By Mark Dubowitz, Richard Goldberg
18th April 2018
Since the weekend military strike against chemical-weapons sites in Syria, the debate in Washington has centred on whether the strike went far enough. But policy makers should consider another question of equal importance: Is the U.S. prepared to cut off the financial lifelines that keep Bashar Assad in power?
The Islamic Republic of Iran spent roughly $15 billion last year to bolster its long-time strategic partner in Damascus. It bought arms for Mr. Assad’s military and financed the foreign Shiite militias, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah that fight for the Syrian dictator. Iran’s annual contribution to Hezbollah alone stands at between $700 million and $800 million. Tehran has deployed its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to Syria and has lent money to Mr. Assad to finance imports such as petroleum. Iran extended a $1 billion line of credit in 2017, on top of the $5.6 billion it had already provided. This credit is provided through the Islamic Republic’s Export Development Bank, while all funds ultimately run through Iran’s central bank.
A Syria strategy that leaves these Iranian financial spigots open is doomed to fail. Why haven’t they been blocked? For fear of jeopardizing the 2015 nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which relieved sanctions on Iranian banks, regime assets and economic sectors. This policy paralysis needs to end, and this weekend’s military strike, conducted in close coordination with France and Britain, should lead to a trans-Atlantic understanding that allows true financial warfare against the Iran-Syria nexus to commence.
In 2011 the U.S. Senate voted 100-0 to slap sanctions on Iran’s central bank. It did so based on the bank’s role in financing illicit Iranian nuclear development, terrorism, missile proliferation, and money laundering and sanctions circumvention. These and other Iran sanctions were never intended to curb nuclear behaviour alone. If President Trump determines that an Iranian bank, company or sector is sponsoring nonnuclear malign activity—like the Revolutionary Guards’ and Hezbollah’s support for Mr. Assad’s crimes against humanity—he is well within his authority to bring back sanctions targeting the illicit activity. President Obama made clear in 2015 that imposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic for “nonnuclear reasons” was permissible under the nuclear deal.
Europe should support these sanctions as part of a maximum pressure campaign targeting the Syrian regime and its supporters. That would begin by re-imposing sanctions on Iranian banks that support Mr. Assad. Next, it would target all sponsors of the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah. The supreme leader’s $200 billion conglomerate, foundations, energy exports and other key sectors of the Iranian economy—all should face sanctions.
Mr. Trump has asked for tough European action against Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards. Both are deployed in Syria to ensure the survival of the Assad regime. While the U.S. designates both groups as terrorist organizations, the Europeans don’t. Europe should join the U.S. and take action against these terrorists regardless of the nuclear deal’s fate.
The U.S. and Europe have to agree on fixes to the nuclear deal by May 12, when Mr. Trump must decide whether to issue another four-month waiver suspending sanctions on Iran’s central bank. If they can’t agree on a fix, the U.S. can offer a face-saving gesture to win European support for a maximum pressure campaign targeting Mr. Assad. Rather than labelling the reimposition of sanctions on Iran’s central bank a way of nixing the nuclear deal, the president should announce the move as a response to Iranian behaviour in Syria.
This approach could provide either more time for negotiations with Europe and Iran to fix the nuclear deal—but with increased U.S. leverage—or more time for the administration to plan for a responsible exit from the deal. Instead of making Iran look like a diplomacy-loving victim of American unilateralism, Tehran would have to defend its odious Syria policy. And it would further intensify the pressure on an Iranian regime facing daily protests by people chanting, “Leave Syria, think of us.”
If the Europeans want to save the nuclear deal and punish Mr. Assad’s enablers, they need to move on sanctions. A true fix cannot impede the West’s ability to curb Iran’s nonnuclear illicit activities, even if the targets of such financial warfare were initially granted sanctions relief under the accord. Nor can a fix be complete without maximum pressure on Tehran’s terrorist proxies.
Mr. Assad’s latest chemical-weapons attack handed Mr. Trump an opportunity to take advantage of rare trans-Atlantic and bipartisan support to target Iran’s activities in Syria. The president should exploit it to the maximum.
Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies