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The U.S. Helps Foreign Banks Navigate Restrictions On Iran


And it turns out the Iran nuclear deal which eased economic sanctions against Iran has not brought a flood of foreign investment. Part of the problem is that U.S. banking restrictions are mostly still in place, something the Obama administration is trying to do something about. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The end of January was a moment of optimism for Ardavan Amir-Aslanai. The Iranian-French lawyer advises foreign companies wanting to do business in Iran. At the time, sanctions relating to Iran's nuclear ambitions had just been lifted, and major European companies were talking about huge trade deals. Speaking by Skype from his Paris office, Amir-Aslanai says, two months later, it's a different story.

ARDAVAN AMIR-ASLANAI: I must confess that my attitude towards the return of Iran into the international financial system has become much more pessimistic as what it was a few months back.

NORTHAM: Amir-Aslanai says it's not that businesses aren't interested. They want to go into Iran, but they can't move the money around.

AMIR-ASLANAI: The biggest difficulty that they're encountering is the banking system, as European banks, in particular, are afraid of getting involved in financial transaction with Iran, fearing U.S. sanctions.

NORTHAM: International sanctions over Iran's nuclear activity are lifted, but the U.S. keeps others in place over human rights and terrorism. Over the years, banks have learned not to violate those sanctions - one French bank in particular.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: There's some very large fines imposed for breaching sanctions. BNP Paribas, for example, paid almost 9 billion in 2014.

NORTHAM: That's Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. He says, now, the Obama administration is trying to ease those fears. It's sending treasury and State Department officials on road shows to reassure foreign bankers.

KUPCHAN: Administration officials are traveling to Asian and European countries explaining what activities banks and companies can do within the realm of U.S. law.

NORTHAM: But it's a tough, complex method to sell. For example, officials are trying to explain that foreign companies can use U.S. dollars - the currency preferred for big deals - as long as the money doesn't flow through American banks or citizens. But that's having little impact, and there are increasing calls for the U.S. to do more, like allow special legal exceptions. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program last week, says Iran deserves to benefit from the deal it struck.


SEC OF STATE JOHN KERRY: You know, it's fair for Iran to get what it deserves because it kept its part of the bargain to date with respect to the nuclear agreement.

NORTHAM: But others say Iran continues to take provocative actions, like recent ballistic missile tests. Mark Dubowitz with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies says Iran should not be rewarded with access to U.S. dollars.

MARK DUBOWITZ: The fact that we would offer a unilateral concession to Iran, especially one that actually allows the Iranians to leverage our currency, seems to me to be a mistake.

NORTHAM: Lawyer Amir-Aslanai says it's in the U.S. interest to make sure the nuclear deal doesn't unravel because it would be a blow for Iran's moderate Hassan Rouhani.

AMIR-ASLANAI: Let us not forget that this Iranian government of Rouhani was elected on a promise to put an end to the isolation of Iran and bring back foreign investment to Iran. And if the matter remains this way, it's just as if the sanctions were not removed.

NORTHAM: And that could depend on whether the U.S. helps make it easier for companies to invest in Iran. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.