Iran accused in far-reaching plot to evade international oil sanctions

The Iranian government used a series of “small banks in out of the way places” to launder billions of dollars as part of the nation’s effort to collect oil revenue in the face of economic sanctions, the Obama administration said Thursday.

The plot, which is alleged to have stretched from Turkey to the United Arab Emirates to Malaysia, involved a series of front companies that sought to move billions of dollars on behalf of Iran, including tens of millions to a firm linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), according to the Treasury Department.

The agency issued new sanctions against those accused of involvement, including Iranian businessman Babak Zanjani, a Malaysian bank and an international network of five front companies. The designation freezes any assets belonging to those parties in U.S. jurisdictions and blocks any transactions between them and anyone in the United States.

Thursday’s action comes on the heels of similar sanctions leveled last month against Greek businessman Dimitris Cambis and several of his firms implicated in an intricate oil-shipping plot also meant to evade sanctions.

“Today’s announcement offers stark evidence that Iran is not being terribly successful in their efforts to avoid sanctions,” a senior Treasury Department official told reporters.

Zanjani, 43, is the chairman of Sorinet Group, composed of companies and financial institutions that have been used by the Iranian government to finance its sales of oil around the world, the Treasury said.

Also designated were Iran-based Naft Iran Intertrade Company Ltd., the Istanbul-based firm Kont Kosmetik, Kont Investment Bank of Tajikistan, Dubai-based Sorinet Commercial Trust (SCT) Bankers and First Islamic Investment Bank Ltd., based in Malaysia. 

“As international sanctions have become increasingly stifling, Iran has resorted to criminal money laundering techniques, moving its oil and money under false names and pretenses,” Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said in a written statement. “Whether through Babak Zanjani, Dimitri Cambis, or tomorrow’s chosen accomplice, we will be relentless in exposing and thwarting Iran’s attempts to evade international sanctions and abuse the global financial system.”