The Cable

U.S. sanctions another big Iranian bank

The Treasury Department today designated Iran's third-largest bank, Bank Tejarat, as subject to new sanctions, on the same day the EU announced a complete oil embargo of Iran.

"At a time when banks around the world are cutting off Iran and its currency is depreciating rapidly, today's action against Bank Tejarat strikes at one of Iran's few remaining access points to the international financial system," Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said in a statement. "Today's sanction against Bank Tejarat will deepen Iran's financial isolation, make its access to hard currency even more tenuous, and further impair Iran's ability to finance its illicit nuclear program."

Bank Tejarat is being sanctioned for providing financial services to Bank Mellat, the Export Development Bank of Iran (EDBI), the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), and the Ministry of Defense for Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), all of which were previously sanctioned for the involvement in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Treasury also sanctioned Iran's Trade Capital Bank, a Minsk-based subsidiary of Bank Tejarat, bringing the total number of Iranian financial institutions under U.S. sanctions to 23, according to a Treasury Department fact sheet. Because the banks are being sanctioned under the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), any foreign bank that does business with these Iranian banks risks losing access to the U.S. financial system.

In its statement, Treasury accused Bank Tejarat of facilitating the movement of tens of millions of dollars to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) for the purchase of uranium. Treasury also said the bank has helped other Iranian organizations circumvent sanctions, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

"Iran's economic isolation seems to worsen each day as reflected in its plummeting currency, the Iranian rial," a senior Treasury official told reporters in a Monday afternoon briefing."

The official said the Iranian government is going to extraordinary lengths to prop up the rial.

"In recent weeks, the government has tried to ban the sale of Western currency. It reportedly has restricted citizens' ability to communicate by blocking text messages containing the word ‘euro' or ‘dollar.' Plainclothes police officers are reportedly patrolling the currency exchanges to enforce currency restrictions and arrest violators," the official said.

The Treasury and State Departments are also in the process of implementing the Menendez-Kirk sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, which the official said would cause more pain for the Iranian economy.

"The economic hardship it is currently facing will only increase in the months to come, and will continue to increase as long as Iran refuses to meaningfully engage with the international community regarding its nuclear program," the official said.

A reporter asked the official when Treasury would issue the implementation rules for the new CBI sanctions. Lawmakers are concerned the rules may be crafted in a way to allow some partner countries to avoid cutting off all business with Iran.

"As soon as they are ready," the official said.

The Cable

State Dept defends Jay Leno’s right to joke about Sikh Temple

The State Department said today that Jay Leno has the right to make jokes about religions, even if they offend people in foreign countries, as did his Jan. 19 joke about GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's summer home being a famous Sikh temple.

The Indian Sikh community is in an uproar about the joke, in which Leno showed photos of the houses of GOP presidential contenders but replaced Mitt Romney's summer house with a photo of the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holiest temple in Sikhism, implying that Romney's wealth has no limits. The Sikh community has called on its members to complain to NBC, started a petition to decry the joke, and created a "Boycott Jay Leno" Facebook group that has over 3,000 members.

"This is not the first time that this show host has targeted Sikhs in his monologue. Previously, in 2007 he called Sikhs ‘diaper heads.' In 2010, he remarked, falsely so, in his monologue that President [Barack] Obama could not visit Sri Darbar Sahib because of requirements of wearing a turban. Clearly, Jay Leno's racist comments need to be stopped right here," the petition reads.

Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi told the BBC that the joke was "quite unfortunate and quite objectionable," and called upon Nirupama Rao, the Indian ambassador to the United States, to bring up the issue with the State Department.

As of Monday afternoon, India had not lodged a formal complaint about the joke, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Monday's press briefing. But she said that people can joke about whatever they want in the United States and it's probably not an issue that concerns the U.S. government.

"I think that Mr. Leno would be appreciative -- I hope he'll be appreciative if we make the point that his comments are constitutionally protected in the United States under free speech, and frankly, they appeared to be satirical in nature," Nuland said.

"But from a U.S. official government perspective, we have absolute respect for all the people of India, including Sikhs there. President Obama was the first president ever to host a celebration in honor of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, who's the first Sikh guru, for example," she said. "And you know, our view is obviously that Sikh Americans have contributed greatly to the United States."