March 20, 2008, destined to be another day of infamy. On this date the US
officially declared war on Iran. But it's not going to be the kind of war
many have been expecting.
officially declared war on Iran. But it's not going to be the kind of war
many have been expecting.
March 20, 2008, destined to be another day of infamy. On this date the US
officially declared war on Iran. But it's not going to be the kind of war
many have been expecting.
No, there was no dramatic televised announcement by President George W. Bush
from the White House oval office. In fact on this day, reports  the
Washington Post, Bush spent some time communicating directly with Iranians,
telling them via Radio Farda (the US-financed broadcaster that transmits to
Iran in Farsi, Iran's native language) that their government has "declared
they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people." But not to worry, he
told his listeners in Farsi-translated Bushspeak: Tehran would not get the
bomb because the US would be "firm."
Over at the US Congress, no war resolution was passed, no debate transpired,
no last-minute hearing on the Iran "threat" was held. The Pentagon did not
put its forces on red alert and cancel all leave. The top story on the
Pentagon's website  (on March 20) was: "Bush Lauds Military's Performance
in Terror War," a feel-good piece about the president's appearance on the US
military's TV channel to praise "the performance and courage of U.S. troops
engaged in the global war on terrorism." Bush discussed Iraq, Afghanistan
and Africa but not Iran.
But make no mistake. As of Thursday, March 20 the US is at war with Iran.
So who made it official?
A unit within the US Treasury Department, the Financial Crimes Enforcement
Network (FinCEN), which issued a March 20 advisory  to the world's
financial institutions under the title: "Guidance to Financial Institutions
on the Continuing Money Laundering Threat Involving Illicit Iranian
FinCEN, though part of the chain of command, is better known to bankers and
lawyers than to students of US foreign policy. Nevertheless, when the
history of this newly declared war is someday written (assuming the war is
allowed to proceed) FinCEN's role will be as important as that played by US
Central Command (Centcom) in directing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In its March 20 advisory FinCEN reminds the global banking community that
United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSC) 1803 (passed on March 3,
2008) "calls on member states to exercise vigilance over the activities of
financial institutions in their territories with all banks domiciled in
Iran, and their branches and subsidiaries abroad."
UNSC 1803 specifically mentions two Iranian state-owned banks: Bank Melli
and Bank Saderat. These two banks (plus their overseas branches and certain
subsidiaries), along with a third state-owned bank, Bank Sepah, were also
unilaterally sanctioned by the US in 2007 under anti-proliferation and
anti-terrorism presidential executive orders 13382 and 13224.
As of March 20, however, the US, speaking through FinCEN, is now telling all
banks around the world "to take into account the risk arising from the
deficiencies in Iran's AML/CFT [anti-money laundering and combating the
financing of terrorism] regime, as well as all applicable U.S. and
international sanctions programs, with regard to any possible transactions"
with - and this is important - not just the above three banks but every
remaining state-owned, private and special government bank in Iran. In other
words, FinCEN charges, all of Iran's banks - including the central bank
(also on FinCEN's list) - represent a risk to the international financial
system, no exceptions. Confirmation is possible by comparing FinCEN's list
of risky Iranian banks with the listing of Iranian banks provided by Iran's
central bank  .
The "deficiencies in Iran's AML/CFT" is important because it provides the
rationale FinCEN will now use to deliver the ultimate death blow to Iran's
ability to participate in the international banking system. The language is
borrowed from Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a group of 32
countries and two territories set up by the G-7 in 1989 to fight money
laundering and terrorist financing. As the FinCEN advisory describes, in
October 2007 the FATF stated "that Iran's lack of a comprehensive anti-money
laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regime
represents a significant vulnerability in the international financial
system. In response to the FATF statement, Iran passed its first AML law in
February 2008. The FATF, however, reiterated its concern about continuing
deficiencies in Iran's AML/CFT system in a statement on February 28, 2008."
