Cablegate: Iranian Banking in London: Uk Plans and Concerns
OO RUEHBC RUEHBW RUEHDE RUEHDIR RUEHFL RUEHKUK RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHROV
DE RUEHLO #1352/01 1351516
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O 141516Z MAY 08
FM AMEMBASSY LONDON
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 8602
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC IMMEDIATE
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC IMMEDIATE
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC IMMEDIATE
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE
RUCNIRA/IRAN COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK IMMEDIATE 1180
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 LONDON 001352
STATE FOR NEA/IR, EEB, ISN/RA, EUR/WE TREASURY FOR COLLEEN EDDY, MOLLY MILLERWISE, DEANNA FERNANDEZ, MICHELLE ZAGER
E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/13/2018
TAGS: EFIN KTFN MNUC IR UK
SUBJECT: IRANIAN BANKING IN LONDON: UK PLANS AND CONCERNS
Classified By: DCM RICHARD LEBARON FOR REASONS 1.4 B & D
1.(C/NF) SUMMARY. The British government is reviewing its options in going after Iranian banks following USG pressure to deny UK licensing requests to the UN regarding Bank Sepah. HMG believes the bank regulator has exhausted its options on the domestic branches, and HM Treasury is considering how far it can go in severing links to the parents in Tehran. HMG will begin explaining to Persian Gulf and East Asian governments its actions against London based Iranian banks, but must be careful not to give the Iranians ammunition for any court action. There is a pronounced split in HMG thinking, with the Prime Minister and Foreign Office backing a strong stance against Iran, while HM Treasury is protecting London's financial position and legal framework. Coordinated USG pressure has worked recently, and if continued, could help move HMG closer to our position. Suggested next steps are provided in paragraph
10. END SUMMARY UNSCR 1803 IMPLEMENTATION -------------------------
2.(C/NF) We met with Pete Maydon, HM Treasury's (HMT) Deputy Head of Financial Sanctions Unit on May 9 to discuss HMT's next steps after its about-face on the Bank Sepah licensing requests. Maydon said the UK shares U.S. objectives in stopping Iran's nuclear proliferation program. The UK is pressing its EU partners to go further than UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1803, Maydon told us, hoping for action - including against Bank Melli - by May 19th. HMT is also studying how aggressive it can be in following our position on continued vigilance, although Maydon claims they can not be as aggressive as the U.S. For instance, the British government will not agree to a complete ban on international transactions in and out of Iran, but is working with UK banking regulators to take a more forward-leaning stance.
REGULATORY ACTION -----------------
3.(C/NF) According to Maydon, in a heated meeting late last week, HMT pressed the Financial Services Authority (FSA) to sharpen the rest of the tools in its kit in going after Iranian banks. The FSA pushed back claiming they have already fully investigated local branches, and that they needed to show consistency in their approach to all regulated banks and a "proportionate" approach (i.e., the punishment should fit the crime.) HMT and FSA have told us on numerous occasions that the bank regulator was very aggressive in looking for irregularities in the London-based Iranian banks, and that they thought they had cleverly disguised the investigations as part of their normal "fit and proper" investigations. But now the FSA is sensitive to complaints that they have politicized their investigations, and point to the Iranian Foreign Ministry's summoning of the UK Ambassador to lecture about the "political abuse" of the FSA against Iranian banks, Maydon said. The British government is also concerned that if it goes too far under UK law it will run the risk of losing and having to pay compensation to the Iranian banks, which Maydon said would set back efforts on many fronts.
IRAN'S LONDON BRANCHES NOT YET FALLING DOWN -------------------------------------------
4.(C/NF) HMT views the likelihood of the sanctioning of Bank Melli, together with what they call the "state of suspended animation" of Bank Sepah, as positive movement, according to Maydon. When we forcefully pushed back that both banks were still open for business, and that Sepah was still operating at half-capacity, with approximately half of its staff, Maydon argued that it had been effectively cut off from its parent in Tehran. Patrick Guthrie, Head of Financial Sanctions Unit, previously told us that Sepah London was down to about BPS 1 million (approx. 2 million USD) and was not taking on new business; rather it was only doing what was permitted under UNSCR, and reserves are keeping the office going.
5.(S/NF) HMT and FSA have recently looked into shutting down Sepah completely by revoking their license, but can not find LONDON 00001352 002 OF 004 any violations of UK regulatory law which would allow them to do so, said Guthrie. In fact, the Iranian banks operating in London are very clean, probably because they realize they are under the microscope, Guthrie said. HMT originally looked at revoking Sepah's license on policy grounds at the time of the UNSCR, but could not use any UK legal or regulatory lever, and HMG lawyers believed the mere existence of the resolution was not sufficient legal justification. The Chairman of Sepah was, however, removed by FSA because he was designated by the resolution. The British Security Services have investigated Bank Melli for signs of the local branch's participation in proliferation, and have found none. However, they are sufficiently concerned about Melli's parent that they are pushing for EU action and are confident it will happen soon, according to Guthrie.
6.(S/NF) The British government is currently looking into Bank Saderat again to see if they can take any domestic action, Guthrie said, as high levels of government believe Saderat is quite guilty, but have not been able to prove it under UK law. On the other hand, the British government conducted massive investigation to get information on Persia International Plc, another Iranian bank operating in London, only to come up with nothing, Maydon told us.
