by Hugh Fitzgerald
As the Iranian leadership tries to exploit the riots in America for their own purposes, it is useful to recall an event from several weeks ago, when Secretary of State Pompeo tweeted about Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, commenting on how Rouhani was caught on tape telling Iran’s leadership that the purpose of Iran’s public relations campaign to end US sanctions due to the coronavirus pandemic was really about enriching the leaders of the regime.
The story is here.
“Startling revelation by #Iran’s President @HassanRouhani that the regime’s concerted effort to lift U.S. sanctions isn’t about fighting the pandemic. It’s about cash for the regime’s leaders,” Pompeo said on Twitter.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs initiated a concerted effort to influence public opinion and say ‘no’ to sanctions,” Rouhani says, according to the translation.
“Our efforts are aimed at bringing back our money seized in other countries,” he states.
The sanctions to which Rouhani refers are not what most of us think of when “sanctions on Iran” are mentioned. They have nothing to do with sanctions on the sale of Iranian oil. These are sanctions on individuals – many of the most important Iranian officials, who have stashed in foreign bank accounts huge sums, that have now been frozen at the request of U.S. authorities. When Rouhani speaks of “our money” he means the money taken by the regime’s leaders for their own benefit; this money should be made available to battle the coronavirus.
The Washington Free Beacon reported on March 23 that Pompeo revealed that Iranian officials have stolen more than a billion euros in funds intended to help fight coronavirus.
“Regime officials stole over a billion euros intended for medical supplies,” Pompeo said, adding that officials also “continue to hoard desperately needed masks, gloves, and other medical equipment for sale on the black market.”
Does anyone doubt it? We know that the Iranian regime is mired in corruption. We know that the Supreme Leader has a net worth of $95 billion. We know that both high-ranking clerics and high-ranking officers in the IRGC have made out like gangbusters while Iran’s people continue to suffer ever-greater impoverishment. Why would those leaders think twice about pocketing one billion euros that was to have been used to fight the coronavirus outbreak?
Nor should we doubt that hoarding of critical medical supplies – masks, gloves, ventilators – would be hoarded by officials, hoping to make a killing by selling them on the black market. Iran’s rulers have a record, and a reputation, of being insatiable in their greed. The Supreme Leader’s $95 billion is a fact that Secretary Pompeo might usefully mention in another of his blunt addresses, over the heads of their rulers, to the people of Iran.
Iran has indeed been involved in an “effort to influence public opinion” to end sanctions.
On Sunday, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif issued a notably overwrought tweet replete with all caps, saying, “US has gone from sabotage & assassinations to waging an economic war & #EconomicTerrorism on Iranians — to #MedicalTerror amidst #covid19iran.”
“This even exceeds what would be permissible on the battlefield,” he said.
“STOP aiding WAR CRIMES. STOP obeying IMMORAL & ILLEGAL US sanctions,” he wrote.
There are three different “economic wars” in which Iran is now involved. The one we all know about is the economic war being waged by the American government against Iran, undertaken to force it to halt its nuclear program. It now relies mainly on imposing sanctions on buyers of Iranian oil; this has helped reduce Tehran’s oil revenues by 90%. Another part of this war by the American government consists in freezing Iranian assets in accounts abroad, including the private accounts of Iran’s rulers.
There is another economic war that Iran’s leaders have been, and are still, conducting against their own people. This war consists of two different campaigns.
First, the Iranian rulers have for years been sending huge sums abroad, to proxies and allies in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and especially Syria. The total aid, including both money and weaponry, has been calculated by Western and Arab experts as amounting to between $10 and $15 billion a year, with the financial aid and weapons sent to Syria accounting for the lion’s share. Despite Iran’s own financial distress, that country’s rulers have been unwilling to end their support of these allies abroad. In Iran, protests began last September and have been held intermittently since, deploring this continuing drain on Iranian resources. Protesters have been chanting “No to Palestine, No To Hezbollah, Yes To Iran” and “Leave Syria Alone” and “Neither Gaza, Nor Lebanon, I Give My Life for Iran,” expressing their fury that such huge sums are still being sent abroad while Iranians are suffering increasing hardship.
Second, the Iranian leaders have proven to be exceptionally grasping and corrupt, and have diverted large amounts of the nation’s money into their own pockets, with many stashing their money in accounts abroad. The sums involved are tremendous. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is reported to have amassed $95 billion. President Rouhani – one of the few who is apparently not corrupt — has repeatedly warned, to no avail, about “the huge corruption in the Iranian government.” Much of this money goes into bank accounts, or other investments, abroad. The American economic war against Iran is directed as well at individual members of the regime, including senior clerics and IGRC commanders Their assets in banks abroad have, with great effort, been located, and have been frozen through the joint efforts of the American and European governments.
Iran’s public relations efforts are having an effect on left-wing politicians in the United States. Democrats in Congress have sent several letters to Pompeo and other officials demanding waivers and other measures to ease sanctions on the Islamic republic.
Foreign Policy reported that one letter referring to both Iran and Venezuela read, “By allowing our sanctions to contribute to the exceptional pain and suffering brought about by the coronavirus outbreaks in both nations, we play into the anti-Americanism that is at the heart of both regimes’ hold on power.”
