U.S. Penalizes Network Linked to Iran Oil Sales

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BRUSSELS -- In a setback for the United States' attempts to isolate Iran, a European Union court threw out sanctions on Iranian companies on Friday, the same day that American authorities took the opposite tack, imposing restrictions on a network of six individuals and four businesses for links to oil sales.

The General Court in Brussels, the union's second-highest tribunal, ruled that the bloc wrongly imposed sanctions against seven Iranian companies, including four banks, as part of efforts to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, a decision that immediately drew the ire of American officials.

"We are very disappointed by the court's decision today," a spokesman for the United States Treasury said in a statement. "The evidence linking these banks to Iran's illicit nuclear activities is clear and strong, and no financial institution anywhere should allow these Iranian banks to transact with them."

The Treasury said its own actions Friday represented a renewed crackdown on Iran, curbing the use of front companies, financial institutions and businesspeople to conceal the direct involvement of the government in Tehran and entities like the National Iranian Oil Company and the Naftiran Intertrade Company.

The developments come amid signs of a shift to moderation in Iran, which calls its nuclear activities legal and peaceful. Western nations and Israel, however, consider its uranium enrichment program a cover for developing the ability to make atomic bombs.

The ruling in Europe involved decisions by the union's governments to freeze the funds of companies including Post Bank of Iran, the Iran Insurance Company, Good Luck Shipping and the Export Development Bank of Iran from 2008 to 2011.

But the Council of the European Union, an executive body of government ministers from all E.U. countries, had not proved their cases against those four companies and could not "properly establish that they had provided support for nuclear proliferation," the General Court said in a statement.

The court also annulled measures against Bank Refah Kargaran, saying the council failed to explain the reasons for its decision to impose sanctions.

In a case involving an individual identified as Naser Bateni, the court said Mr. Bateni's involvement in certain companies facing restrictions did "not by themselves" justify the sanctions.

According to a March 2012 online summary of his case seeking an annulment of the sanctions, Mr. Bateni was based in Hamburg, Germany, and served as the manager of a company called Hanseatic Trade Trust and Shipping, also based in Hamburg.

Hanseatic could not be reached by telephone for comment on Friday afternoon. But according to the company's Web site, Mr. Bateni remains its managing director, holds a doctorate earned in Britain in marine law, and has two decades of experience "with reputable leading shipping companies."

The court said the council erred in assessing the facts and evidence against the Persia International Bank and the Iranian Offshore Engineering and Construction Company.

The sanctions will remain in place for at least two months pending any appeal to the European Court of Justice, the bloc's highest tribunal.

The Treasury Department's action, which prohibits Americans from doing business with the named individuals and companies, and freezes their assets, was aimed at a network of entities linked to Seyed Seyyedi, an Iranian businessman and the director of Sima General Trading, a company previously penalized by the Treasury.

The Treasury identified KASB International, Petro Royal FZE and AA Energy FZCO as companies based in the United Arab Emirates controlled by Mr. Seyyedi and assisting the Iranian national oil company to evade sanctions.

The Treasury also identified a number of individuals representing Swiss Management Services, NIOC-International Affairs in London and the Iranian Oil Company U.K. as helping the Iranian government evade oil sanctions.

"Our sanctions on Iran's oil sales are a critically important component of maintaining pressure on the Iranian government," David S. Cohen, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury, said in a statement.

The ruling in Brussels on Friday was the latest in a string of reversals for European Union governments, which have been reluctant to share evidence they deem overly sensitive. One of the governments' main concerns is that sharing such information with the court would compromise intelligence gathering.

Seeking to address the problem, European governments agreed in October to shift tactics by moving away from blacklisting individual banks and instead imposing across-the-board measures, like requiring authorization of transactions over 10,000 euros, or $13,100, with some exceptions for transfers in areas like humanitarian aid, medical equipment and farming.

Officials and governments will study the ruling to determine the appropriate response, Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, said by e-mail on Friday afternoon. Ms. Kocijancic said European governments and officials were "fully aware of the need to come to a swift conclusion on the approach regarding these cases."

Officials from European governments are expected to hold initial discussions on whether to appeal on Tuesday, according to an E.U. diplomat with direct knowledge of those plans. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks will not be made public.

In the case of Europaïsch-Iranische Handelsbank, the court said that an initial assessment by the council in 2011 was flawed, but that a subsequent assessment was solid, and so sanctions should remain.

"Consequently, those more recent acts have not been annulled, and the funds of Europaïsch-Iranische Handelsbank remain frozen," the court said.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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