UK to banks: Halt Iran business; US move expected

British move will not target trade in Iranian oil, official says; US to declare Iran an area of "money laundering concern."

currency exchange dealer, Iran_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
currency exchange dealer, Iran_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
LONDON/WASHINGTON - Britain ordered its financial institutions on Monday to halt all business with Iranian counterparts, including the central bank, and the United States is also expected to tighten sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.
The British move however will not target trade in Iranian oil, a source familiar with the sanctions said. It also appeared unlikely that the US Treasury would try to cut off the Iranian banking system entirely, a move that could disrupt global energy markets and harm the US economic recovery.
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Britain said the sanctions were in response to the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) latest report on Iran, which highlighted fresh concerns about the possible military dimensions of Tehran's nuclear program.
"We believe that the Iranian regime's actions pose a significant threat to the UK's national security and the international community. Today's announcement is a further step to preventing the Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons," said Finance Minister George Osborne.
In Washington, a US official said the Treasury Department planned to designate Iran as an area of "primary money laundering concern" on Monday, a move allowing it to take steps to isolate the Iranian financial sector further.
Practical difference?
Henry Smith, Middle East analyst at the Control Risks consultancy in London, said the British move may not significantly affect Iran's major oil customers.
"It essentially delegitimizes the country's financial system but in reality it may not make that much practical difference. The Chinese, Indians and others will continue to engage, while many Western multinationals have already pulled out," he said.
Smith said tighter sanctions had appeared more likely than any Western attack to knock out Iran's nuclear facilities. "We wouldn't regard Israel or indeed the US as having the wherewithal to pursue the kind of military action required to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities," he said.
US sanctions have already made it extremely difficult for many global oil companies and traders to obtain bank financing to trade Iranian crude, of which less than a third goes to Europe with the rest flowing to China and India.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier that the US Treasury would not formally sanction Iran's central bank, in part to avoid causing a sudden shock to oil prices.
Unclear steps
It was unclear what exact steps the US Treasury planned. However, the decision, which the official said was to be announced by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, appeared designed as a warning about the risks of dealing with Iran's financial institutions.
In Tehran, trade minister Mehdi Ghazanfari said sanctions were hitting the Iranian economy but warned Western countries threatening to tighten the measures they were harming their own interests.
The comments from Ghazanfari, who is Minister of Industry, Mine and Commerce, marked a change of tone from Tehran's usual line that sanctions have not damaged the economy.
The United States is also expected to unveil sanctions against Iran's petrochemical sector on Monday, sources familiar with the matter said on Friday.
Several European firms including Italy's Eni, France's Total, Greece's Hellenic and Royal Dutch Shell are still trading Iranian crude often as part of long-standing credit and other agreements.
Traders with several companies said they would need to see the new terms before taking any decision. "I will need to speak to my risk and finance department," one trader said.