Many Europe banks already cut Iran ties

GENEVA – Britain applauded a U.S. decision Thursday to target Iran with banking sanctions, but many European financial institutions already curbed ties with Tehran and analysts said it wasn’t clear whether others would rush to take similar steps.

In the broadest U.S. unilateral penalties on Iran since 1979, the Bush administration slapped sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, three of the largest Iranian banks and other organizations and individuals.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson called on “responsible banks and companies around the world” to end relationships with the three banks and companies and affiliates of the Guards.

In London, officials at Britain’s Treasury and Financial Services Authority said they were consulting with each other on the matter. “We endorse the U.S. administration’s efforts to apply further pressure on the Iranian regime,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown‘s office said.

Brown had said Wednesday that Britain was prepared to lead the way in pushing for a third round of U.N. sanctions on Iran for defying a Security Council demand that it suspend uranium enrichment, and also would support tougher European Union measures.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, in a letter to EU counterparts earlier this month, urged them to consider new sanctions that could target companies, “particularly in the banking sector.”

European banks, many of which have big operations in the United States, tend to maintain that they act on the basis of their own or United Nations decisions, and it wasn’t immediately clear how much tightening could still be done as a result of the new U.S. measures.

The two largest German banks, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, said they had withdrawn from the Iranian market — but for business reasons, not as a result of political pressure.

UBS AG, Switzerland‘s largest bank, said it announced in 2005 that it would stop all business with Iran. Spokesman Serge Steiner said the decision applied to individuals, companies or state institutions and was based on the bank’s own economic and risk analysis.

Credit Suisse Group, the second-largest Swiss bank, said it decided at the same time not to enter into any new business based in certain countries, including Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Syria, spokeswoman Esther Gerster said.

“We have terminated existing relationships with corporate clients domiciled in those countries as much as possible. Therefore, it doesn’t change very much for us,” Gerster said of the U.S. move.

Cubillas Ding, a banking analyst with consulting group Celent in London, said European governments and banks want to decide on sanctions for themselves and not be seen as simply following the U.S. lead.

At the same time, Ding said, they want to avoid appearing to be failing to counter activities that could promote terrorism or threaten global security.

“Even if banks do not trumpet a philosophical reason whether or not to cut ties, they can still do it based on economic and high-risk basis. I think it is a delicate rope to walk on,” Ding said. “I would be surprised if there is a big rush immediately to follow suit.”

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