When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the neocons were so intoxicated by own assessment of the breadth and depth of American global power, they overlooked an outcome to the war that anyone could predict: that Iraq’s Shia majority, if provided with the power to rule, would forge close ties with Iraq’s Shia neighbor, Iran. The fact that Iraq now falls within Iran’s sphere of influence and largely outside America’s sphere of influence, has many implications. The New York Times reports on one:
When President Obama announced last month that he was barring a Baghdad bank from any dealings with the American banking system, it was a rare acknowledgment of a delicate problem facing the administration in a country that American troops just left: for months, Iraq has been helping Iran skirt economic sanctions imposed on Tehran because of its nuclear program.
The little-known bank singled out by the United States, the Elaf Islamic Bank, is only part of a network of financial institutions and oil-smuggling operations that, according to current and former American and Iraqi government officials and experts on the Iraqi banking sector, has provided Iran with a crucial flow of dollars at a time when sanctions are squeezing its economy.
The Obama administration is not eager for a public showdown with the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki over Iran just eight months after the last American troops withdrew from Baghdad.
Still, the administration has held private talks with Iraqi officials to complain about specific instances of financial and logistical ties between the countries, officials say, although they do not regard all trade between them as illegal or, as in the case of smuggling, as something completely new. In one recent instance, when American officials learned that the Iraqi government was aiding the Iranians by allowing them to use Iraqi airspace to ferry supplies to Syria, Mr. Obama called Mr. Maliki to complain. The Iranian planes flew another route.
In response to questions from The New York Times, David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, provided a written statement saying that Iran “may seek to escape the force of our financial sanctions through Iraqi financial institutions.” But he added that “we will pursue, and are actively pursuing, efforts to prevent Iran from evading U.S. or international financial sanctions, in Iraq or anywhere else.”
Some current and former American and Iraqi officials, along with banking and oil experts, say that Iraqi government officials are turning a blind eye to the large financial flows, smuggling and other trade with Iran. In some cases, they say, government officials, including some close to Mr. Maliki, are directly profiting from the activities.
“Maliki’s government is right in the middle of this,” said one former senior American intelligence official who now does business in Iraq.
In announcing that he was “cutting off” Elaf Islamic Bank, Mr. Obama said it had “facilitated transactions worth millions of dollars on behalf of Iranian banks that are subject to sanctions for their links to Iran’s illicit proliferation activities.”
But the treatment the bank has received in Baghdad since it was named by Mr. Obama suggests that the Iraqi government is not only allowing companies and individuals to circumvent the sanctions but also not enforcing penalties for noncompliance. [Continue reading…]