defying the donald

German banks stand by Iran despite 'strongest sanctions in history'

Rebels come in all shapes and sizes. Source: DPA

While Germany’s big banks are studiously avoiding Iran-related deals for fear of US reprisals, six credit unions, or Volksbanken, from southern Germany are appear unafraid and are continuing to provide trade finance.

Patrizia Melfi, head of the International Competence Center, which was set up by the banks to handle foreign business, said the supervisory board “gave us the green light on Thursday.” Days later, the US’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to impose “the strongest sanctions in history” after the United States pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal this month.

Despite Washington’s hard line on Tehran, the center will keep handling transactions for companies that export goods and services to Iran. Their affairs will likely continue unimpeded until early August, when the United States’ new rules come into effect. For now, the US has yet to enact legally-binding sanctions.

Basically, as long as companies and banks stick to the requirements and regulations of the current export controls of the EU and the US, nothing can happen to them, Ms. Melfi said. She added it was essential “to be well informed and conduct detailed checks of the companies’ deals.”

“As long as companies and banks stick to the requirements and regulations of the current export controls of the EU and the US, nothing can happen to them.”

Patrizia Melfi, head of the International Competence Center

The credit unions – Volksbank am Württemberg, Pforzheim, Heilbronn, Konstanz, Schwarzwald-Donau-Neckar and Vereinigte Volksbank – are showing considerably more guts than bigger players. Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank and DZ Bank are already giving Iran the cold shoulder.

Deutsche Bank said it has always been “reticent” regarding the financing of Iranian deals. DZ Bank said it was now stopping all foreign payments relating to Iran.

That is not surprising, as they face major fines if they fall foul of US sanctions. Back in 2015, Commerzbank had to pay $1.5 billion in 2015 to resolve a US investigation into its dealings with Iran and other sanctioned countries. France’s BNP Paribas was fined €9 billion ($10.6 billion).

But companies are still drawn to Iran’s promising market. Eighteen months ago, the six credit unions were helping 800 German firms to do business there. Ms. Melfi refused to reveal how many customers they still have, but she said they had received many inquiries from companies including several blue chips. Businesses are torn, deeply unsettled by Washington’s pullout from the deal. Some are no longer accepting orders from Iran. But others, especially those without business links to the US, want to continue their Iran business, Ms. Melfi said.

All are anxiously watching what might happen next. But the German credit unions won’t give up easily. Ms. Melfi said her network could continue to settle transactions, even if the interbank messaging service SWIFT, which is used to transfer trillions of dollars between banks every day, were to stop transferring money to and from Iran. “We could maintain payments even without SWIFT and with the help of the Bundesbank,” she said, referring to the German central bank.

Elisabeth Atzler is a Handelsblatt banking correspondent. To contact the author:

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