Actually, the February 28 FATF statement does not comment  on Iran's new
anti-money laundering law. The statement does say, however, that the FATF
has been working with Iran since the October 2007 FATF statement was issued
and "welcomes the commitment made by Iran to improve its AML/CFT regime."
Moreover, the February 28 statement, for whatever reason, drops the
"significant vulnerability" wording, opting instead to reaffirm that
financial authorities around the world should "advise" their domestic banks
to exercise "enhanced due diligence" concerning Iran's AML/CFT
"deficiencies." In linking its March 20 advisory to the recent FATF
statements, apparently FinCEN cannot wait for FATF or anyone else to
evaluate the effectiveness of Iran's brand new anti-financial crime laws.
Anyway, the "deficiencies in Iran's AML/CFT" is probably the main wording
FinCEN will use to justify application of one its most powerful sanctions
tools, a USA Patriot Act Section 311 designation (see below).
Hammering away at Iran's state-owned banks is central to US efforts to raise
an international hue and cry. Through its state-owned banks, FinCEN states,
"the Government of Iran disguises its involvement in proliferation and
terrorism activities through an array of deceptive practices specifically
designed to evade detection." By managing to get inserted the names of two
state-owned banks in the most recent UN Security Council resolution on Iran,
the US can now portray the cream of Iran's financial establishment (Bank
Melli and Bank Saderat are Iran's two largest banks) as directly integrated
into alleged regime involvement in a secret nuclear weaponization program
and acts of terrorism.
To inject further alarm, FinCEN accuses Iran's central bank of "facilitating
transactions for sanctioned Iranian banks" based on evidence (which for
various reasons appears true) gathered by Treasury and other US agencies
that the central bank has facilitated erasure of the names of Iranian banks
"from global transactions in order to make it more difficult for
intermediary financial institutions to determine the true parties in the
transaction." The central bank is also charged with continuing to "provide
financial services to Iranian entities" (government agencies, business firms
and individuals) named in two earlier UN Security Council resolutions, 1737
and 1747. In defense, Iran's central bank governor recently said  : "The
central bank assists Iranian private and state-owned banks to do their
commitments regardless of the pressure on them" and charged the US with
So what does all this bureaucratic financial rigmarole mean?
What it really means is that the US, again through FinCEN, has declared two
acts of war: one against Iran's banks and one against any financial
institution anywhere in the world that tries to do business with an Iranian
To understand how this works requires understanding what FinCEN does. This
means going back in history to September 2005, when the US Treasury
Department, based on the investigatory work of FinCEN, sanctioned a small
bank in Macau, which in turn got North Korea really upset.
FinCEN's mission "is to safeguard the financial system from the abuses of
financial crime, including terrorist financing, money laundering, and other
illicit activity" (FinCEN website  ).
Under Section 311 of the USA Patriot Act the US Treasury Department, acting
through FinCEN, has been provided with "a range of options that can be
adapted to target specific money laundering and terrorist financing
concerns." Specifically, Section 311 contains six "special measures" to
significantly increase the powers of the Treasury (and other US government
agencies) to block alleged terrorist financing activities. As explained 
by a Treasury official during April 2006 testimony before Congress, the most
punitive measure requires:
U.S. financial institutions to terminate correspondent relationships
with the designated entity. Such a defensive measure effectively cuts
that entity off from the U.S. financial system. It has a profound
effect, not only in insulating the U.S. financial system from abuse,
but also in notifying financial institutions and jurisdictions
globally of an illicit finance risk.
On September 20, 2005 FinCEN issued a finding under Section 311 that Banco
Delta Asia (BDA), a small bank in the Chinese territory of Macau, was a
"primary money laundering concern." BDA was alleged to have knowingly
allowed its North Korean clients to use the bank to engage in deceptive
financial practices and a variety of financial crimes (such as money
laundering of profits from drug trafficking and counterfeit US $100
By publicizing its allegations, FinCEN let the world know that BDA was now
at risk of having all "correspondent relationships" with US banks severed, a
disaster for any bank wanting to remain networked to the largest financial
market in the world. Frightened BDA customers reacted by staging a run on
the bank's assets.
