U.S.-Iran Talks Will Falter Unless Abdolnaser Hemmati Is at the Table
Unwinding sanctions will be central to reviving the nuclear deal. If the Biden administration wants a lasting solution, it must involve Iran’s central bank governor.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
The United States and Iran may soon be sitting at the negotiating table once again. In just the last week, the Biden administration has offered to restart negotiations, and Iran has struck a deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency to slow moves to limit inspections of its nuclear program. A window of opportunity has emerged for the two sides to talk, likely in a format facilitated by the European Union. If and when the United States and Iran sit across from one another again, there is a key figure who ought to be present—Abdolnaser Hemmati, the governor of Iran’s central bank.
In many respects, Iran’s central bank was the primary target of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s economic war on Iran. Much of the economic hardship that Iran has experienced due to the reimposition of secondary sanctions can be attributed to the Trump administration’s success in limiting the central bank’s access to its foreign exchange reserves.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Iran retains access to just $8.8 billion of readily available foreign currency, roughly one-tenth of its total reserves. Without access to its reserves held in countries like Iraq, South Korea, Japan, and Germany, the central bank has struggled to forestall the weakening of Iran’s currency, which is today worth less than one-fifth of its value prior to Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This deep depreciation made imported goods more expensive, contributing to annual inflation rates of nearly 50 percent.
Hemmati, a veteran banker, was appointed as central bank governor in July 2018, parachuting in just a few months before secondary sanctions were fully reimposed on Iran. He has performed remarkably well in difficult circumstances. Iran’s currency was regaining value for most of 2019, a trend disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, which hit the country’s economy hard, throwing trade into disarray.
Since reaching a historic low in October 2020 of just over 320,000 rials to the dollar on the free market, the currency has since stabilized at around 250,000 rials to the dollar—with this stability helping to undergird Iran’s slow economic recovery. Along the way, Hemmati has proved an adept communicator, using his Instagram account, the central bank’s website, and even select interviews with international media to outline his priorities and reassure the Iranian public about the bank’s capacity to defend the rial from hyperinflation.
Iran has not faced a full-blown economic meltdown, despite the best efforts of the Trump administration. But the country finds itself in a painful period of economic stagnation, and sanctions relief will be needed should any government wish to deliver on promises of prosperity. However, Trump sought to make sanctions relief more difficult.
In September 2019, the Trump administration designated Iran’s central bank under a terrorism authority, a move that jeopardized long-standing exemptions permitting the bank to play a crucial role in facilitating the purchase of humanitarian goods such as food and medicine.
In February 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a new general license to allay those concerns. But more troubling was the intention behind the terrorism designation, which was applied to Iran’s central bank for the express purpose of making it harder for a potential Democratic administration to lift sanctions on the bank in the future.
The Biden administration will likely need to remove this designation to bring the bank back to its original status under the JCPOA—but removing a designation ostensibly tied to Iran’s purported support for terrorism may prove politically tricky as part of U.S. reentry into an agreement focused exclusively on the country’s nuclear program.
Lifting sanctions was difficult even before the Trump administration’s cynical moves. Iran’s experience of sanctions relief following the implementation of the JCPOA was disappointing. International banks remained hesitant to process Iran-related transactions, citing unclear guidance on how to conduct business in a compliant manner and the risks of punitive fines if the remaining sanctions were inadvertently violated.
This limited the rebound in trade and, particularly, investment in Iran. While there had been some technical exchanges on banking during the JCPOA negotiations, including working-level exchanges with Iran’s central bank, these were largely focused on the unfreezing of Iran’s assets—the challenges Tehran faced in mundane banking blindsided the JCPOA parties.
In March 2016, then-Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew noted that the “experience with Iran demonstrates how difficult [sanctions lifting] can be.” Despite what Lew referred to as “widespread global outreach” by officials at the U.S. Treasury and State departments, the banking challenges persisted and continued to stymie trade and investment until Trump’s eventual withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
In an interview last July, Valiollah Seif, who was central bank governor at the time of the JCPOA negotiations, suggested that Iran had not had the right experts in the room. “The JCPOA could solve the problem related to oil sales at that time, but it could not solve our banking problems. … Our economic and banking expert team was weak in the JCPOA talks,” he said.
Understandably, Iranian leaders are keen to get sanctions relief right this time around. In a recent speech, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted that any sanctions relief offered by the United States must take place “in practice” and not just “on paper.” Moreover, the efficacy of that sanctions relief will need to be “verified.”
What’s clear is that as new negotiations approach, the JCPOA parties cannot rely on diplomats to untangle the complex knots that have constricted Iran’s banking ties for so long. To ensure sanctions relief succeeds, Hemmati ought to be in the room as part of a high-level technical dialogue, which could eventually include top officials such as U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire.
There are a few reasons why a dialogue on sanctions relief, which would be similar in structure to the pre-JCPOA exchanges on nuclear issues between then-U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, ought to center on Hemmati.
First, Hemmati has emerged as a key figure of Iran’s economic diplomacy. In the last two years, he has made trips to Iraq, Oman, South Korea, and China in order to ensure Iran retained functional financial channels with key trade partners while the Trump administration sought to put pressure on the governments of these countries. His participation in the new talks would be a natural extension of this global outreach, and most of the sanctions relief benefits promised by the United States will need to be delivered via third countries. Hemmati is the only stakeholder to have full technical knowledge of the challenges U.S. sanctions have posed in economic relations with key trade partners.
Second, Hemmati’s stewardship will be critical for the implementation of both early and late-stage sanctions relief measures. Whether it is the easing of access to foreign reserves or the granting of Iran’s COVID-19 IMF loan—both under consideration as early economic gestures by the Biden administration—or the consideration of new economic incentives such as reauthorization of the “dollar U-turn,” an exemption revoked in 2008 that allowed U.S. banks to process Iran-related transactions in cases where a payment is being made between two non-Iranian foreign banks, effective implementation depends on Iran’s central bank.
Importantly, the international community will also expect Iran to continue to reform its banking sector in line with international standards. On this point, Hemmati has been a key champion, stating recently that if the JCPOA were revived, Iran would need to complete adoption of the action plan set forth by the Financial Action Task Force, a standards-setting body, in order to see the benefits of sanctions relief in the banking sector.
Finally, Hemmati would bring some technocratic continuity to the economic implementation of a restored JCPOA. There is considerable concern that the possible arrival of a new Iranian president in August could leave any diplomatic agreement vulnerable to changing politics in Tehran.
While it may be possible for some of Iran’s top diplomats to remain in their posts in a new administration, it is Hemmati, whose term ends in 2023, who is best positioned to offer institutional continuity on implementation issues. He has proved to be an adept political operator. By insisting on the central bank’s technocratic independence, he has largely avoided the attacks regularly made against members of the Rouhani government.
He also maintains a good relationship with Khamenei and has been able to turn to the supreme leader to insulate the bank’s policies from political attacks. It is often argued that restoring the JCPOA would help boost the fortunes of Iran’s political moderates, but it is equally important for U.S. President Joe Biden to strengthen the hand of Iran’s technocrats who work on policies, not politics.
The Biden administration’s early appointments made clear that when it comes to Iran, personnel is policy. The same holds true in Tehran. If the right people are not in the room during upcoming negotiations, not only will the agreed policies be deficient, but so too will implementation falter. The United States, the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and Germany need to provide Iran a pathway to the normalization of its banking ties—to do so, it would make sense to engage Iran’s top banker.
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is the founder of the economic think tank Bourse & Bazaar. Twitter: @yarbatman