WASHINGTON - According to a Saturday report by the Washington Post, the Bush administration has intensified efforts to 'choke off' the ability of Iranian banks to transfer funds to Hizbullah and Palestinian terror organizations, and subsequently, to hamper these organizations' ability to acquire weapons technology.
The US, in the past, has succeeded in barring al-Qaeda access to funds by cutting off suspect banks and firms from the international banking system. It recently began to take the same steps with regards to Iran and the initiative has gathered steam in recent weeks, even as US-led efforts to facilitate UN sanctions against Iran for its nuclear activities have slowed.
Pursuant to the war in Lebanon and the threat of Hizbullah rearmament, the Bush administration decided not to wait for UN sanctions to take effect before operating to cut off funds to Hizbullah.
The Washington Post quoted a Treasury Department source as saying that it had cut off one of Iran's largest state-owned banks from the US financial system, accusing the bank in question - Bank Saderat - of funneling $50 million to a Hizbullah-controlled firm since 2001.
The bank - which has about 3,400 branch offices across the Middle East and elsewhere - has also been used by Iran to transfer money to Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Treasury Department said.
Iranian banks are already barred from doing business directly with US banks, but US banks are permitted – in what are known as 'U-turn' transactions - to process payments involving Iran that begin and end with a non-Iranian foreign bank. The treasury department's action will end such indirect access for Bank Saderat, reported the Post.
Iran to get international cold shoulder?
The US initiative is blazing a trail that is apparently being followed by international banks, as was strikingly illustrated in the behavior of banks in Switzerland. Earlier this year the Swiss bank UBS ended its dealings with Iran, while two other banks, HSBC and Credit Suisse, sharply curtailed their business.
Stuart Levey, the Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, intends to go to Europe next week to enlist support from governments and financial institutions for severing Iran from the international financial system. Other Treasury and State Department officials are traveling across Asia and the Middle East on similar missions.
Levey called the move "a sign of the costs that Iran's leaders will impose on the Iranian people if the leadership chooses to remain on its current path of defiance…The regime will end up isolating Iran from the world community, with reputable financial institutions becoming increasingly unwilling to handle Iran's business," he continued.
On Thursday, the treasury department separately targeted two Lebanon-based financial institutions that officials said acted as Hizbullah's unofficial treasury, helping secure loans and finance business deals for the organization, among other things.
One of these, the Beit al-Mal bank, headed by Hussein al-Shami, had its assets frozen. US sources said that al-Shami acts under the supervision of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah.