In the early years of the international economic blockade imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991, the Ministry of Information was instructed to conduct a TV interview with the Iraqi central bank governor, to respond to rumors of the issuance of higher-value banknotes and the termination of heavily forged banknotes.
By the end of the war, the value of the Iraqi dinar against the dollar had begun to decline due to the blockade and the ensuing seizure of Iraq's foreign assets, as well as the decline in oil exports. Mr. Hamid Yusuf Hammadi - the Iraqi Minister of Information at the time - informed me that my name was specifically requested for conducting this exceptional interview with the governor.
At the time, I tried to cordially turn down the request since I believed that my experience with television interviews had been insufficient; I had only conducted two interviews throughout my career with Mr. Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, presented on Baghdad Satellite Channel.
We agreed to hold a preliminary meeting with the governor, Mr. Tariq Al-Takamji, at the Radio and Television building, ahead of time to agree on the questions. I submitted my questions to the governor, and he voiced that he will not be able to answer most of them since they divulge highly confidential state matters. At that moment I stood my ground and told him that we were directed to conduct a transparent and forthright interview to respond to the rumors, thus it seemed counterproductive and unreasonable to conduct a generic interview devoid of truthful answers that directly address the rumors being circulated.
An Iraqi policeman pays for groceries with 10,000-Iraqi dinar banknotes bearing an image of Mosul's iconic leaning minaret, known as the Hadba (Hunchback), on June 22, 2017, in the capital Baghdad. (AFP)
In preparation for that interview, I decided to take on several risks, even though I agreed to write other inconsequential questions, I ended up asking the probing questions I had initially prepared. I even suggested to the governor that we conduct the interview in the basement of the central bank’s treasury on Al-Rasheed Street, surrounded by Iraq’s gold reserves for effect, and to add more credibility and excitement to the interview. However, he informed me that he is not authorized to do that and that such decisions require almost unattainable security approvals.
On the day of the interview, we entered the studio, and I commenced the interview by saying, “I am your presenter, my name is so-and-so, and I am the poorest man in Iraq. Today, I am interviewing the richest man in Iraq, the governor of the Central Bank!" The governor immediately objected to my opening statement, saying that he was not the richest man in Iraq because the bank does not belong to him, but to the State of Iraq!
Contrary to what the governor and I agreed upon before entering the studio, I placed before me the list of questions that he had objected to and I did not shy away from asking daring questions like, Will you stop producing the counterfeit 50 dinars banknote denomination? Are you going to issue a higher-denomination banknote? How much is Iraq’s cash reserve? Will you compensate the victims for their counterfeit banknotes? I was delighted to know that the governor was even braver than I was, and he answered all my questions. On the night of the show, the episode was repeated three times.
As the days went by, Iraq had to face an even harsher reality in 2003, and we have seen US occupation troops escorting Dr. Issam Rashid Huwaish, the last governor of the Iraqi Central Bank, out of a detention facility and leading him to the bank. He was forced to divulge the security codes for the vaults of the treasury after the Americans realized that any attempt to breach the vaults, a fail-safe system would be triggered and all the vaults would be flooded with water.
Indeed, the vaults were opened, and Iraqi and foreign gold and securities were stolen. Some were even destroyed during the numerous attempts made by US soldiers to open the vaults and steal their contents. The bank vault was designed in such a way that it could only be opened with a specific set of codes and keys, otherwise it would automatically drown, thus drowning with it whoever attempts to enter. As for the gold in the treasury, it dates back to the Babylonian king "Al-Namrood" or “Nimrod,” who was mentioned in several holy books.
After seeing this priceless archaeological "treasure" in the Museum of Iraq, former President Saddam Hussein made orders to transport it and preserve it in a safe place in the Central Bank due to its enormous significance as a national treasure representing the heritage and identity of Iraq. This was more than 16 years before the US invasion of Iraq. Unsurprisingly, immediately after this invasion, all this invaluable money, gold and jewelry disappeared. We certainly cannot believe the lies we were told about US occupation soldiers being advocates of human rights, integrity and righteousness, yet I believe they are more "honorable" than those thieves and terrorists who are ruling Iraq today. They did not stop at robbing the Central Bank, they looted and plundered the entirety of the Republic of Iraq.
