Wednesday, June 06, 2018
After striking an elusive nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration found itself in a quandary in early 2016: Iran had been promised access to its long-frozen overseas reserves, including $5.7 billion stuck in an Omani bank. To spend it, Iran wanted to convert the money into U.S. dollars and then euros, but top U.S. officials had repeatedly promised Congress that Iran would never gain access to America's financial system.
Those assurances notwithstanding, the Obama administration secretly issued a license to let Iran sidestep U.S. sanctions for the brief moment required to convert the funds through an American bank, an investigation by Senate Republicans released Wednesday showed.
The plan failed when two U.S. banks refused to participate.
The report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations sheds light on the delicate balance the Obama administration sought to strike after the deal, as it worked to ensure Iran received its promised benefits without playing into the hands of the deal's opponents. Amid a tense political climate, Iran hawks in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere argued that the United States was giving far too much to Tehran and that the windfall would be used to fund extremism and other troubling Iranian activity.
The Treasury Department license, issued in February 2016 and never disclosed, would have allowed Iran to convert $5.7 billion it held at Oman's Bank of Muscat from Omani rials into euros by exchanging them first into dollars. If the Omani bank had allowed the exchange without such a license, it would have violated sanctions that bar Iran from transactions that touch the U.S. financial system.
"Yikes," one former Treasury official told colleagues in an email, as described by the report. "It looks like we committed to a whole lot beyond just allowing the immobilized funds to settle out."
The Obama administration approached two U.S. banks to facilitate the conversion, the report said, but both refused, citing the reputational risk of doing business with or for Iran.
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