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EghtesadOnline: As Iran reaps the benefits of sanctions removal and reintegration with the global economy, its banking system is struggling to resume and normalize ties before international restrictions choked off its gateways with the outside world.

The debate is whether big international banks will get over their concerns and finally engage with their Iranian peers.

The 4th Iran-Europe Banking and Business Forum, one of the most high-profile events to address the challenges and opportunities facing Iran’s economic and financial sectors, opened in Tehran on Saturday.

This latest edition of the confab–the first of which was held in Frankfurt in 2015 when sanctions were still in place–is to focus on the trend of financial and regulatory reforms undertaken by the Iranian banking system and European investment in Iran with various expert workshops complementing the event’s agenda, Financial Tribune reported.  

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Central Bank of Iran Governor Valiollah Seif, Ali Divandari, the head of Monetary Research Center–which has co-organized the event with Frankfurt-based International Bankers Forum, Nader Maleki, the IBF president and a host of other financial and political dignitaries addressed the event.

Striking an upbeat note, Zarif told the audience that the beginning of the end of Iran’s isolation has begun and the country has regained its position as a player on the world stage.

“Legally speaking, Iran has returned to the pre-sanctions era,” he said.

Zarif sought to downplay international banks’ reservations toward Iran, noting that the heavy fines they incurred for violating US sanctions has not just been about “Iran” but about “other countries” as well.

While European companies have flocked back to Iran in the wake of sanctions relief, their favored lenders have not followed suit for fear of running afoul of remaining sanctions.  

In 2015, BNP Paribas SA agreed to pay a record $9 billion fine in part for dealings with Iran. In addition to the BNP fine, ING agreed to pay $619 million in 2012 to settle US charges it falsified financial records to bypass sanctions on countries, including Iran and Cuba, while Commerzbank AG agreed to pay $1.45 billion in 2015 for breaching US sanctions against countries, including Iran. Credit Suisse also settled an Iran probe for $536 million in 2009.

  Overcoming Challenges

As pointed out by other keynote speakers at Saturday’s event, aside from the US primary sanctions and secondary sanctions related to the Specially Designated Nationals–individuals still targeted by US embargo–Iranian banks still lag in terms of adherence to international standards and anti-money laundering (AML) and combating the financing of terrorism (CFT) tools–a direct result of the isolation of Iranian banks during the embargo.

Ulrich von Zantheir, director of Financial Risk Management at KPMG, an audit and consultancy firm, traced the banking stall to multiple issues, namely “transparency and reporting standards”, “compliance and risk management” and “dealing with the sanctions”.  

According to von Zantheir, the best strategy for Iranian lenders is to enhance their “transparency” by strengthening their AML and CFT measures.

Last June, the Financial Action task Force–the international group that monitors money laundering worldwide–welcomed Iranian promises to improve and called for a one-year suspension of restrictions on Tehran.

Addressing AML and CFT concerns, Zarif called on FATF to remove Iran from its black list, saying that the Islamic Republic is at the forefront of regional efforts to combat money laundering and countering the funding of extremist and terrorist groups.

“I tell our foreign counterparts that Iran is the safest, most transparent investment destination in the entire region,” the top diplomat said.  On a similar note, Ali Majedi, Iran’s ambassador to Germany, announced that a new round of negotiations between Iran and FATF is taking place this week in Italy and he hoped Iran would be out of the body’s blacklist by June or July.

In a sign of further progress in Iran-Europe ties, Majedi announced that two Iranian private lenders–Bank Saman and Middle East Bank–are in the final stages of opening branches in Europe’s strongest economy.  

David Geer, the head of Sanctions Policy Division of the European Union, also broke the news that European Investment Bank is eying investment in Iran, as the 27-member bloc strives to honor its commitments to Iran after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action–the formal name of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers—which led to the lifting of sanctions against temporary curbs on Iran’s civilian nuclear program.

JCPOA Iran Banking Iran deal Iran-EU ties