Sanctions busters get a free pass

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The Obama administration has failed for three years to report on companies that might have violated sanctions on doing business in Iran, North Korea and Syria.

By law, the U.S. is required every six months to report on companies and entities that provide these countries with advanced conventional weapons or assistance with weapons of mass destruction programs and missile systems. Violators are sanctioned for at least two years.

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However, the administration is now three years behind in reporting on violators. The last time the administration filed a report was on Feb. 5, 2013, which covered violations in 2010, according to public State Department records and a Democratic House aide.

Some fear the lack of reporting could be giving Russian companies involved in those countries a free pass.

The Democratic aide said that under the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA), Russian companies that could be providing Syria with S-300 missile systems would be sanctioned.

“We are all very concerned about Russian support to the Assad regime,” the aide said. “Iran and Russia are both supporting the regime. It’s important to know the parameters of Russian support and know what they’re doing.”

Previous violators of the sanctions law include Russian arms dealer Rosoboronexport, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force and the Syrian Ministry of Defense.

The aide said there is reason to believe these entities are continuing to violate the law, but that there is no way of knowing without the State Department’s report.

A senior administration official blamed the George W. Bush administration for leaving the Obama administration with a backlog of reporting.

“We are still catching up from the previous administration’s work, who filed its INKSNA reports very, very late for a number of years in a row,” the official said. “We started from a deficit but have made good progress in catching up.”

But members of Congress aren’t happy with that progress so far. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) introduced an amendment to a Ukraine aid bill that urged the administration to report on violators in a more timely manner.

That amendment also called for reporting of violators with a “special emphasis” on those assisting President Bashar Assad in the three-year civil war in Syria. “The administration is dropping the ball on these critical sanctions,” Royce said in a statement explaining the measure.

The final Ukraine aid bill passed by both the House and Senate did not include that amendment, however, and it’s unclear whether or when Royce and Engel might try again to pass the language.

According to the Democratic aide, reporting under the sanctions law is now so backlogged that even if the White House submitted reporting for 2011 soon, it would be difficult to punish violations that happened years ago.

“It’s important to get up to date,” the aide said. “It’s more important for Congress to know about transfers that took place in the recent past than in the distant past.

“If we know about violations two to three years ago, that isn’t super useful. If we know about more recent violations, we could pass additional sanctions.”

Yleem Poblete, a former Hill aide for almost 20 years and the former House Foreign Affairs Committee chief of staff from 2011 through 2013, said politics is a likely reason for the delayed reporting.

She said enforcing the sanctions was sometimes a problem under former President Bush. His administration tried to avoid sanctioning Russia under the Iran, North Korea and Syria law, she said, but could not certify that Russia was not helping Iran’s nuclear program.

The situation became worse under the Obama administration with the “reset” of relations with Russia, said Poblete.

“After that, the information provided to the Congress that could negatively affect the Hill’s perception of Moscow was much more limited,” she said.

Public records show that since late 2006, under INKSNA and its precursor, the Iran and Syria Nonproliferation Act, the U.S. has sanctioned Russian entities at least five times. Sanctions have also been imposed against government agencies, companies and individuals from China, Sudan and Venezuela, as well as entities in Iran and Syria.

Those sanctions against Russian entities all took place under the Bush administration; the Obama administration has not once sanctioned a Russian entity under INKSNA.

In addition, the Obama administration lifted sanctions on Rosoboronexport in May 2010 — five months before they were due to expire — after deciding the company was no longer engaged in prohibited activities.

Poblete said the failure of the Obama administration to use the law is relieving pressure on Russia and undermining the intent of the law.

“If the goal was for Russia to act as a responsible actor, stop helping rogue regimes like Iran and Syria, or if it was to convince Russia not to invade neighboring countries, then the strategy obviously failed,” she said.

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