The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions on the Governor and a senior official of the Central Bank of Iran, an Iraq-based bank and its chairman, and a key Hizballah official, all of whom have moved millions of dollars on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to Hizballah.

They were designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs) pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13224, which targets terrorists and those providing support to terrorists or acts of terrorism.

“Iran’s Central Bank Governor covertly funneled millions of dollars on behalf of the IRGC-QF through Iraq-based al-Bilad Islamic Bank to enrich and support the violent and radical agenda of Hizballah.  It is appalling, but not surprising, that Iran’s senior-most banking official would conspire with the IRGC-QF to facilitate funding of terror groups like Hizballah, and it undermines any credibility he could claim in protecting the integrity of the institution as a central bank governor,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin.

“The United States will not permit Iran’s increasingly brazen abuse of the international financial system.  The global community must remain vigilant against Iran’s deceptive efforts to provide financial support to its terrorist proxies.”

Today’s action cuts off Iran’s use of a critical banking network and follows last Thursday’s disruption of an IRGC-QF-associated currency exchange network procuring millions of dollars through the UAE.  Both actions seek to stifle Iran’s ability to abuse the U.S. and regional financial systems.  These actions continue the aggressive campaign against the IRGC and its proxies that the Treasury Department has led under this Administration.

These actions build upon President Trump’s May 8 decision to cease the United States’ participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and begin reimposing U.S. sanctions that had been lifted under the JCPOA, including against the Central Bank of Iran.

The IRGC-QF was designated pursuant to E.O. 13224 on October 25, 2007.  The IRGC-QF’s parent organization, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) itself was also designated on October 13, 2017 pursuant to E.O. 13224 for its support to the IRGC-QF, and consistent with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

Hizballah was designated by the Department of State as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in October 1997 and as an SDGT pursuant to E.O. 13224 in October 2001.  It was listed in January 1995 in the Annex to E.O. 12947, which targets terrorists who threaten to disrupt the Middle East peace process, and also designated in August 2012 pursuant to E.O. 13582, which targets the Government of Syria and its supporters.

Iran’s Central Bank Governor and a Senior Staff Officer

OFAC is designating Valiollah Seif, Iran’s Central Bank Governor, for assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to or in support of, the IRGC-QF.  Seif has conspired with the IRGC-QF to move millions of dollars through the international financial system in a variety of foreign currencies to allow the IRGC­QF to fund its activities abroad.  Seif has also supported the transfer of IRGC-QF-associated funds to al-Bilad Islamic Bank, an Iraq-based bank which is also being designated today.

OFAC also is designating Ali Tarzali, the assistant director of the International Department at the Central Bank of Iran, for assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to or in support of, the IRGC-QF.  Tarzali has worked with Hizballah and proposed that the terrorist group send funds through Iraq-based al-Bilad Islamic Bank.

As a result of today’s actions, Veifollah Seif and Ali Tarzali are subject to secondary sanctions pursuant to the Iranian Financial Sanctions Regulations (IFSR), which implement, among other authorities, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA).  Pursuant to the IFSR, OFAC can prohibit or impose strict conditions on the opening or maintaining in the United States of a correspondent account or a payable-through account by a foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for designated agents or affiliates of the IRGC or persons designated pursuant to E.O. 13224 in connection with Iran’s support for international terrorism or E.O. 13382 in connection with Iran’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

Today’s designations of Valiollah Seif, Iran’s Central Bank Governor, and Ali Tarzali, assistant director of the International Department at the Central Bank of Iran, do not extend to the Central Bank of Iran.  However, due to President Trump’s May 8, 2018 decision to cease the United States’ participation in the JCPOA, as of August 7, 2018, the United States Government will re-impose sanctions that extend to certain transactions with the Central Bank of Iran, including sanctions on the purchase or acquisition of U.S. dollars banknotes by the Government of Iran.  Furthermore, on November 5, 2018, additional sanctions will be re-imposed on persons knowingly engaging in certain significant transactions with the Central Bank of Iran.

