Iraq is helping its neighbor Iran skirt international sanctions by smuggling oil and letting Tehran secretly move large amounts of cash through bank auctions, The New York Times reported Sunday.
U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged the problem last month when he barred a small Iraqi bank, the Elaf Islamic Bank, from any dealings with the American banking system, the newspaper said.
At the time, the president said that the bank 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 Times said the bank was only part of a network of financial institutions and oil-smuggling operations that have helped funnel cash to the Islamic republic as sanctions choke its economy.
And yet Iraqi banking experts told the Times that Elaf Islamic Bank was still participating in the Iraq Central Bank’s daily auction at which commercial banks can sell Iraqi dinars and buy dollars. Through these auctions, Iran is able to bolster its reserve of dollars that are used to pay for much-needed imports.
David Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the United States is “actively pursuing efforts to prevent Iran from evading U.S. or international financial sanctions, in Iraq or anywhere else.”
Iraqi government officials are turning a blind eye to the large money transfers, smuggling and other trade with Iran and some are making a direct profit from the activities, the Times said, citing current and former U.S. and Iraqi officials, as well as banking and oil experts.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki effectively controls Iraq’s central bank and is “right in the middle of this,” a former U.S. intelligence official told the newspaper.
The Times, citing sources in the Obama administration, current and former American and Iraqi officials and banking and oil experts, said Washington has privately complained to Iraqi officials about financial and logistical ties between Baghdad and Tehran.
In one recent instance, when Obama learned that the Iraqi government was aiding the Iranians by allowing them to use Iraqi airspace to ferry supplies to Syria, he called Maliki to complain, and Iranian planes then flew another route, the Times said.
It said that Iranian groups all but control at least four Iraqi commercial banks through Iraqi intermediaries, giving Tehran direct access to the international financial system from which it was supposed to have been shut out through the sanctions.
Trade between Iran and Iraq has rapidly increased since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein, reaching an estimated $11 billion a year, according to the Times.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh insisted that Iraq “is not intending to break any rules.” However, he added: “we also have good relations with Iran that we do not want to break.”
The Times said that large-scale smuggling of oil and oil products is on the rise, with Baghdad doing little to stop the “highly organized” effort.
Iraqi fuel oil obtained at very low prices through government subsidies is being smuggled from Iraq to Iran through Kurdistan, according to the newspaper. Some of the cheap fuel is then smuggled again to Afghanistan to be sold at a significant profit.
And the Times said that some Iranian oil is shipped to Iraqi ports for sale.