New statistics indicate that the Obama administration intentionally refrained from sanctioning Iran following the June election of President Hassan Rouhani, lending credence to multiple reports that the White House began secretly courting Tehran from the first moments of Rouhani’s presidency.
Prior to Rouhani’s June 14 election, the U.S. Treasury Department issued 10 sanction announcements targeting a total of 183 entities that were aiding and abetting Iran’s rogue oil trade and its nuclear weapons program, according to statistics compiled from publicly available releases on the Treasury's website.
New designations were issued each month from February to June 4, including six in the month of May alone.
However, just two announcements targeting a total of 29 rogue entities were issued following Rouhani’s election, which was accompanied by a three-month silence from the Treasury Department.
Treasury did not issue a new designation until Sept. 6, and it targeted some 10 rogue entities.
The second announcement was made on Thursday morning, after Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill lashed out at the White House for killing a new sanctions measure that was on the cusp of passing the Senate.
The stark contrast in the Obama administration’s approach on the sanctions front led some Iran experts to suggest that the White House shifted its policy in an attempt to woo the Rouhani administration before public talks that led to a recently inked nuclear accord.
"The Treasury folks have typically been warriors in this effort," said Unitd Against Nuclear Iran spokesman Nathan Carleton. "It seems incredibly likely that this change reflects the White House and State’s efforts to reach out to the Iranians following Rouhani’s election."
"Obviously, this is a dramatic difference, and it suggests a policy change," added UANI research director Matan Shamir, who has been tracking U.S. sanctions of Iran for months.
A Treasury Department official dismissed the portrait painted by the statistics, saying that sanctions cannot be gauged by the number of announcements and designations.
"The effectiveness of sanctions is defined by the results that they produce and how they are used to advance the national security goals of the United States, not by the number of persons designated in a specific week or the amount of assets frozen in a specific month," the Treasury Department official told the Washington Free Beacon.
The White House declined to comment on the notable shift.
UANI’s Carleton said he finds Treasury’s explanation difficult to believe, given that sanctions become more effective and robust when the United States amplifies its efforts to designate new entities as offenders.
"We're talking about a 6-to-1 disparity here—this was no coincidence," Carleton said. "We will be watching to see how 2014 unfolds: We hope it will be more like the first half of 2013 then the latter half."
Multiple reports emerged in the last months that the White House was secretly engaging in diplomacy with Iran following Rouhani’s election.
As Treasury backed off from its public designations of Iranian entities, the administration reportedly made diplomatic progress with Iran.
The White House won its crowning achievement in Geneva in late November, when Iran and Western nations agreed to an interim nuclear deal aimed at temporarily freezing certain elements of Tehran’s uranium enrichment program.
The deal, once it takes effect, will freeze the program for six months and provide Iran with some $7 billion in sanctions relief.
Treasury’s latest sanctions announcement came at a critical time.
The White House was facing anger from Republicans and some Democratic allies for its heavy-handed efforts to kill an Iran sanctions bill that likely could have been approved by Congress before the end of 2013.
Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R., Minn.) asked Treasury Secretary Jack Lew about the downswing in sanctions during a Thursday hearing on Capitol Hill.
"It seems to me that at the worst possible time of the negotiations, the United States intentionally chose to weaken our hand and our negotiating position with Iran at a crucial time: sending a signal of weakness, sending a signal of sanctions reductions," Bachmann said. "And at the same time, strengthening Iran’s hand in those negotiations."
The administration maintains that it has not let up the pressure on Iran despite what the figures show.
"We have continued to enforce our sanctions actively since the Rouhani election," a senior administration official told reporters during a conference call on Thursday.
"I think there's a sort of cottage industry in sort of the daily tick-tock on who is designated and when," the official said. "The real question, though, is: What is the impact of our sanctions? And I don't think there's any question that prior to the election of Rouhani and after the election of Rouhani, the pressure on the Iranian economy and the disruption of those who are seeking to assist the Iranians in pursuing their nuclear and ballistic missile program has continued apace. So we haven't let up."
Former Ambassador Mark Wallace, UANI’s CEO, lashed out at the administration for misleading the public about the latest round of designations.
"We respectfully and fundamentally disagree … with the premise being put forward this week, that ‘Iran will be even deeper in the hole six months from now, when the deal expires, than it is today,’" Wallace said in a statement. "The reality is that overall economic pressure on Iran has eased since Rouhani's election, and will continue to ease as the interim deal–which specifically includes sanctions relief–goes into effect."