Al-Bilad Islamic Bank and Its Chairman and Chief Executive

OFAC is designating Aras Habib, the Chairman and Chief Executive of Al-Bilad Islamic Bank, for assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to or in support of, the IRGC-QF.  Aras Habib enabled the IRGC-QF’s exploitation of Iraq’s banking sector to move funds from Tehran to Hizballah, jeopardizing the integrity of the Iraqi financial system.  Habib, who has a history of serving as a conduit for financial disbursements from the IRGC-QF to Iranian-backed Iraqi groups, has also helped provide IRGC-QF financial support to Lebanese Hizballah.  Al-Bilad Islamic Bank is being designated for being owned or controlled by Aras Habib.

As a result of today’s actions, Aras Habib and Al-Bilad Bank are subject to secondary sanctions pursuant to the IFSR, which implement, among other authorities, CISADA.  Pursuant to the IFSR, OFAC can prohibit or impose strict conditions on the opening or maintaining in the United States of a correspondent account or a payable-through account by a foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for designated agents or affiliates of the IRGC or persons designated pursuant to E.O. 13224 in connection with Iran’s support for international terrorism or E.O. 13382 in connection with Iran’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

Hizballah Official Working with IRGC-QF

OFAC is designating Muhammad Qasir (Qasir) for acting for or on behalf of Hizballah.  Qasir acted as a critical conduit for financial disbursements from the IRGC-QF to Hizballah.  Qasir has worked with the IRGC-QF to transfer funds.

Qasir is subject to secondary sanctions pursuant to the Hizballah Financial Sanctions Regulations, which implements the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015.  Pursuant to this authority, OFAC can prohibit or impose strict conditions on the opening or maintaining in the United States of a correspondent account or a payable-through account by a foreign financial institution that knowingly facilitates a significant transaction for Hizballah, or a person acting on behalf of or at the direction of, or owned or controlled by, Hizballah.

Identifying information on the individuals and entities designated today.

(Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury)

By Ali Mamouri for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Iranian Interference in Iraqi Election stirs Anger among Iraqis

Ali Akbar Velayati (pictured), Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top adviser on international affairs, paid an official visit to Iraq from Feb. 15-18. He made statements on issues related to Iraq’s internal affairs, including the upcoming elections, which sparked controversy in the Iraqi political scene.

“We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” Velayati said during a speech Feb. 17 at the Founding Conference of the Iraqi Assembly of Islamic Unity in Baghdad.

It is clear that Velayati was referring to the electoral alliance between the Sadrist movement, the civil movement and the Iraqi Communist Party in the upcoming elections. Since the last elections in 2014, the leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, has been adopting a stance independent of Iran.

His followers have repeatedly shouted slogans against Iran and its regional symbols such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

Raed Fahmi, the secretary of the Central Committee of the Iraqi Communist Party, running in the elections with the Sairoun coalition allied with the Sadrist movement, saw Velayati’s statement as an intervention in Iraqi affairs and against the Iraqi Constitution.

Velayati’s statement stirred the ire of other civil entities, too. Faeq al-Sheikh Ali, a member of parliament with the civil movement, said in a Facebook post Feb. 17 that it expresses contempt for and disregard of the Iraqis. “The civil movement, liberals, communists, nationalists, democrats and all the honorable people of Iraq will not allow Ali Akbar Velayati and other Iranians to interfere in Iraqi affairs,” he wrote.

In turn, the Sunni currents were also disturbed by the statements of Velayati. Parliamentarian Abdul Karim Abtan, a prominent leader with the Iraqi National Movement, said in a TV interview, “We do not work for Velayati or any other person. … We are Iraqis. Our national project is an Iraqi project. Even if Velayati has power over one or two Iraqis, this power will not last. We will not allow anyone to have influence at the expense of the Iraqis and to intervene in Iraqi affairs.”

In addition to his official meetings with President Fuad Masum and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Velayati met with Shiite leaders close to Iran, such as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, head of the Wisdom Movement Ammar al-Hakim, head of the Badr Organization Hadi al-Amiri and Sheikh Humam Hamoudi, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

The choice of the figures Velayati met with indicates that Iran is apprehensive about the state of political disintegration within Iraq’s Shiite community, which could have serious post-elections repercussions that would result in the formation of an Iraqi government that is more distant and independent from Iran.

