Mar 26, 2007

U.S. Economic Action Against Iran

More than 40 major international banks and financial institutions have either cut off or cut back business with the Iranian government or private sector as a result of a quiet campaign launched by the Treasury and State departments last September, according to Treasury and State officials.

The financial squeeze has seriously crimped Tehran's ability to finance petroleum industry projects and to pay for imports. It has also limited Iran's use of the international financial system to help fund allies and extremist militias in the Middle East, say U.S. officials and economists who track Iran. ...

The campaign differs from formal international sanctions -- and has proved able to win wider backing -- because it targets Iran's behavior rather than seeking to change its government. "This is not an exercise of power," (Stuart Levey, Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence) said in the interview. "People go along with you if it's conduct-based rather than a political gesture."

Iranian importers are particularly feeling the pinch, with many having to pay for commodities in advance when a year ago they could rely on a revolving line of credit, said Patrick Clawson, a former World Bank official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The scope of Iran's vulnerability has been a surprise to U.S. officials, he added.

The financial institutions cutting back business ties are mainly in Europe and Asia, U.S. officials say. UBS last year said it was cutting off all dealings with Iran. London-based HSBC (which has 5,000 offices in 79 countries) and Standard Chartered (with 1,400 branches in 50 countries) as well as Commerzbank of Germany have indicated they are limiting their exposure to Iranian business, Levey said. The rest have asked the United States not to publicize their names. ...

In a related effort, the Bush administration has warned "relevant companies and countries" about the risks of investing in Iran's oil and gas sector, R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said in congressional testimony Wednesday. Washington is generally trying to drive home to Tehran that its policies will lead to serious "financial hardship," he said.

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