In the interest of self-preservation, BDA was forced to act. After a quick
conference with Macau financial authorities the bank decided to freeze North
Korean funds on deposit.
It just so happened that the day before the FinCEN finding was made public
the US and North Korea, working through the Six-Party talks process (also
involving host China, Russia, South Korea and Japan), had formally agreed on
a new diplomatic roadmap that promised to lead to a denuclearized and
permanently peaceful Northeast Asia. But because of Treasury's BDA
sanctions, North Korea was now labeled an international financial outlaw and
the Six Party process stalled.
Other banks began severing their business ties with North Korea, leaving the
country more isolated than ever from global commerce and finance. These
other banks had no choice. Treasury repeatedly made clear that any bank that
continued to do business with North Korea was another potential Patriot Act
Section 311 target.
In anger, North Korea withdrew from the Six-Party process. It required 18
months of negotiations before a diplomatic and financial approach was
devised that left BDA blacklisted but allowed North Korea to regain access
to its frozen funds and rejoin Six Party negotiations.
Neither FinCEN nor anyone else at Treasury has ever publicly produced any
evidence in support of the financial crime allegations against BDA and North
Korea (articles by this author on BDA, North Korea and Treasury's lack of
proof can be found at the Japan Focus website  ).
If Treasury was eventually forced to back off in the BDA case (apparently
because the Bush administration changed its policy priorities), it had
discovered that Patriot Act Section 311 could really shake things up.
The "real impact" of the BDA-North Korea sanctions, as Treasury
undersecretary Stuart Levey told  members of the American Bar
Association in early March 2008, was that "many private financial
institutions worldwide responded by terminating their business relationships
not only with [BDA], but with North Korean clients altogether." Levey and
his Treasury colleagues had come up with a way to go beyond governments to
use the global banking sector to privatize banking sector sanctions against
an entire country (this, by the way, is presidential candidate John McCain's
proposed strategy for dealing with Iran as described in the Nov/Dec 2007
issue of the journal Foreign Affairs ). This "key difference" in the
"reaction by the private sector" was an exciting revelation. Through a
little extraterritorial legal arm-twisting of the international banking
community the US was able to put "enormous pressure on the [North Korean]
regime - even the most reclusive government depends on access to the
international financial system," said Levey. Washington now had "a great
deal of leverage in its diplomacy over the nuclear issue with North Korea."
Turning to the present, Levey informed the gathering of US lawyers that "we
are currently in the midst of an effort to apply these same lessons to the
very real threat posed by Iran." However, "Iran presents a more complex
challenge than North Korea because of its greater integration into the
international financial community."
Over the past two years Levey and other Treasury officials have been
crisscrossing the globe to make it abundantly clear in meetings (described
by Treasury as opportunities to "share information") with banking and
government officials in the world's key financial centers that dealing with
Iran is risky business. Levey frequently claims that major European and Asia
banks, once they hear the US pitch, freely decided to cooperate with
anti-Iran banking sanctions for reasons of "good corporate citizenship" and
a "desire to protect their institutions' reputations."
But these meetings include quite a bit of browbeating. This can be deduced
from some of Levey's public statements, such as his testimony to Congress.
