Babak Zanjani allegedly conspired with First Islamic Investment Bank of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and what the U.S. Treasury Department said were front companies stretching from Malaysia to Tajikistan and Turkey to Iran to move "billions of dollars on behalf of the Iranian regime," whose disputed nuclear program the West is confronting with an increasing array of economic penalties.
Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, not nuclear weapons as the West and Israel allege, but won't give U.N. inspectors greater access to its nuclear facilities and continues enriching uranium that could be used in a nuclear weapon.
Indeed, Iran announced an expansion of its uranium production last week after international diplomatic talks in Kazakhstan on its nuclear program ended in an impasse.
Thursday's Treasury announcement was the second high-profile U.S. action against accused violators of the Iranian sanctions in four weeks.
The department blacklisted Greek shipping tycoon Dimitris Cambis March 14, accusing him and 14 of his companies of conspiring with Iran to acquire eight large oil tankers for Iran and disguise their ownership to transport Iranian oil to unwitting foreign customers in defiance of Western sanctions.
"As international sanctions have become increasingly stifling, Iran has resorted to criminal money-laundering techniques, moving its oil and money under false names and pretenses," Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said in a statement.
"Whether through Babak Zanjani, Dimitris Cambis or tomorrow's chosen accomplice, we will be relentless in exposing and thwarting Iran's attempts to evade international sanctions and abuse the global financial system," Cohen said.
The Treasury action also applied to Swiss-based Iranian oil trading company Naftiran Intertrade Co. Ltd.., which the department said was owned or controlled by National Iranian Oil Co.
Washington already blacklisted NIOC as an agent or affiliate of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The guard corps is supposed to protect Iran's Islamic system but is allegedly used to prevent internal dissident and military uprisings.
The U.S. sanctions freeze the assets of the blacklisted people and companies and ban American dealings with them. Foreign companies that do business with them also run the risk of U.S. penalties.
Zanjani, chairman of more than 60 companies known as the Sorinet Group of the United Arab Emirates, had no immediate comment.
Two Sorinet companies -- Sorinet Commercial Trust Bankers of Dubai and International Safe Oil of Labuan, Malaysia -- were named by the Treasury Department as allegedly being involved in the multibillion-dollar scheme.
A senior Treasury official told several news organizations the alleged money-laundering relationship with Zanjani was relatively easy to trace.
"These are Rube Goldberg-type networks in an effort to try to get access to revenues and not being able to do so in a way that escapes our attention," the official said.
Rube Goldberg was a U.S. cartoonist and engineer who created inventions that became famous for performing simple tasks with as much complexity as possible.