Iran's strategic mastermind got a huge boost from the nuclear deal

SuleimaniIranQasem Suleimani (right) celebrating with Hade Amre, chief of Shia militias, during the liberation of Jawlala in Iraq from Islamic State.

The historic nuclear accord between a US-led group of countries and Iran was good news for a man who some consider to be the Middle East’s most effective covert operative.

As a result of the deal, Qasem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force and the general responsible for overseeing Iran’s network of proxy organisations, will be removed from European Union sanctions lists once the agreement is implemented, and taken off a UN sanctions list after eight or fewer years.

Iran obtained some key concessions as a result of the nuclear agreement, including access to an estimated $US150 billion in frozen assets; the lifting of a UN arms embargo, the eventual end to sanctions related to the country’s ballistic missile program; the ability to operate over 5,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges and to run stable elements through centrifuges at the once-clandestine and heavily guarded Fordow facility; nuclear assistance from the US and its partners; and the ability to stall inspections of sensitive sites for as long as 24 days. In light of these accomplishments, the de-listing of a general responsible for coordinating anti-US militia groups in Iraq — someone who may be responsible for the deaths of US soldiers — almost seems gratuitous.

It’s unlikely that the entire deal hinged on a single Iranian officer’s ability to open bank accounts in EU states or travel within Europe. But it got into the deal anyway. So did a reprieve for Bank Saderat, which the US sanctioned in 2006 for facilitating money transfers to Iranian regime-supported terror groups like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. As part of the deal, Bank Saderat will leave the EU sanctions list on the same timetable as Suleimani, although it will remain under US designation.

Like Suleimani’s removal, Bank Saderat’s apparent legalization in Europe suggests that for the purposes of the deal, the US and its partners lumped a broad range of restrictions under the heading of “nuclear-related” sanctions.

Suleimani and Bank Saderat are still going to remain under US sanctions related to the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses and support for terrorism. US sanctions have broad extraterritorial reach, and the US Treasury Department has turned into the scourge of compliance desks at banks around the world. But that matters to a somewhat lesser degree inside of the EU, where companies have actually been exempted from complying with certain US “secondary sanctions” on Iran since the mid-1990s.

Iran nuclearREUTERS/Brian SnyderU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) holds a negotiation meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) over Iran’s nuclear program, in Lausanne March 18, 2015.

Any company that transacts with a US-designated individual takes on a certain degree of US legal exposure. That actually creates problem for US allies whose companies operate under less restrictive legal regimes. It’s perfectly legal under domestic law for companies in many EU countries — among the US’s closest allies — to perform transactions for certain US-listed individuals and entities. This has been the cause of some trans-Atlantic tensions in the past, with an upshot that’s of immediate relevance to the nuclear deal reached Tuesday.

In 1996, the US Congress passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, targeting entities in two longstanding opponents of the US. But these were countries where European companies had routinely invested. The law didn’t just sanction two unfriendly regimes — it effectively sanctioned US allies where business with both countries was legally tolerated.

The law triggered consultations between the US and the EU under the World Trade Organisation’s various dispute mechanisms. Diplomatic protests forced the US and and its European allies to figure out a compromise that wouldn’t expose their companies to additional legal scrutiny or lead to an unnecessary escalation in trans-Atlantic trade barriers.

The result is that the US kept the law on the books, but scaled back their implementation in Europe. Then-President Bill Clinton “negotiated an agreement under which the United States would not impose any ISLA sanctions

on European firms — much to Congress’ dismay.”

And in November 1996, the Council of Europe adopted a resolution protecting European companies from the reach of US law. The resolution authorised “blocking recognition or enforcement of decisions or judgments giving effect to the covered laws,” effectively cancelling the extraterritoriality of certain US sanctions on European soil (although legal exposure continued for European companies with enough of a US presence to put them under American jurisdiction). In past disputes, companies inside of Europe have had an EU-authorised waiver for complying with US secondary sanctions.

In a post-deal environment in which European companies are eager investors in a far less diplomatically isolated Iran, the 1996 spat could be a sign of things to come, as well as a guideline for smoothing out disputes over US sanctions enforcement in Europe.

Iran missileReutersAn Iranian long-range shore-to-sea missile called the Nasr is launched on the Sea of Oman’s shore near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran on January 2, 2012.

Some time in the next few years, Qasem Suleimani will be able to travel and do business inside the EU, while a bank that’s facilitated the funding of US-listed terror group’s will be allowed to enter the European market. As part of the nuclear deal, the US and its partners bargained away much of the international leverage against some of the more problematic sectors in the Iranian regime, including entities whose wrongdoing went well beyond the nuclear realm.

The result is the almost complete reversal of the sanctions regime in Europe. “If you look at the competing annexes, the European list is much more comprehensive and there are going to be significant differences between the designation lists that are maintained,” Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider. “The Europeans look as if they’re about to just open up entirely to Iran.”

Iran successfully pushed for a broad definition of “nuclear-related sanctions,” and bargained hard — and effectively — for a maximal degree of sanctions relief.

And the de-listing of Bank Saderat and Qasem Suleimani, along with the late-breaking effort to classify arms trade restrictions as purely nuclear-related, demonstrates just how far the US and its partners were willing to go to close a historic nuclear deal.

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