Under Secretary Levey Discusses Iran with Egyptian Delegation
(May 28, 2009)
Classified U.S. diplomatic cables, leaked by the whistleblower site WikiLeaks, contained details of discussions between Under Secretary Levey and an Egyptian delegation including Central Bank Governor Hisham Ramez, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and EGIS Chief, General Suleiman. The Egyptians confirmed they wanted to keep financial pressure on Iran and recommended that the U.S. continue to focus its efforts on isolating Iran.
28 May 2009
1. Key Points -- (S) Egyptian interlocutors confirmed to U/S Levey their concern about Iran and their desire to keep financial pressure on Iran. -- (S) Central Bank Deputy Governor suggested that it would not be difficult to issue a formal policy directive prohibiting Egyptian banks from opening or maintaining correspondent accounts with Iranian banks, and promised to discuss the proposed action with the Governor and others. -- (S) The Central Bank and EGIS assured U/S Levey that they are watching the Misr-Iran Development Bank very closely. -- (S) In response to U/S Levey's question about whether additional designations of Hezbollah leaders would help further Egyptian national security interests, EGIS Chief General Suleiman recommended that the U.S. focus its efforts on isolating Iran since Hezbollah is only a "tool" of Iran. Foreign Minster Aboul Gheit said that anything that "dirtied the name of Hezbollah was welcomed."
---------------------------------- Central Bank Governor Hisham Ramez ----------------------------------
2. (S) Under Secretary (U/S) Levey explained that the main purpose of his visit was to discuss Iran and, in particular, to convey the U.S. intention to continue to take actions to pressure Iran and hold it to its international responsibilities. He noted the risks Iran poses to the international financial system because of its illicit and deceptive conduct and highlighted the recent FATF statement calling on all countries to impose countermeasures on Iran to protect against those risks. Acknowledging that Egyptian banks do very few transactions with Iranian businesses, U/S Levey suggested that, in support of this FATF call for action, the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) consider formally prohibiting Egyptian banks from opening or maintaining correspondent accounts with Iranian banks. As no Iranian banks have accounts in Egypt, the policy would be painless for Egypt, but could help other Arab states with larger business relationships with Iran, such as the UAE, feel more comfortable taking similar steps.
3. (S) Ramez concurred that there is nearly zero transactional activity between Egypt and Iran and that no Iranian banks have accounts in any Egyptian banks. He underlined that the CBE shares the GOE's general view of Iran, which is one of suspicion. In response to the suggestion about prohibiting correspondent accounts with Iranian banks, he said he had to check with the Governor and "his team," but that "it should not be a problem." He assured U/S Levey that the CBE has concerns from a regulatory perspective about Iranian banks and Iranian businesses. He also noted that the transactional volume in Egypt is low enough that the CBE can watch all transactions for any signs of impropriety. Ramez also noted that Egypt maintains strict rules regarding bank ownership, and no Iranian bank would be allowed to buy any banks in Egypt.
4. (S) U/S Levey specifically inquired about the existence of the Misr-Iran Development Bank (MIDB), noting that it does a considerable portion of its transactions with entities which have been designated as proliferators by the United States. Ramez did not reply directly to the point that MIDB does transactions with U.S.-designated entities, but indicated that the CBE is closely watching that bank and knows exactly what it is doing. He also noted that the Chairman of the MIDB, Ismail Hassan Mohamed, a former Central Bank governor, knows the rules well and knows that the CBE is watching his bank closely. When asked why the MIDB was allowed to operate, Ramez indicated that it had been in existence for some time, so it would be hard to shut down now. U/S Levey urged the CBE to look more closely at the MIDB and its transactions with the designated entities, and suggested that as part of Egypt's response to the FATF call for countermeasures, the CBE could consider implementing some specific measures regarding this bank, such as banning transactions with Iranian customers. CAIRO 00000975 002 OF 003
5. (C) Regarding money of Hamas members seized when they crossed into Egypt from Gaza, Ramez noted that the Central Bank was not involved, but that the Prosecutor General controlled access to this money until it was determined what should be done with it, at which point he expected the money would go into the government coffers. As all government accounts reside in the Central Bank, ultimately the money might end up in the CBE but the CBE would not be directly involved in the disposition of this money.
6. (C) When asked about the recent UN Security Council designations of three North Korean entities, Ramez assured U/S Levey that every UN list is implemented as soon as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs obtains the information, implying that any assets held by these entities within Egypt would be automatically frozen.
---------------------------------- Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit ----------------------------------
7. (S) U/S Levey described the pressure that has been put on Iran through governmental targeted financial measures and voluntary decisions by the private sector to cut off Iran business based on the high risk associated with that business. He explained the kinds of targeted actions that have been taken by the United States, the UN Security Council and others around the world against those involved in Iran's proliferation activities or support for terrorism. He also described how the U.S. has shared information with the private sector to alert banks around the world to the kinds of illicit and deceptive financial conduct that Iran engages in. He noted that many banks around the world had cut their ties to Iran, making it harder for Iran to gain access to much needed financial services.