An official in the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, Haidar Nuri Sadeq al-Mulla, told Al-Monitor, “Iran’s tools in Iraq can no longer play the Iraqi sectarian card since the Iraqi people have become aware of such maneuvers. Therefore, Iran is trying to mobilize the Iraqi street from abroad so that the elections lead to results in favor of the blocs that still support its agenda.”

Mulla pointed to other similar statements by Rahim Bor Azghadi, a member of the Iranian Supreme Council for the Cultural Revolution. Azghadi had said, “We are intervening in the countries in the region that are close to the United States in order to bring down the ruling regimes in those countries and to be able to control them. There are five countries that are no longer controlled by Washington and currently under the control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”

Mulla called upon the Iraqi Foreign Ministry to take a clear stance on Iran’s interference in Iraq’s affairs, saying, “Iraq will not be part of the sectarian axis policy that Iran seeks to create in the region.”

“Iraq is not subject to the domination or control of any foreign country,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Mahjoub said Feb. 22 in response to Azghadi’s statements that Iran controls five countries in the region, including Iraq, and that it was Iran (via its agents) that executed Saddam Hussein.

As usual, Velayati failed to meet with top Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani and other religious authorities during his trip to Najaf, because of the policy of the city’s religious figures not to receive Iranians who make inflammatory statements about Iraqi domestic affairs.

Lebanese Shiite activist Mustafa Fahs said that Velayati, in a statement at the Baghdad conference, called Khamenei “the leader of the Islamic nation,” without any mention of Sistani despite the latter’s major role in the stability of Iraq. Fahs said this is evidence of Iran’s resentment of Sistani.

Velayati also called on the Popular Mobilization Units to stand tall in the face of the American forces in Iraq. “Americans are in the process of creating a NATO base in Iraq with the help of some Islamic countries to prevent unity among Muslims,” Velayati said in his speech. He said Iran will not allow the American plan to see the light; he said the plan aims to block land passage between Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.

During his encounter with Maliki, Velayati said US troops should not be present east of the Euphrates. He added, “The resistance front should not allow NATO to set up a base in western Asia.”

Recently, NATO agreed to carry on with and expand its mission in Iraq to train Iraqi security forces, upon the request of the United States.

Pro-Iran Shiite militias promptly responded. The secretary-general of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, said Feb. 21 that his movement is making tremendous efforts “to clean up Iraqi soil of any US presence and terrorist sleeper cells; we have warned against their being under US protection under different names and descriptions.”

Parliamentarian Abdul Bari Zebari, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, criticized Velayati’s remarks, saying, “Any remarks that do not come following coordination with the Iraqi government could influence Iraqi public opinion and have negative repercussions — particularly as the election approaches.”

Iran will continue to pressure its proxies in Iraq to set up a strong political alliance against their rivals in order to make sure they win a political majority that would enable them to form a government following the election.

(Picture Credit: Tasnim, under Creative Commons licence)

By Fazel Hawramy for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News. 

Around 8 p.m. on Oct. 15, an Iranian general from the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) accompanied by Iraqi Commanders Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Hadi al-Ameri sat down with the Kurdish commanders in Kirkuk.

The IRGC commander, known only by his surname, Eqbalpour, who works closely with Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani (pictured), told the Kurds to give up the city peacefully. “If you resist, we will crush you and you will lose everything,” the general warned the peshmerga commanders, a source with intimate knowledge of the meeting told Al-Monitor.

The Kurdish leadership had turned down repeated requests by Soleimani to cancel the Sept. 25 independence referendum, to his indignation. The peshmerga commanders who had fought Saddam Hussein’s army alongside Soleimani and other IRGC commanders in the 1980s knew that the Quds Force commander would take his revenge. After consulting with the top Kurdish leadership, the peshmerga commanders told Eqbalpour that they would not give up Kirkuk.

The Iranian commander took out a map of the area and spread it out in front of his Kurdish counterparts. “This is our military plan. We will hit you tonight from three points — here, here and here,” the Quds Force officer stated, and then left the meeting with his entourage.

Not far from the main Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) building in Kirkuk, where the meeting took place, a group of American military advisers sat at the sprawling K1 air base. The soldiers would keep their silence as Soleimani and the Iraqis orchestrated the attacks on Kirkuk. One Kurdish official even suggested that there must have been an international agreement to launch such a coordinated strike. The Kurds were in for a big surprise.