On March 21, 2007 Levey told the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and
Urban Affairs that unilateral US financial sanctions "warn people and
businesses not to deal with the designated target. And those who might still
be tempted to work with targeted high risk actors get the message loud and
clear: if they do so, they may be next." Also, the possibility of becoming a
Patriot Act Section 311 sanctions victim (which means exclusion from the US
market) probably comes up at the meetings, as this part of his testimony
indirectly suggests: "Our list of targeted proliferators is incorporated
into the compliance systems at major financial institutions worldwide, who
have little appetite for the business of proliferation firms and who also
need to be mindful of U.S. measures given their ties to the U.S. financial
Reportedly, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has also been involved in
high-level meetings around the world concerning Iran, which presumably
includes presentations on the arsenal of US financial sanctions. The message
he imparts is unknown, but hints of the likely content can be found in
public statements. Among Treasury officials Paulson has used the most
dramatic language by making the argument that not only is Iran a danger to
the international community but that this danger permeates virtually all of
Iranian society. In a June 14, 2007 speech  to the Council on Foreign
Relations he first makes the point that Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps
(IRGC) is a "paramilitary" organization "directly involved in the planning
and support of terrorist acts, as well as funding and training other
terrorist groups." Then he offers the alarming revelation that the IRGC "is
so deeply entrenched in Iran's economy and commercial enterprises, it is
increasingly likely that if you are doing business with Iran, you are
somehow doing business with the IRGC." With such language, Treasury lays the
groundwork for applying financial sanctions against the entirety of Iran.
All this makes clear that the growing coalition of bankers against Iran the
US likes to trumpet may not be such a willing group.
Some indication of how unwilling can be found in the pages of Der Spiegel
(English edition). In July 2007 the German news magazine reported  that
"anyone wishing to do business in the United States or hoping to attract US
investors had best tread softly when it comes to Iran. Germany's Commerzbank
stopped financing trade with Iran in US dollars in January, after the
Americans piled on the pressure." One German banker interviewed said:
"German financial institutions feel the United States government has been
engaging in `downright blackmail'." The magazine goes on to report:
"Anti-terror officials from the US Treasury are constantly showing up to
demand they cut their traditionally good relations with Iran. The underlying
threat from the men from Washington is that they wouldn't want to support
terrorism, would they?"
Also, an April 2007 report from the UK's House of Lords Economic Affairs
Committee states that the Confederation of British Industry indicated
"strong concern" about Patriot Act provisions and other US extra-territorial
sanctions. The Committee recognized the need for "vigorous action" in
response to terrorist threats but also "endorse[d] the condemnation by the
EU of the extra-territorial application of US sanctions legislation as a
violation of international law."
Thus the US will need help from European government leaders to overcome
resistance among major European financial institutions to US-led financial
sanctions. Such help has already come from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
During her recent state visit to Israel, Merkel told the Knesset that Iran
was global enemy number one. "What do we do when a majority says the
greatest threat to the world comes from Israel and not from Iran?" she asked
 . "Do we bow our heads? Do we give up our efforts to combat the Iranian
threat? However inconvenient and uncomfortable the alternative is, we do not
do that." Iran is public enemy #1 in the world, and everyone - including the
European banking establishment it would seem - has to accept that.
To summarize to this point: (1) the March 20 advisory represents a US
declaration of war by sanctions on Iran and a sanctions threat to the
international banking community, (2) the US has various unilateral financial
sanctions measures at its command in the form of executive orders and
Patriot Act Section 311 and (3) the BDA-North Korea sanctions were, at least
in retrospect, a test run for Iran.
If the US succeeds, an international quarantine on Iran's banks would
disrupt Iran's financial linkages with the world by blocking its ability to
process cross-border payments for goods and services exported and imported.
Without those linkages Iran is unlikely to be able to engage in global trade
and commerce. As 30% of Iran's GDP in 2005 was imports of goods and services
and 20% was non-oil exports (World Bank  and other data), a large chunk
of Iran's economy would shrivel up. The repercussions will be painful and
extend well beyond lost business and profits. For example, treating curable
illnesses will become difficult. According to an Iranian health ministry
official  , Iran produces 95% of its own medicines but most
pharmaceutical-related raw materials are imported.
With a financial sanctions war declared, what happens next? There have been
On February 25 the Wall Street Journal reported  that Treasury was
considering sanctioning Iran's central bank (known as Bank Markazi). "The
central bank is the keystone of Iran's financial system and its principal
remaining lifeline to the international banking system," explains the
Journal. "U.S. sanctions against it could have a severe impact on Iranian
trade if other nations in Europe and Asia choose to go along with them." In
anticipation of future events, the Journal notes: "U.S. officials have begun
trying to lay the groundwork for a move against the central bank in public
statements and meetings with key allies."