8. (S) U/S Levey emphasized that the United States intends to continue to take steps to pressure Iran and hold it to its international responsibilities and that it would like to work with its international partners on this front. In that vein, he noted the FATF's call for all countries to implement countermeasures on Iran based on the terrorist financing and money laundering risks Iran poses to the international financial system. He explained that he hoped that Egypt would take some formal steps to show its support of this effort, even though Egypt and Iran do very little business together. U/S Levey said that if Egypt would take some of the countermeasures against Iran which he had described to the CBE, other Arab states might be persuaded to do the same.
9. (S) The foreign minister reaffirmed Egypt's concern about the threat posed by Iran. He did not comment specifically on the proposal to prohibit Egyptian banks from accepting accounts from Iranian banks, but he did note that, "We support your mission. Period." He recalled U/S Levey's prior visit with former Secretary of State Rice to brief on the USG's Iran strategy. He did not understand that the USG wanted to continue to hold Iran accountable for violations of its international obligations before and during engagement. He had believed that we wanted to wait to see whether the engagement worked.
10. (S) Aboul Gheit urged U/S Levey to work with the UAE if it wants to stop the flow of money to Iran. U/S Levey assured the minister he was doing that (his next stop on this trip is to the UAE), but noted that the UAE may want to see Arab states such as Egypt taking similar steps so no one is seen as acting alone. The foreign minister noted that he hoped the 6 2 1 group states could meet soon to discuss the Iranian threat. He made it clear that he was angry that the April 24 meeting in Baghdad had been canceled after some attendees refused to participate. He suggested that it would be better to meet with "those who want to meet," commenting that it would be perhaps even advantageous if Qatar could not attend. While he held the view that the Omanis are ideologically aligned with Egypt and the U.S. and ultimately more trustworthy than the Qataris on Iran, he believes that the Omanis nonetheless feel vulnerable to Iran and are therefore afraid.
11. (S) In response to U/S Levey's query about the best way CAIRO 00000975 003 OF 003 to handle Hezbollah, Aboul Gheit noted that he hoped the UN would issue a statement of sorts about the group, as Egypt would support any way to "dirty the name" of Hezbollah.
12. (S) The foreign minister and his staff raised piracy as a concern and offered various solutions, including a complete military blockade of Somalia, limited military action to save the lives of hostages, and larger scale military operations on land to weaken the pirate's ability to operate. When pressed about the utility of ransom payments, U/S Levey explained that the U.S. does not support paying ransom to the pirates and cautioned that terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, may increasingly turn to hostage taking if they see that it can be profitable. Aboul Gheit replied, "then how am I supposed to get my boys back?"
---------------------------- EGIS Chief, General Suleiman ----------------------------
13. (S) General Suleiman described how the GOE has been attacking the terrorist problem by going after terrorist leaders, the money flow, and the terrorist soldiers. He noted that stopping the money flow was an important part of the strategy, and that they have been successful at strangling several terrorist groups. However, smuggling operations into Gaza remain a huge problem and he complained that Iran remains the most significant source of funding for Hezbollah and Hamas. He explained how the money was getting to Hamas in various ways, but mostly via Damascus and then smuggled by land or sea to Gaza. He noted that smuggling was a big business, particularly given that Israel keeps the borders closed. He highlighted the efforts taken by the GOE to make the border more secure, including destroying tunnels and erecting underground metal barricades, but acknowledged that the smuggling could never be fully stopped. He added that Gaza is still suffering and needs the reconstruction money that the world has committed, but all interested parties need to ensure that there is a clear corridor for getting money and materials into Gaza in order to keep the smugglers at bay.
14. (S) Turning to Iran, U/S Levey summarized the U.S. strategy of keeping pressure on Iran through making the international financial system increasingly inhospitable to Iran. He explained that the efforts have been largely successful, and that nearly all reputable financial institutions will not do business with Iran. He explained that he had not previously visited Egypt because of the minuscule amount of trade and commerce between the two, but that he now wanted to urge Egypt to take some small, painless steps, as a means to keep the pressure on Iran and to give strength to other Arab states for whom such steps are more difficult. U/S Levey presented the proposal which he had made to the CBE of enacting a policy which forbids Egyptian banks from opening or maintaining accounts with any Iranian banks. U/S Levey also explained the concerns about MIDB. General Suleiman did not react to the proposal to forbid accounts with Iranian banks, but regarding MIDB, he said "I am watching every check, every transaction."
15. (S) In light of EGIS' recent effort to shut down the Hezbollah cell in Egypt, U/S Levey asked General Suleiman if he thought it would be helpful to continue targeting Hezbollah via designations of senior officials. Suleiman recommended that the U.S. increase pressure on Iran, as Hezbollah is only a tool of Iran and could not survive without Iranian support. Suleiman agreed that President Obama needs to test the Iranians, but cautioned that ultimately, the President will see that "the Iranians will lie to him and waste his time." He said that the U.S. had very successfully isolated Cuba and rendered it weak, so the U.S. should apply the same isolation strategy with respect to Iran.
16. (SBU) U/S Levey cleared this cable. SCOBEY