This handout photo taken and released by Prensa Latina on January 30, 1979 in Havana, shows Iraqi vice-president Saddam Hussein (C) standing during his visit to Cuba with Cuban President Fidel Castro (L) and Defense minister General Raul Castro. (AFP)
Furthermore, I have heard from an advisor in Baghdad's Green Zone, that Nouri al-Maliki, who served as prime minister of Iraq (2006-2014), advised the former central bank governor to transfer the bank’s money to the basement of the palace in which al-Maliki lives - which is one of the palaces of the previous regime – in order to protect it from theft! This reminds me of the story of the honorable thief who warns his victims of the robbery in advance.
Upon trying to analyze the latest questionable and alarming occurrences, I have found myself posing the following question: does any ambassador have the right to overstep and interfere in top-secret state matters? The current Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, Iraj Masjedi, seems to be in the habit of doing that over and over again. By diplomatic convention, he is not a " high commissioner," nor an Ambassador extraordinary, as some exceptional ambassadors were appointed in the past. He is also not above military and security officials, or above the three ruling authorities (the president, the ministers, and parliament members). Yet he seems to be the joker in the pack, and Tehran is using him however and whenever it pleases.
As a result of this intervention, many political figures have found themselves out of the game. This has happened repeatedly over the course of multiple Iraqi cabinets, namely the cabinets of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Ayad Allawi, Nouri al-Maliki, Haider al-Abadi and Adel Abdul-Mahdi. Even Al-Kadhimi himself was not the racehorse the Iranians placed their bets on. In fact, Iran, and its embassy in Baghdad did not hesitate to accuse Al-Kadhimi of having a hand in the operation to eliminate the leader of the "Quds Force" Qassem Soleimani at the beginning of the current year 2020. Despite the fact that at a previous time, Masjedi chaired a meeting at Nouri al-Maliki’s palace, the former prime minister of Iraq, in the presence of the heads of parliamentary groups, parties and militias to support Al-Kadhimi.
Before that, the Iranian ambassador Masjedi presided over meetings with some governors at their place of work and he was seen sitting on the governor's chair! Moreover, he has led several meetings with senior officials in the army, police and militias in other governorates. We have not seen such brazen acts happen even during the era of the American ambassador extraordinary Paul Bremer, in the early years of the US occupation. If any other foreign ambassador had tried to meet with an Iraqi governor, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have expelled him from Iraq for overstepping and interfering in matters beyond his designated mission.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi arrive to Baghdad airport, in Baghdad, Iraq March 11, 2019. (Reuters)
However, in my opinion, what must be seen as a real cause for alarm is the visit that Iranian Ambassador Iraj Masjedi made to the Central Bank of Iraq, on the first day of this month, to inspect the "Banking Supervision Department" which is responsible for foreign transfers, monitoring banks and banking companies, and implementing US sanctions against Iran. The ambassador tried to obtain a written approval pertaining to a $95 million contract for the Ministry of Housing and Construction through an Iranian company concluded by the Babylon Ahli Bank which is under custody due to its poor services, failure to pay citizens' deposits, and the fact that its owners have fled the country.
What I found peculiar is that this Iranian company had been blacklisted by the US Department of the Treasury and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog. The ambassador called on the central bank to change their negative position towards this notorious bank, and to allow the transfer of approvals and funds to the Iranian company. All available information indicate that this suspicious transaction will pass; because it seems that the Iranian ambassador's wish will always be our command. I highly doubt that he would be denied access to the central bank treasury the same way I was back in the day.
Our main concern at this point should be to seek the US’s response to the question I posed in the title of this article. As for the Iraqi response, in my opinion, it holds no real value.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Asharq Al-Awsat.