So look for the following to happen in the coming weeks: FinCEN will
probably issue a Patriot Act Section 311 finding that Iran's central bank is
a "primary laundering concern." The "deficiencies in Iran's AML/CFT" wording
lifted from the FATF statement will be a key reason for that finding. The
finding may be accompanied by a formal decision to cut off Iran's central
bank from the US financial market, or such a decision could come later. Of
course, an actual or threatened cut-off has no immediate financial
implications for Iran since no Iranian-flagged bank is doing business in the
US, except possibly to allow shipments from the US of humanitarian
provisions of food and medicine, which, if they exist, probably terminate
with the March 20 FinCEN announcement.
But a Section 311 designation of Iran's central bank would have a powerful
coercive effect on the world's banks. For any bank in Europe, Asia or
anywhere else that goes near the central bank once the 311 blacklist is on,
it would be the kiss of death for that bank's participation in the
international banking community, as it was (and remains today) for BDA. Not
only would that bank be barred from the US financial market, it would also
be shunned by European and Japanese financial markets, as government and
private banking officials in those markets are likely to cooperate with
Washington's intensifying sanctions campaign.
What about China, now one of the world's major financial centers (two
Chinese banks ranked  among the top 25 in The Banker's 2007 survey of
world banks) and a major trading partner for Iran?
China and Japan "were the top two recipients of exports from Iran, together
accounting for more than one-quarter of Iran's exports in 2006," according
to an analysis of International Monetary Fund (IMF) trading statistics
contained in a December 2007 US Government Accountability Office (GAO)
report  on Washington's anti-Iran sanctions regime. On the import side,
the GAO found that in 2006 "Germany and China were Iran's largest providers
of imports, accounting for 23 percent of Iran's imports." Airtight global
banking sanctions imposed on Iran would presumably make the financial
administration of this trade next to impossible.
Will China bend to US sanctions wishes? Early signs suggest the answer is
In December 2007 ArabianBusiness.com reported  that Chinese banks were
starting to decline to open letters of credit for Iranian traders. Asadollah
Asgaroladi, head of the Iran-China chamber of commerce, was quoted as saying
that China's banks did not explain the refusal but "if this trend continues
it will harm the two countries' economic cooperation and trade exchange." In
February, ArabianBusiness.com found  that China's cutbacks in its
banking business with Iran was affecting a joint automobile production
Such disruptions in the Chinese-Iranian banking relationship are minor.
Meanwhile, Beijing keeps insisting that peaceful diplomacy with Iran is the
best policy and that the only sanctions needed are those mandated under the
three UN Security Council resolutions already on the books. Thus, to make
China cooperate with Washington's unilateral banking sanctions, the US and
the EU, reports the Financial Times, are apparently using a tag-team
On February 12 the FT told  readers that "the US believes that tighter
EU sanctions will put pressure on other nations that do more business with
Iran - China for example - to curb their activities." Therefore, explained
an anonymous diplomat apparently from the US: "We will be pushing the EU to
go further than the Security Council," a move intended, the diplomat said,
to "gold plate" Security Council requirements.
To explain this move the FT provided an example of "gold plating" from 2007,
when the EU implemented UN Security Council resolutions 1737 and 1747 on
In similar language to the current text on Banks Saderat and Melli, the UN
had called for "vigilance and restraint" concerning the movements of
individuals linked to Iran's nuclear and missile programmes and members of
its Revolutionary Guard. But in implementing the resolutions, the EU
subjected all the named individuals to a travel ban - a much tougher
Reading between the lines, the intention behind "gold plating" Security
Council resolutions is to put pressure on China to bow to a more aggressive
US-EU sanctions program. In the case of the most recent Security Council
resolution on Iran, 1803, which put sanctions on two Iranian banks, FinCEN
rolled two "gold plating" actions into one. It combined the Security
Council's naming of the two banks with the October and February FATF
statements to justify its March 20 warning to the world that Iran's entire
banking system is a danger. Whether the EU will follow FinCEN's action, and
how China will respond to any of this, remains to be seen.
