Iranian bankers fear IRGC terrorism designation dooms vital financial reforms

Bourse and Bazaar | Maziar Motamedi: Reform-minded Iranians, especially those inside the ailing banking system, are worried that the US government’s step to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization has doomed a years-long effort to get the Islamic Republic off a consequential global blacklist.

The administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been working hard to meet the requirements of the action plan set by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the intergovernmental organization established with the mandate of combatting money laundering and terrorism financing.

The required reforms have caused deep political divisions, with opponents arguing that Iran will be compromising its sovereignty should it appease the FATF, while porposents argue that failing to pass the required legislation will eliminate final links Iran maintains with foreign financial institutions while under US sanctions.

Undaunted even as death threats were made against them, a majority of Iran’s parliament voted to pass all four FATF bills over the course of several months. The supervisory Guardian Council then ratified two of the laws, while two others were considered deficient. The council and parliament have failed to find a consensus on adjustments to these two bills, which pertain to regulations that deter terrorist financing and organized crime. Now the powerful Expediency Council must vote to break the deadlock on ratification.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for Iran to show progress on the FATF action plan. At the end of its February plenary sessions, the FATF announced, “If by June 2019, Iran does not enact the remaining legislation in line with FATF Standards, then the FATF will require increased supervisory examination for branches and subsidiaries of financial institutions based in Iran.”

When the Trump administration took the controversial move to designate the IRGC a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), the first time the FTO designation had been applied to a part of a foreign state, the condemnations in Iran came swiftly.

As Rohollah Faghihi reports for Al Monitor, hardliners opposed to engagement with the West pointed to the FTO designation to show the futility of the FATF reforms. The day after the FTO designation was announced, Expediency Council member Gholamreza Mesbahi-Moqadam said the designation has decreased the chances that the FATF bills woild be ratified. “The move has strengthened the council’s [unfavorable] stance about the FATF and the chances of the bills not being approved has increased,” he said. Others have even placed the chances of ratification at zero.

Members of Iranians banking community, who have been advocating for FATF reforms for years as part of a larger drive for modernization of the financial sector, share in this pessimism. A senior Iranian banker speaking to Bourse & Bazaar on condition of anonymity agreed that the FTO designation has harmed the odds of the bill passing, by shifting the environment away from constructive discussion and cooperation towards sloganeering.

“The designation has major political implications, the full scope of which has yet to become clear, but I find it unlikely that the bills will be approved under current circumstances,” the banker said. “Essentially whenever the situation gains an emotional aspect, decisions also become largely emotional.”

Several high-level Iranian officials have also confirmed that the FTO designation will have an impact on the FATF bills. Secretary of the Expediency Council Mohsen Rezaei, who counts himself among those opposed to the bills, has said the FTO designation will be factored in forthcoming decisions based on “national interests.”

Meanwhile, Laya Joneydi, Iran’s Vice President for Legal Affairs, suggested it was a mistake to conflate decision-making about the FATF bills and the FTO designation since the two issues are “fully separable.” She did, however, point out that the designation will prompt the Rouhani government to consider any new “reservations” about the two bills.

A source inside the Central Bank of Iran also confirmed to Bourse & Bazaar on condition of anonymity that the IRGC designation should be expected to have an impact on the FATF bills.

“The central bank has always been in favor of having the bills pass into law, but we have already concluded all expert reviews of the bills and now everything depends on the views of the Expediency Council. At at the moment it seems the number of council members opposed to the bills is higher,” the source said.

Central Bank Governor Abdolnasser Hemmati has on multiple occasions voices his support for enacting the bills into law, saying Iran needs to do more to comply with international financial standards. In his latest remarks in early March, he said safeguarding and strengthening what little international banking ties Iran retains is a “necessity.”

In late February, Rouhani mounted his strongest support yet for the bills, saying “we cannot give the country to 10-20 people and say we follow your decisions”. The president called on the Expediency Council to facilitate passage of the bills lest Iran lose its already tenuous link to the global financial system.

But not everyone inside Iran’s isolated banking system is pessimistic about salvaging the FATF action plan.

“The bills will certainly face delays, but we predict that they will ultimately be signed into law,” a senior member of a banking sector association told Bourse & Bazaar on condition of anonymity.

The official likened the situation surrounding the issue to the Iran nuclear deal, noting that many analysts thought such a multilateral agreement could never be reached given opposition from hardliners.

“I believe some members of the Expediency Council harbor doubts about some of the contents of the FATF bills but are not opposed to them outright. Those doubts will be cleared in time,” the official said.

The question remains whether the FATF will continue to show patience as Iran’s complex domestic politics slow the pace of reform even further.