David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury Department's assistant secretary for terrorist financing, is in Europe to meet with allies and discuss the firm application of UN sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. Tehran is suspected of using its civilian nuclear program to hide enrichment activities aimed at developing nuclear weapons, which the government denies.
With the approach of a new round of talks with Iranian nuclear negotiators in Istanbul, the United States wants to be sure the sanctions are having their full effect. Cohen sat down with RFE/RL Radio Farda correspondent Kavyan Hosseini in Prague to discuss the details and challenges of his mission.RFE/RL: Can you describe the purpose of your trip and that of other Treasury Department officials who are meeting with their counterparts around the globe?David Cohen:
The purpose of my trip and all these trips really is to consult and coordinate with our allies with respect to the sanctions that have been imposed by the [UN] Security Council, by the EU, and also by the United States with respect to Iran. We are, as an international community, pursuing a dual track strategy that involves both diplomacy, on the one hand, and pressure, on the other. And the Treasury Department's role in that dual track strategy is ensuring that the sanctions that are applied are robustly enforced and, frankly, to think about additional ways to increase pressure on Iran if that is what is necessary.RFE/RL: It's 10 days before the second round of nuclear talks in Turkey. What's the exact message you are sending right now to the Iranian government to increase the pressure?Cohen:
Well, I think the message to the Iranian government in the run up to these talks in Istanbul is that the international community is unified and strongly supportive of robust sanctions so long as they are necessary. The whole goal here is to create leverage and opportunity for the diplomats to do their work. But that requires the Iranians to come to Istanbul with some seriousness and a willingness to engage with the international community and resolve these concerns. And until they do so, I think the international community is quite unified in its view that pressure needs to be brought to bear on the Iranian government. And that is the message, that is why we are on these trips.RFE/RL: Do you think the sanctions are having any effect?
Investors check an electronic board showing stock information at the Tehran Stock Exchange (file photo)
In terms of the effectiveness of the sanctions, we are seeing that the sanctions are having an effect inside Iran and in particular on the Iranian leadership. We are seeing indications that there is increasing turmoil within the leadership as the sanctions are starting to have an economic effect.RFE/RL: Do you have any examples of the sanctions having an effect?Cohen:
There have been comments made in the press, in public in Iran, where the leadership has been criticized for not taking the sanctions seriously, as one example. I think there are other indications that the leadership in Iran is increasingly concerned about the economic impact of the sanctions. I think, as you know, the Iranians have been planning to institute a subsidies reform effort which has been delayed and delayed and is now slowly starting to be implemented. I think much of the delay in the implementation of the subsidies reforms is due to the concerns that have to do with how that will interact with the sanctions and whether the Iranian government is going to be able to contain the price increases that they are imposing on the Iranian public. So I think there is a number of indications that the sanctions are starting to really get the attention of the Iranian leadership.RFE/RL: The Turkish government voted against sanctions on Iran at the United Nations, and there are still a large number of Turkish companies doing business with Iran. Do you see that as a problem?Cohen:
I think the question is whether Turkey is going to open itself up to being an escape hatch for Iran from the international sanctions. We are not seeing that and, frankly, we are in close consultations with our allies in Turkey about the problem that that would cause. What we are seeing on the other side is the financial institutions in Turkey being very cautious and, frankly, withdrawing from their relationships with Iranian financial institutions. I think there is a difference between the public rhetoric and the private action.RFE/RL: What about China? As long as China does not put in place all those extra sanctions, is there any effect from those sanctions? In the past, we've also seen that the Chinese government often fills in the gaps in many areas when Western companies pull out.Cohen:
The Chinese government voted in favor of the [UN sanctions] resolution in the Security Council and has been very clear that they also are fully intending to comply with the Security Council's requirements in the most recent resolution. I think they also recognize that filling the gap, as you say, would cause a great deal of concern among other countries in the world and, frankly, we are not seeing either Chinese financial institutions or Chinese businesses filling behind the businesses and the financial institutions that are withdrawing from Iran.RFE/RL: Are there other factors besides the sanctions themselves that keep international companies from doing business with Iran?Cohen:
The involvement of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in broader areas of the Iranian economy, including the hydrocarbon sector, has led a number of companies to be quite reluctant to continue their operations in Iran. It includes, certainly, many European companies. I think it also includes companies outside of the European Union because of the lack of a desire, frankly, to get involved with the IRGC as it sort of expands its reach into more sectors of the Iranian economy.RFE/RL: Many Iranian people want to know what the real terrorist threat is from Iran right now for the U.S. government?Cohen:
The concern that we have with respect to the Iranian government and terrorism is very much focused on their support for Hizballah [in Lebanon] and support, more generally, for terrorist activity around the world. They are, I think, without equal in terms of state support for terrorism.RFE/RL: What is the exact target for the sanctions? Many ordinary Iranian people feel they are the ones being hurt, in the end, by the sanctions.Cohen:
Our interest in the targeted sanction regime is to be as precise as possible in applying sanctions to those people, those companies, and those institutions that are involved in illicit conduct. And so we have identified financial institutions that are supporting Iran's nuclear missile program. We have identified business entities that are affiliated with the [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] in its support for the nuclear program as well as the Quds Force and its support for terrorism. I think we recognize the case that even targeted sanctions have some spill over effect and affect the Iranian public more generally. But frankly, this is an issue to be brought up with the Iranian government.