In short, the US has in effect declared war on Iran. No bombs need fall as
long as the US strategy relies solely on financial sanctions. But if the US
Section 311 designates Iran's central bank as a financial criminal, the
impact will be the financial equivalent to the first bombs falling on
Baghdad at the start of the US-UK invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
In a 1996 publication written for the National Defense University, Harlan
Ullman and James Wade introduced  a military doctrine for "affecting the
adversary's will to resist through imposing a regime of Shock and Awe to
achieve strategic aims and military objectives."
Former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld made Shock and Awe famous by
invoking it as the US strategy in the attack on Iraq in March 2003 (though
weeks later Ullman was claiming Rumsfeld was misapplying the doctrine).
But Shock and Awe's authors (apparently with something like Vietnam or the
1993-1994 Somalia fiasco in mind) also envisioned that "[i]n certain
circumstances, the costs of having to resort to lethal force may be too
politically expensive in terms of local support as well as support in the
U.S. and internationally." Consequently, they wrote:
"Economic sanctions are likely to continue to be a preferable
political alternative or a necessary political prelude to an
offensive military step . . . In a world in which nonlethal sanctions
are a political imperative, we will continue to need the ability to
shut down all commerce into and out of any country from shipping, air,
rail, and roads. We ought to be able to do this in a much more
thorough, decisive, and shocking way than we have in the past . . .
Weapons that shock and awe, stun and paralyze, but do not kill in
significant numbers may be the only ones that are politically
acceptable in the future."
It was only a matter of finding a sanctions strategy systematic enough to
make this more obscure portion of the Shock and Awe doctrine operational.
What Ullman and Wade could not have imagined was that Washington's global
planners would use extraterritorial legal powers and its financial clout to
coerce the global banking industry into accepting US foreign policy diktat.
North Korea was a test-run for the new strategy of Shock and Awe financial
sanctions. As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius put it  in
February 2007, "[t]he new sanctions are toxic because they effectively limit
a country's access to the global ATM. In that sense, they impose -- at last
-- a real price on countries such as North Korea and Iran."
What then will the impact be of this US-Iran banking standoff? For the US,
almost no impact at all. Treasury bureaucrats will spend some time and a
little taxpayer money making phone calls, checking computer screens and
paper trails to monitor global banking compliance with sanctions. The cost
of financially ostracizing Iran will be a bargain for US taxpayers compared
with the eventual $3 trillion cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars
estimated by Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard
financial expert Linda Bilmes.
Iran, however, will become another Gaza or Iraq under the economic sanctions
of the 1990s, with devastating impact on economy and society. That Iran's
complete financial and economic destruction is the goal of US policy was
spelled out by the State Department the day before the FinCEN announcement.
During a daily press meeting with reporters on March 19, the State
Department's spokesperson was asked about a deal recently signed between
Switzerland and Iran to supply Iranian natural gas to Europe. After
condemning the deal, the spokesperson explained  that the US is opposed
to any "investing in Iran, not only in its petroleum or natural gas area but
in any sector of its economy" and questioned rhetorically the wisdom of
doing business with Iranian "financial institutions that are under UN
sanctions or could become under sanctions if it's found that they are
assisting or aiding or abetting Iran's nuclear program in any way." A
clearer expression of US desires is hardly possible.
* John McGlynn is an independent Tokyo-based economic and financial analyst.
His three reports on the US use of financial sanctions against North Korea
in the Banco Delta case are available at 1  , 2,  3  . Email:
This article was written for Japan Focus and posted on March 22, 2008.