Andrew Murray-Watson: Uncle Sam flexes his muscles - and big banks quiver

America is piling on the pressure to turn Iran into a financial leper
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The Independent Online

It is absolutely right and proper that companies abide by the laws and regulations of the countries in which they operate. Of that there is no dispute.

So for example, the German subsidiary of a French company has to abide by the financial laws and regulations laid down by the German government.

However, the US wants to go further. Much further. The American government seems to think it has the right to demand that foreign companies act to further its own foreign policy ambitions.

And this time it is British banks that are feeling the heat. The likes of HSBC and Barclays are being pressured to pull out of Iran and to stop providing services to facilitate transactions carried out by their UK clients within Iran. Now Iran is certainly a very unpleasant regime and the weight of evidence indicates that it does indeed provide assistance to terrorist organisations.

The US believes that the best way to solve this problem is to tighten the stranglehold of economic sanctions on the Islamic state. The UK, by contrast, is trying to build diplomatic bridges with the Iranian leadership after an abrupt policy U-turn by Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this year.

In the context of these differing approaches, the US government is attempting to coerce UK companies to back its tactics to make Iran the financial leper of the global community. In its defence, the US Treasury Department claims it met senior executives at UK banks solely to "share information" about the threat Iran poses to the international community.

But it obviously left the bankers in no doubt of what it wanted. The consequences of not agreeing to pull out of Iran were left unspoken. But there was no need for US Treasury officials to say anything. In the past six months, UK executives have been locked up in the US without advance warning for alleged financial misdemeanours. Meanwhile, UK companies with American subsidiaries are being sued in the US for something they may or may not have done back in Britain. Is it any wonder then that UK business leaders - traditionally the biggest fans of America - are growing increasingly worried about what our "special relationship" with the US actually entails?

Iran needs tens of billions of dollars of investment to modernise its oil-producing facilities (See BusinessWeek, page 12-13). Without the investment, the amount of oil flowing to the West from Iran will fall away over the next decade as domestic demand within the country rises. If international banks are forced to boycott Iran, then the country will not get the investment and the expertise it needs from foreign companies to upgrade its refining capabilities. The price of oil would rise accordingly.

Anyway, UK banks don't need to be lectured by the US about doing business in Iran. They all still have to abide by the laws of the land in Britain, which have proved a damn sight more effective at preventing corporate corruption and illegality than statutes in the US.

Ed Balls, the minister for the City, claims that the London Stock Exchange and the companies that are listed on it will not be subject to US regulations if New York-based Nasdaq succeeds in its bid to buy the stock market. Does anyone actually believe him anymore?

This is not anti-American scaremongering: this is big business asking the questions about US motivations. And when the likes of HSBC and Barclays start to feel nervous, then the whole of UK plc should pay attention.