming from presidential executive orders. In the case of Iran, it has placed targeted financial sanctions (freezing assets and banning transactions) on several Iranian terrorist groups, following from Executive Order 13224. It has, for example, cut off funds from the Iranian Quds Force, an elite unit within the country's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which was designated as a terrorist entity in 2007.

The broader IGRC was placed on the terrorist list the same year, but it had already been under "smart sanctions" since Executive Order 13382 of 2001. Notorious for cracking down on protesters after last June's sham election, the IRGC is also a dominant player in the Iranian energy industry. In 2006, for example, the IRGC's engineering and construction arm, "Ghorb," received more than $7 billion in energy-related contracts from the regime. And this is where the Treasury sanctions proved especially useful.

Over the last four years, the Treasury Department has sought to financially isolate Ghorb, its leadership, its affiliates, and more than four dozen Iranian entities (including seven large Iranian banks) that play a role in the regime's nuclear, terrorist, and even fiscal activities.

Then there's the behind-the-scenes work of Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey. Doggedly determined to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions, Levey has traveled the world in recent years to convince foreign financial institutions to cut ties with Iran. More than 80 financial institutions have done so. And though Levey alone cannot halt the Iranian nuclear drive, his example makes clear how useful the Treasury Department's work can be.

Contrast this with the State Department, which mostly manages the portfolio of sanctions imposed by congressional legislation. That responsibility traces back to the State Department's management of the annual list of state sponsors of terrorism, created by the 1979 Export Administration Act.

In retrospect, Congress probably should not have given the State Department this portfolio. The department's mission is maintaining and repairing relations with foreign countries, not antagonizing them by targeting foreign companies that do business with rogue regimes.

So it should not be surprising that the State Department has failed to enforce meaningful sanctions against Iran. In recent years, the department was responsible for enforcing the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 as well as its successor, the 2006 Iran Sanctions Act. The legislation requires the president to impose at least two out of seven specific sanctions on foreign companies that invest more than $20 million in a given year in Iran's energy sector. How many violators has the State Department pursued? None. Sadly, the department's apparent unwillingness to punish offenders ensured that Iran never paid the price for supporting terrorism worldwide. Nor, as we now know, did Iran's ruling mullahs pay a price for developing a nuclear program.

So, as members of the House and Senate gather to discuss the ways that Iran energy sanctions should be administered and enforced within the U.S. government, these conferees should think twice about bestowing the State Department with this important portfolio -- one that could potentially affect efforts to stop the Iranian bomb. The Treasury Department is much better equipped (and far more eager) to pursue hard-hitting, targeted sanctions against the IRGC and the front companies that play a dominant role in Tehran's energy sector.

And if Congress wanted to ensure the Treasury Department's success, it could empower the Energy Information Administration, an arm of the Energy Department, to begin publicly listing the companies doing business with Iran's energy sector. It used to do exactly that but stopped after reportedly losing a turf battle with the State Department over the matter. Renewing this flow of information will be critical to the effort to accurately identify sanctions targets under the new legislation.

In short, Congress should reward good work with more work. It should give the Treasury Department increased authority to target the Iranian energy sector and give sanctions every opportunity to stop Iran's drive to build a nuclear bomb.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


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