Iranian Nationals Charged With Guiding $300M Scheme to Bust Sanctions

Federal prosecutors said the Iranian nationals ran a decades-long ruse designed to evade U.S. sanctions by disguising millions of dollars worth of transactions.

In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with thousands of students in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — For nearly two decades, ten Iranian nationals executed a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran by enshrouding over $300 million in transactions in a fog of seeming legitimacy, according to a federal criminal complaint unsealed Friday.

The U.S. State Department has designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism.

To avoid sanctions for conducting business linked to the Islamic republic, defendants created over 70 companies and money service businesses that acted as fronts to disguise the transactions, according to the criminal complaint.  

The transactions — conducted using U.S. dollars and sent through U.S.-based banks — include the purchase of two $25 million oil tankers through a Hong Kong-based front company known as Total Excellence Ltd.

The businessman behind the transaction was later sanctioned for helping Iran ship crude oil in violation of U.S. and European Union sanctions.

The front businesses — some of which carried names such as “Persepolis” or “Rosco” — were allegedly set up in the U.S., Iran, Canada, the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong.

The defendants are Seyed Ziaeddin Taheri Zangakani, Saeed Torab Abtahi, Abbas Amin, Issa Shayegh, Mojtaba Dehghani, Sara Sabri, Reza Karimi, Shantia Chupra, Salim Henareh and Khalil Henareh.

The defendants — all of whom are believed to be residing outside the U.S. — are charged with conspiracy to violate the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations, the Iranian Financial Sanctions Regulations and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

Tracy Wilkison, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, said in a statement Friday the defendants’ scheme was orchestrated for the benefit of Iran.

“In a wide-ranging scheme spanning nearly two decades and several continents, the defendants conspired to abuse the U.S. financial system to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars in transactions on behalf of the Government of Iran,” Wilkison said. “Today’s indictment is an example of the will of federal law enforcement to bring to justice those who violate our sanctions and laws designed to strengthen our national security.”

In addition to the criminal complaint, prosecutors also filed a civil complaint Friday seeking a money laundering penalty of $157 million against defendants.

John Demers, Assistant U.S. Attorney General for National Security, said in a statement the civil forfeiture action is justified by the nature of the defendants’ actions.

“Through the use of front companies, money service businesses and exchanges throughout the world, the defendants worked to disguise hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of transactions on behalf of a state sponsor of terrorism,” Demers said. “Make no mistake, the U.S. Department of Justice will continue to deploy all tools necessary to curb the Iranian regime’s ability to use the U.S. financial system to support its malign endeavors.”

If convicted on all charges, defendants would face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, prosecutors said.

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