The “exceptional pain and suffering” of the people of Iran began long before the sanctions regime was first imposed. That “pain and suffering” of Iran’s people comes from the choice Iran’s leaders made to spend enormous sums on its proxies and allies in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Close to $80 billion has been spent by Iran since 2011 on all this costly foreign adventurism. Iran had hoped that by helping to rescue Bashar al-Assad and his regime in Syria, it might then build bases in Syria from which to threaten Israel. While the Syrians gave the go-ahead, and the Iranians keep trying to build those bases, those pesky Israelis keep destroying them as fast as the Iranians can build them. In Yemen, the civil war continues inconclusively; Iran continues to send aid to the Shi’a Houthi rebels, but less than $100 million dollars each year. In Iraq, there has been something of a backlash against Iran’s funding of certain Shi’a militias, with resentment of “Iranian meddling.” In Lebanon, Iran has been funding Hezbollah with about $800 million a year; it has been forced to reduce that amount because of the economic situation in Iran, but still spends about $500 million a year. And in Lebanon, Hezbollah has lost the plot; it is hated by many for the support it gives to the present (and previous) government, widely seen as corrupt. Yet Hassan Nasrallah came out strongly in favor of the government and his fighters helped put down protests. The result is that not only Hezbollah, but its backer Iran, are now seen as unwelcome interlopers in Lebanese domestic politics, and despised even by many Shi’a Lebanese.
Iran’s leaders have only to decide that their own people – half of whom are now living below the poverty line – are more important to them than are all those foreign commitments that do nothing to improve the living conditions in Iran. If the Houthi rebels in Yemen were to defeat their enemies, how would that help Iranians in Tabriz or Mashhad to live better? If Shi’a militias financed by Iran manage to defeat their Sunni co-nationals in Iraq, how does that make things better for Iranians in Kerman or Qom who cannot afford food for their families? If Bashar al-Assad remains in power in Syria, because of help from Iran and Russia, how does this help Iranian families? If Hezbollah, supplied by Iran, fires thousands of rockets into Israel, or manages with Iran’s financing to build not a dozen but sixty well-outfitted terror tunnels into Israel, what effect will that have on the Iranian standard of living? Yet the government persists in its expensive follies abroad, earning the rage of the people paying the price at home.
Secretary Pompeo has discussed before the reasons for Iran’s economic distress, which have less to do with the re-imposition of American sanctions (that mainly affect oil sales) and more to do with the choices Iran’s leaders have made. Previously, Pompeo has focused on the amount Iran’s leaders have spent abroad on proxies and allies. In his latest tweet, he brought to the world’s attention the deliberate exploitation of the coronavirus by Iran’s leaders, who used it to gain sympathy, and to put pressure on the American government to lift its sanctions which, we were expected to believe, was indispensable if Iran was to be able to deal adequately with the virus outbreak. This argument certainly worked on the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:
Senator Bernie Sanders and far-left congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also sent a letter demanding a temporary suspension of all sanctions.
Iran has been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus. Reuters reported Sunday that 2,640 Iranians have died of the virus so far, and 38,309 are infected.
But the video of President Rouhani to which Secretary Pompeo makes reference is all about using the coronavirus outbreak as a means to “get back” the money that has been frozen or seized abroad. Were this money to be unfrozen, and returned to Iran, it would not simply be turned to the national treasury. Much of it is money that, Rouhani’s reference makes clear, that belongs to members of the ruling class, and will be returned to them, even though Rouhani knows perfectly well that these highly-placed officials, clerical and military, have amassed their fortunes by misappropriating money meant for the nation. Much (though not all) of the Iranian money that is now frozen in European bank accounts, and is then returned to Iranian control, will be given to the well-placed individuals who claim it as their own. It will not be spent by Iran’s government on fighting the coronavirus outbreak.
Pompeo’s refusal to be buffaloed by the Iranians is a welcome change from the behavior of his predecessor, former Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry, he of Louisburg Square and the Elizabeth Islands, who got along so swimmingly with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in working out that deal that gave Iran so much of what it wanted. Indeed, even after he was out of office, and Trump was in the White House, Kerry has continued to meet with Zarif, friend to friend, to discuss Iranian strategy, and how best to obtain a lifting of the sanctions that had been re-imposed. Some think Kerry’s behavior violates the Logan Act.
Secretary Pompeo made it known that the Americans would not release those frozen assets into the grasping hands of the Supreme Leader and his collaborators. The Trump Administration knows that money would not have been spent fighting the coronavirus, but returned to its “rightful owners” in the upper reaches of the regime. And the Administration knows, too, that if Iran’s leaders needed billions of dollars to combat the spread of the outbreak, even if they couldn’t halt the corruption, nor claw back money from the most egregiously corrupt (which is to say, themselves), they needed only decide to stop funding its proxies and allies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and use that money instead on combating the coronavirus. That was a decision that any decent regime, if it truly cared for the people it purported to represent, would have had no hesitation in making.
First published in Jihad Watch.