CUTTING THE UMBILICAL CORD TO THE PARENT BANKS --------------------------------------------- -
7.(C/NF) We pressed further to inquire whether a fit and proper investigation had been done on all the parent banks in Tehran, and did not get a clear answer. According to the FSA, they can withdraw or deny a license to a bank if the parent is unfit to hold a license. It is harder to revoke a license once it is given, than to deny it up front, Sue Fisher, of the FSA's Policy and Intelligence Department told us. Maydon said the FSA was looking into whether they could revoke Sepah's license based on the links to the already UNSC-sanctioned Tehran parent, but has found too much autonomy for the London branch - which could cause the UK legal problems down the road if challenged by the local branches. Guthrie referred to the FSA's concerns about the use of classified evidence in what would likely become part of the public record when challenged in a UK court. (Embassy note: the current draft counter terrorism bill would permit the use of clandestine information in asset-freezing determinations, but would not be used by FSA in regulatory determinations, nor would it directly pertain to WMD proliferation cases.) Guthrie also stressed HMT and FSA were worried that closing a subsidiary of a Tehran bank would neither hurt the parent sufficiently, nor be a "proportional" response to the wrong-doing of the parent (i.e., the sins of the father argument.) Under British law, however, the UK could replace suspect directors with UK persons, if they had sufficient evidence of wrongdoing.
UK TO REACH OUT TO GULF AND FAR EAST ------------------------------------
8.(C/NF) The UK has until now focused on the legality of the measures it could take against the banks, the proportionality of any sanctions, and the ultimate effectiveness in harming the wrong-doing parent banks, Maydon explained. The UK has not sufficiently considered the symbolism of its efforts (or lack thereof), he said. Maydon questioned whether the U.S. was more interested in the symbolism rather than in actually hurting the Tehran parent banks of the proliferators, pointing to what he referred to as "conflicting signals from Washington" as to what the goal is. In taking on board our argument that the UK is setting a poor example for Persian Gulf and East Asian governments who point to the existence of several Iranian banks in London, Maydon described UK plans to approach those governments quietly and tell them that the UK is "cracking down" on Iranian banks in London. He said the UK needs to be careful, however, in describing both the extent of FSA probing (which he claimed "borders on bending the law") and the results of their investigations that show most of the banks are autonomous. HMT is also concerned that these targeted sanctions are growing in scope to a broad-scale full sanctioning of Iran through the back door, Maydon said.
PM AND FOREIGN OFFICE BULLISH ON IRAN; HMT CAUTIOUS LONDON 00001352 003 OF 004 --------------------------------------------- ------
9.(C/NF) Policy differences within the government split Prime Minister Brown and the Foreign Office, who are strong supporters of robust action against Iran, from the more cautious HM Treasury. HMT's concerns are with protecting London's position as a major banking center in the world, and maintaining international finance as a major contributor to the UK GDP. In doing so, HMT is very sensitive to protecting the legal and regulatory framework that holds up the entire financial sector, and not just looking out for specific business interests (i.e., Middle Eastern business.) Maydon told us that Chancellor Darling is concerned that any actions might end up harming the UK and UK banks more than they actually harm Iran. HMT is looking at other measures than to try to completely severe ties to the parent in Iran, but Maydon acknowledged that it may end up coming down to that. HMT is also concerned that if they shut down Iranian banks now, the Foreign Office and PM will start using this tool against other lesser threats.
NEXT STEPS ----------
10.(C/NF) COMMENT: In addition to presenting the UK with information on proliferation financing at the upcoming U.S.-UK Proliferation Finance meetings on May 16, we suggest the following: -Lay out what is at stake (it is particularly important for HMT attendees to hear this); briefly describe Iran's nuclear proliferation and terrorist support, including against U.S. and UK troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Emphasize that the threat is against us all and we need to make common cause; -Explain how the fact that any money that goes to the regime - directly or through tax revenues or export credits, etc. - allows Iran to continue its dangerous actions; -Make clear that despite the risk that any funds flowing to Iran could help the regime, the USG is NOT/NOT trying to shut down all banks and companies or cripple the Iranian economy. Rather we are targeting the specific bad actors and parties who actively, knowingly or reasonably should know they are supporting proliferation and/or terrorism; -With this in mind, the U.S. and UK need to stick together to show moral leadership and make sacrifices to send a message not just to Iran, but to the next rogue nation that tries to develop nuclear weapons. UK leadership in UN, EU and FATF is superb, but we need the British government to go the extra mile. Specific requests for the British government:
-We should press for more strenuous "fit and proper" reviews of the parents; urge UK to either shut down completely or at a minimum cut all links between suspect Tehran banks and London (i.e., change names, directors, senior managers, in addition to stopping the flow of funds to Iran);
-Revisit the possibility of domestically designating Bank Saderat (UK is considering doing this, but could use more information on Saderat's activities);
-Submitting to Parliament legislation allowing: asset-freezing of WMD and nuclear proliferators; the use of classified information in regulatory and asset-freezing determinations; and solidifying the current asset-freezing regime (not legally linked but very similar in theory and many aspects to sanctioning Iranian banks. The UK is actively working on this latter legislation.)
11.(C/NF) COMMENT CONTINUED: HMT until recently has been concerned about the legality of actions against the London branches, the proportionality of punishment against the subsidiaries for the sins of the parents, and whether domestic action could actually accomplish our goals. They are just now warming to the idea that the symbolism of shutting banks or severing domestic branches' ties to Tehran could have a powerful effect. High-level phone calls from several USG agencies and meetings combined with ground-level efforts made the difference in turning HMT's position on Bank Sepah a few weeks ago. We seem to have their attention now. A similar coordinated campaign could work now as the UK prepares a new approach. An appeal to British pride of principled, global leadership, as well as a further explanation of the risks of inaction, could work. LONDON 00001352 004 OF 004 Visit London's Classified Website XXXXXXXXXXXX