Adam Szubin, 42, the top U.S. Treasury Department official to monitor Iran’s sanctions compliance, was in New Jersey this week, traveling with Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.) and speaking to Jewish groups. Szubin is the product of an Orthodox home and day school education in Bergen County, N.J., and was a founder in 2002 of the DC Minyan, a traditional congregation with an egalitarian flavor. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, he has been with Treasury since 2004, and helped develop and coordinate policies on terrorist financing, money laundering, sanctions programs, rogue regimes, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and intelligence analysis. This spring President Obama chose him as under secretary of terrorism and financial intelligence, informally described as “the sanctions czar.” He spoke to The Jewish Week by phone several times this week, apologetically cutting short a late-night conversation to meet his chavruta (study partner) for their regular Torah study time.
Q: Knowing that many in our community are deeply worried about the Iran agreement, what is your approach in addressing Jewish audiences?
A: Midway between informational and persuasive. I’m not lobbying. But I want people who are concerned or alarmed about the agreement to see that there is room for people who are strongly pro-Israel to support it. As someone who has dealt with this on the inside, I want people to understand that this is the best alternative.
You recently went to Israel to meet with top officials there, no doubt to allay their fears about the agreement. What was the outcome?
The meetings were through the initiative of our office, part of longstanding communication and coordination with the Israelis on a wide range of things we do together, including constant collaboration on strategy and on the technical level. One goal is to ensure that the sanctions are enforced vigorously outside the nuclear file, in terms of Iranian support for [Syrian President] Assad, Hezbollah, etc. That collaboration — and tremendous alignment of interests — hasn’t changed throughout the negotiations and even since the announcement of the deal. We discussed the deal, and how it will be implemented. And the fact is, our sanctions regarding Iranian’s bad behavior — human rights violations, suppression of speech, etc. — are in place and are intensifying.
Are you worried that Iran will now give tens of billions of dollars to Hezbollah and other terror groups it supports?
My job is to restrict this money in the first place and to immobilize these funds. I am not indifferent to this situation.
But the United States strongly believes that the release of $50 billion doesn’t change in any qualitative way Iranian support for Hezbollah and other [terror] groups, whom they have supported throughout the years of sanctions. That doesn’t mean that no additional money will be diverted their way, but even if Iran wanted [to give more], it has massive financial obligations and debts on the domestic side. Iran owes half a trillion dollars for salaries and pensions and money taken from their commercial banks. President Rouhani has pledged to fix Iran’s economy, and his political career depends on it.
Should the sanctions have been kept in place until a better deal was reached?
Keep in mind that going back to 2006, sanctions were always seen as a means to an end, the end being a diplomatic agreement to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. There are those who believe that sanctions should only have been lifted if Iran changed the nature of its theocentric regime wholesale — including its support for terrorism, abuse of human rights, and so on. I care deeply about those areas of Iran’s bad activity, but it is untenable to wait unless you are prepared to wait an incredibly long time. And it’s clear that by taking Iran’s nuclear threat off the table, this deal leaves us far better positioned to address concerns about Iran’s other destabilizing actions.
Skeptics believe that Iran will now use evasion and deceit to continue its nuclear program.
Most of the details of the agreement focus on this area, with overlapping safeguards so that Iran can’t cheat. And if they do, they will be detected and punished. There are multiple opportunities to detect, every step of the way. There is no way to clean or hide uranium enrichment. The consequences for violations of the agreement purposefully are not spelled out because we have to determine how serious the violation and how best to address it. Not spelling out specific consequences for specific actions prevents Iran from studying the consequences in advance and determining if cheating is worth it.
How do we know the U.S. will respond vigorously to violations?
Publishing a penalty doesn’t demonstrate our seriousness. The Treasury Department has been very tough over the past 10 years. Iran takes us seriously when we say we’ll be watching like hawks. [In March, Szubin testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that in the past 15 months, during the negotiations with Iran, Treasury imposed some $450 million in penalties on violations of the Iran sanctions.] We have been clear with the Iranians that we will continue to take action if necessary. Our track record should give people confidence that we mean what we say on both Iran’s nuclear and other outside activities.