By Hamdi Malik for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News. 

As talk of an independence referendum for Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) grows, Iran’s role is becoming more visible, especially that of Qasem Soleimani (pictured), the powerful commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. But it appears that this role is retreating in the face of Kurdish ambitions for more independence.

Kurdish media outlets reported April 10 that Soleimani had met senior leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Sulaimaniyah. Rudaw, a media organization aligned with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), reported April 11 that the goal of the visit was to prevent the KRG from holding an independence referendum.

But it appears that PUK officials were not the only parties to the meeting. Soleimani had discussed the poll with KRG President Massoud Barzani in Erbil. Soleimani is Iran’s top official in Iraq, according to KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. As such, he has had many relationships with Kurdish figures, especially in the PUK and the Kurdish Movement for Change (Gorran), since the 1990s.

Iraqi Kurdish political forces recently have increased their calls for a referendum on Kurdish independence. The leadership of the KDP has said such a poll will be held this year. The KDP and the PUK agreed to set up a joint panel April 2 to decide how the poll would be run and set a date for it.

Iran is against such a step and sees an independent KRG as a red line, something KDP Secretary-General Fadel Mirani dismissed on April 11, saying, “We don’t need permission from anyone to hold a referendum.” But it is impossible to ignore the clout of neighboring states opposed to Kurdish independence. Iran especially enjoys serious influence over the PUK and Gorran in Sulaimaniyah, which is close to the Iranian border.

By Hamdi Malik for Al Monitor. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News. 

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said recently that any group taking up arms in Iraq outside the state’s official framework will be considered outlaws. However, it seems at least some of the factions fighting under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq would not obey Abadi’s order.

On March 22, Abadi spoke at a meeting of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS (Islamic State, or IS) in Washington. Also during his trip, he told the media that IS will be eliminated from Iraq’s cities “within weeks.”

What will happen then? Hashim al-Musawi, the spokesman for Iran-controlled, Shiite Iraq militia known as the Islamic Resistance Movement in Iraq (al-Nojaba), announced earlier in the month the formation of the Golan Liberation Brigade. But the announcement appeared to be more a declaration that Iran-affiliated Iraqi militias will be ready to take on a greater role in the region once IS is gone. (In addition, Musawi threatened to take military action against Turkish forces stationed near Mosul if they refuse to leave Iraq.)

The brigade announcement carried great symbolism, as the press conference was held in the office of the Iranian news agency Tasnim, which supports the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Tehran.

Musawi also criticized the United States and Saudi Arabia, stressing that al-Nojaba “will not drop its weapons as long as the region is still threatened.” Al-Nojaba will continue its endeavor to reclaim the Golan Heights in Syria from Israel, he added.

Three days after this announcement, a leader of al-Nojaba had something to say on the subject. The militia’s secretary-general, Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, said March 11, “The Golan Liberation Brigade’s formation is not propaganda, but one of the Islamic resistance’s true objectives.” He added, “The resistance is capable of beating the ‘axis of evil’ and the Zionist entity,” referring to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

This isn’t the first time Iran-affiliated Iraqi parties have talked about taking action outside Iraq, in line with Iran’s foreign policy in the region.

By Mustafa Saadoun for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Iran‘s Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani has stirred a great deal of controversy in Iraq, where people have started arguing over whether his role is a positive or a negative one.

Some Iraqi youths have created social media campaigns in support of Soleimani using the hashtags #WeAreAllSoleimani and #SoleimaniIsOneOfUsIraqis, while others denounce him with #SoleimaniUnderMyFeet.

These campaigns emerged after April 30, when followers of the Sadrist movement shouted slogans against Soleimani and his country in Grand Festivities Square, located in the heavily fortified Green Zone.

On the same day, Iraqi activists shared via YouTube an Al Jazeera broadcast about the raising of Iranian flags in Baghdad’s predominantly Sunni area of ​​Adhamiya. “Armed Shiite groups known as the Hezbollah Brigades raised the Iranian flag in Adhamiya,” Al Jazeera reported.

Iraqis are divided over Soleimani’s role in the battles between Iraqi government forces and the Islamic State (IS). Some believe he is defending Iraq, while others suspect he has an Iranian agenda that could harm their country.