Sanctions will remain inefficient as long as Iranian backdoors are open

Ali Hajizade
Ali Hajizade
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Almost since its establishment, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been under a permanently sanctioned regime.

In different periods, the sanctions were softened but never lifted. A new package of tough sanctions, this time American, reached Iran on November 5 of this year.

However, despite the sanctions that Iran has been under for almost 40 years, the Iranian regime still finds power and leverages to spread its influence in the Middle East. It is possible partly due to the network of backdoors, from China to South America, created for different purposes for over decades.

It is notable that both the EU and the US have information about these backdoors, but they have not been able to close all of them yet.

The events that lead up to the imposition of severe sanctions against Iran (in particular, an attempt to reduce the oil export of Iran to zero) showed that Iran is constantly working to create backdoors and is looking for ways to bypass sanctions

Ali Hajizade

Different categories

In general, backdoors may be divided into several categories:

1. Financial operations – including money laundering and cashing out.

The Iranian side often uses front companies and individuals in the financial sphere to bypass sanctions. These persons are trusted to be unspoken treasurers of the Iranian regime. Tens of billions of dollars pass through such channels. One of Iran’s most serious efforts to establish smooth circulation of financial recourses and gold was taking place in Turkey and is linked to the name of dual Iranian-Turkish national, Reza Zarrab.

It is assumed that about $100 billion passed through the scheme organized by Zarrab in cooperation with Turkish banks. This case is still being investigated in the US. On October 11, 2018, less than one month before the impositions of the second package of sanctions, the US Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network shared – “Advisory on the Iranian Regime’s Illicit and Malign Activities and Attempts to Exploit the Financial System.”

There are facts indicating that the Iranian regime also uses countries in Eastern Europe to organize the cash flow.

There are also financial and bank channels to finance pro-Iranian lobbying activity in Europe and US.

Apparently, the US intends to limit Iran’s ability to bypass the sanctions in the financial sphere. Against the background of heightened control by the US, it is still possible that Iran will use its cyber-army, to make a dent in the sanctions system.

2. Transportation of dual-use goods to Iran bypassing international sanctions – including goods and technologies for Iranian nuclear and missile programs and military industry. In 2006, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution imposing a partial ban on the supply of equipment and technologies, which can be used for Iran’s nuclear program. To bypass those prohibitions, the Iranians almost permanently build a network of front companies to buy and deliver the necessary equipment. Certain people involved in the equipment smuggling from the US to Iran were brought to justice by American courts.

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On several occasions, the American side has exposed the Iranian efforts to purchase and deliver the dual-use equipment. Iran mainly uses neighboring countries to create backdoors that enable them to supply necessary cargo and technologies.

At its height thousands of companies in the region were registered by Iranians, it is difficult to say how many of them were real and whether many of them were serving as a curtain for IRGC to bypass sanctions.

In addition, Iran has been actively using three countries in South Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan) to smuggle cargo. Notably, the Western media and think tanks failed to give due consideration to this direction.

3. Illegal ports on the Iranian shores of the Gulf are under the control of IRGC and used mainly for illegal oil trade, arms, and drugs smuggling.

IRGC have created a state within a state. The heads of this organization simultaneously rule a huge business empire. A part of this empire is hidden from the public eye. IRGC have participated and continue to participate actively in the creation of backdoors. They use the created backdoors not only to import sanctioned cargo into the country and send weapons to their proxies but also for drugs and petrol smuggling.

Drug trafficking, in which IRGC and its proxies are involved, starts in the mountains of Afghanistan and extends to North and South America.

The events that lead up to the imposition of severe sanctions against Iran (in particular, an attempt to reduce the oil export of Iran to zero) showed that Iran is constantly working to create backdoors and is looking for ways to bypass sanctions. In order to hide their oil export, the Iranians had started various manipulations even before the imposition of sanctions. For example, frequent change of the names of tank vessels, reflagging, offshore registration of tank vessels and the use of ghost-tankers to make it difficult to track or monitor the vessels.

There is also evidence of posing the Iranian oil as oil from another country. Obviously, we have witnessed the global testing of Iranian backdoors created by the regime to minimize the possible damage from the US sanctions.

The evidence and facts listed above, demonstrate that any sanctions against Iran will be effective only by half. To achieve full or, at least, the maximal effect it is necessary to identify and close the Iranian backdoors systematically.


Ali Hajizade is a Middle East analyst, founder, and director of He tweets @AHajizade.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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