President Trump has promised to apply “maximum economic pressure” on Iran’s terrorist regime, but there are increasing indications that he is on the verge of caving to Europeans by allowing Iran to maintain its connection to a crucial banking network that gives it access to international markets.
When Trump pulled out of the Iran deal in May, he set up a process for the reimposition of all previous sanctions, giving businesses time to adjust and untangle their financial relationships with Iran. The first group of sanctions were reimposed in August, and the second group of sanctions, concerning oil and banking, are due to be reimposed on Nov. 4, which is 180 days from when Trump pulled out of the deal.
But Iran hawks, both on Capitol Hill and in policy shops, are feeling nervous about statements by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and recent media reports signaling that the Trump administration is preparing to allow Iran to remain connected in some way to the SWIFT, or Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, system, a telecommunications network through which global banks communicate that is crucial to accessing international markets.
Iran was cut off from SWIFT in 2012, helping to drive their economy to the brink of collapse, before Obama administration diplomacy rescued the regime — and the sanctions went away with the nuclear deal. Having access to the network allows Iran to fund terrorism and destabilize the region, and could even make it easier for them to finance their nuclear program.
Right now, Iran’s economy is in significant trouble, and cutting it off from the SWIFT network would ratchet up pressure on the regime. Allowing them to maintain access would be like throwing the regime a life vest. But Europeans, who have significant economic dealings with Iran, have been fighting tooth and nail for the U.S. to avoid that step.
Nothing official has been announced yet, and it’s possible Trump will end up going all in on sanctions. He has, in the past, been known to disregard the advice of Cabinet officials and go with his gut instincts, as he did when he rightly pulled out of the Iran deal. National security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s public statements have remained hawkish on Iran.
But Mnuchin’s recent comments have offered some wiggle room.
“I can assure you our objective is to make sure that sanctioned transactions do not occur whether it’s through SWIFT or any other mechanism,” he told Reuters a few days ago. “Our focus is to make sure that the sanctions are enforced.”
Yet Mnuchin told the Wall Street Journal that “humanitarian” transactions would be allowed.
His comments leave room for a policy in which transactions could be merely be monitored in some way. Allowing “humanitarian” transactions would create a major loophole, as in the past Iran has used the idea of “humanitarian” transactions to get around international sanctions.
In the same story, the Journal reported that “Mnuchin signaled that the U.S. may not force Belgium-based financial-messaging service Swift to disconnect Iranian banks from the global banking network. The secretary has told foreign governments the U.S. could take a less-confrontational approach, according to people who have been briefed on the matter by government officials.”
A story in the Hebrew-language Israel Hayom reported that Israel has been informed that the Trump administration has relented to European pressure in deciding to back off SWIFT sanctions. The Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo also reported this was the decision, citing U.S. officials.
When contacted, a Treasury spokesman offered the following statement: “Secretary Mnuchin has led an intense economic pressure campaign against Iran as part of this administration’s comprehensive strategy to address the totality of Iran’s malign and destabilizing activity, with much more to come. Treasury has made it very clear that we will continue to cut off bad Iranian actors, including designated banks, from accessing the international financial system in a number of different ways. We will also take action against those attempting to conduct prohibited transactions with sanctioned Iranian entities regardless of the mechanisms used. We will not comment specifically on any future sanctions on SWIFT or other entities.”
The idea of “intense” pressure falls short of the “maximum pressure” that was promised by Trump and has been emphasized by Bolton and Pompeo. “Intense” means strong pressure, whereas “maximum” means that the U.S. government is using all of its sanctions tools to squeeze the Iranian regime.
Trump, in announcing he was pulling out of the Iran deal in May, issued a formal directive that ordered “the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury shall immediately begin taking steps to reimpose all United States sanctions lifted or waived in connection with the JCPOA [Iran deal].” Those would include the SWIFT sanctions.
In announcing the first group of reimposed sanctions in August, Trump said it was part of the policy of “applying maximum economic pressure on the Iranian regime.”
Bolton reiterated that Trump “wants maximum pressure on Iran, maximum pressure, and that is what is going on.”
In a July speech, Pompeo said, “We have an obligation to put maximum pressure on the regime’s ability to generate and move money, and we will do so. At the center of this campaign is the reimposition of sanctions on Iran’s banking and energy sectors.”
The sanctions that would “snap back” as part of the U.S. exiting the Iran deal include “sanctions on the provision of specialized financial messaging services to the Central Bank of Iran and Iranian financial institutions” — but that only matters if the administration follows through on enforcement.
For those concerned about the threat from Iran, the fear is that Trump reneging on his promises to apply “maximum pressure” would create a loophole that protects Iran from sanctions by allowing them to engage in trade and, more broadly, demonstrate a lack of will that will encourage Iran and its European allies to push back against Trump in the future.