Senate Republicans released a report last week that says the Obama administration attempted to side-step sanctions against Iran after the 2015 nuclear deal. The sanctions, which remained intact after the deal with Iran, prohibited Iran from engaging in transactions within the U.S. financial system.
Officials within the Obama administration had reassured Congress and the public that those sanctions would stay in place and that Iran would not be given access to the U.S. financial system; however, this new report reveals that the Treasury Department did in fact issue a license in early 2016 to an Omani bank that would have allowed Iran to exchange about $5.7 billion from Omani rials to U.S. dollars to euros.
The transaction in question never happened, but only because the two major U.S. banks approached by the Obama administration declined to participate. This sidestep of U.S. sanctions against Iran was an attempt to aid Iran in accessing the benefits it was promised under the nuclear deal without giving more power to those who opposed the deal.
Civics Lesson: The Iran Nuclear Deal
The Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was an agreement reached in July 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., the U.K., Russia, France, China, and Germany) and the EU. The Obama-era deal brought an end to over a decade of concern over Tehran’s nuclear program after two years of talks. In essence, the deal granted Iran relief from many sanctions in exchange for extreme limitations and regulations on its nuclear program—including the deactivation of two-thirds of its centrifuges, removal of 98% of its enriched uranium, using concrete to fill its plutonium production reactor, and regular and extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for compliance. President Donald Trump announced in 2018 that the United States was pulling out of the deal.
In essence, the deal granted Iran relief from many sanctions in exchange for extreme limitations and regulations on its nuclear program—including the deactivation of two-thirds of its centrifuges, removal of 98% of its enriched uranium, using concrete to fill its plutonium production reactor, and regular and extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for compliance. President Donald Trump announced in 2018 that the United States was pulling out of the deal.
The question of whether the Obama administration would allow Iran access to limited transactions in U.S. dollars continued throughout 2016, with both Republicans and Democrats arguing that Iran should not be given access without giving up more under the deal. Despite those arguments and repeated reassurances that the U.S. was not considering giving Iran access—even though it had already attempted to do so.
In a June 2016 letter to Senators Marco Rubio and Mark Kirk, the Treasury explicitly denied that it was working to grant Iran access: “The U.S. Department of Treasury is not working on behalf of Iran to enable Iranian access to U.S. dollars elsewhere in the international financial system, nor are we assisting Iran in gaining access to dollar payment systems outside the U.S. financial system. The Administration has not and is not planning to grant Iran access to the U.S. financial system.”
The Senate report concluded that Iran eventually found a way to access the billions it had stored in Omani rials, likely by converting much smaller amounts through other currencies rather than one large transaction. Access to U.S. dollars would certainly have sped that process up, but that would have also defeated the purpose of the sanctions in the first place—to deter actions that violate the accepted international norms and encourage cooperation.
In this case, the sanctions against Iran remained in place, but that’s only due to the decision of the banks approached when the administration went back on its promises to the American public and lawmakers. None of the actions taken by the Obama administration in this scenario were illegal—but this extreme betrayal of trust reminds us that it is important to hold all of our lawmakers and politicians to the same standard, no matter the party affiliation they carry.
Let’s all take a moment to check our biases. If you consider yourself liberal—are you outraged by this report? Because you ought to be, just like we’re betting most conservatives already are. Now, let’s flip the story and imagine this was a story about the Trump administration. In that case, liberals would be righteous and inflamed, but would conservatives be? We hope so. Because no matter the affiliation, presidential lies are presidential lies—and that should never be acceptable behavior from our Commander in Chief.