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Iran's foreign minister urges government to join international money laundering watchdog

Key Points
  • Iran risks being put on a financial blacklist, affecting trade and banking, if it does not join the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
  • Parliament is expected to make a decision on membership in April.
  • The FATF has given Iran until June to decide.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif
World Economic Forum

There's an internal fight underway in Iran over whether the country should join the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) — the international coalition combating money laundering and terrorist financing — and it's pitting hardliners against those who want more economic alignment with the West.

FATF has given Iran until June to join or face being added to a financial blacklist, a move that could further cripple its economy by affecting trade and financial dealings with the EU and other FATF member states.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned Tuesday that not joining the FATF would "harm the national interests of the country." Iran was taken off the blacklist in 2016.

His comments to the Iranian Labour News Agency came just days after Iran's Assembly of Experts, the body that vets legislation, issued an unprecedented statement saying Iran's membership in FATF would be a "strategic mistake."

On Monday, Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, the committee that resolves differences between the parliament and the Guardian Council, echoed the assembly's stance. Rezaei said that the majority of the council stood against joining the international body.

Efforts to join FATF began in November 2017 when President Hassan Rouhani pushed for the ratification of two of four of the organization's requirements. Despite early ratification, the bill took two years to get final approval by the Expediency Council and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, passing in January 2019.

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Within Iran, hardliners and allies of the supreme leader have argued the remaining requirements — the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Combating Financing of Terrorism bill — would curtail Iran's ability to support regional allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are U.S.-designated terrorist organizations.

Reformers, however, say the measures are critical for the financial well-being of the country.

Iran's economy has been in a tailspin since the reinstatement of U.S. sanctions after President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which had lifted economic penalties on Iran in exchange for limits to its nuclear program.

Refusing FATF membership could also jeopardize INSTEX, the new special purpose vehicle created by France, Germany and the U.K. to facilitate humanitarian trade.

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder of Bourse & Bazaar, which tracks developments in Iran's economy, says regardless of setbacks in parliament, these bills are not dead in the water.

"There is a sense the process wouldn't have gotten this far if there wasn't a consensus that this needed to happen," he said.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei makes a speech regarding Trump's withdrawal decision from Iran nuclear deal during a press conference in Tehran, Iran on May 09, 2018.
Iranian Leader's Press Office | Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Despite the June deadline, FATF has given some leeway to Iran in the past. Batmanghelidj points out that the watchdog, as well as some European countries, both understand the internal pressures working against Rouhani and have attempted to keep the issue from being politicized.

Passing the FATF requirements is part of Rouhani's vow to fight corruption, curb military control of the economy and stabilize the financial system. But, as Batmanghelidj points out, fulfilling FATF requirements is just one step and more will have to be done. "There will need to be structural changes in the financial system," he said.

A final decision on FATF requirements has been postponed by the Expediency Council until after the Iranian New Year holiday, which began Wednesday.