Iran sanctions shadow falls on smaller German banks

Pedestrians stand outside the Grand Bazaar outside a Bank Melli Iran Inc. bank branch in Tehran. (Getty)
Updated 27 May 2018
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Iran sanctions shadow falls on smaller German banks

  • Some German companies plan to press on with Iran dealings
  • German exports to Iran rose 15.5 percent last year

Germany’s biggest lenders have shied away from business with Iran after past penalties for breaching US sanctions, but smaller banks have leapt on opportunities afforded by the nuclear deal rejected by Donald Trump.

There are just months to go until a November deadline issued by Washington after the US president abandoned a hard-fought agreement that loosened business restrictions on the Islamic Republic in exchange for Tehran giving up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But some firms plan to press on in their dealings with Iran despite the looming threat of penalties.

“We will continue to serve our clients,” for now, said Patrizia Melfi, a director at the “international competence center” (KCI) founded by six cooperative savings banks in the small town of Tuttlingen in southwest Germany.

The center, which supports companies operating in sensitive markets like Iran or Sudan, has seen demand “rising sharply in the last few years, from firms listed on the Dax (Germany’s index of blue-chip firms), from all over Germany and from Switzerland,” she added.

German exports to Iran have grown since the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, adding 15.5 percent last year to reach almost €2.6 billion ($3.0 billion) after 22-percent growth in 2016.

Such figures remain vanishingly small compared with Germany’s €111.5 billion in exports to the US — its top customer.

Nevertheless, the KCI will “wait and see what the sanctions look like” before turning away from Iran, Melfi said.

Already, firms dealing with Tehran must take great care not to fall foul of US restrictions.

Transactions are carried out in euros, and the KCI does not deal with businesses that have American citizens or green card resident holders on their boards.

What’s more, products sold to Iran cannot contain more than 10 percent of parts manufactured in the US.

One of the most important inputs for the business is “courage among our managers” given the high risks involved, Melfi said.

Germany’s two biggest banks, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, avoid Iran completely after being slapped with harsh fines in 2015 over their dealings there, with Deutsche alone paying $258 million in penalties.

DZ Bank, which operates as a central bank for more than 1,000 local co-op lenders, is withdrawing completely from payment services there, a spokesman told AFP.
That left KCI to seek out the German branch of Iranian state-owned bank Melli in Hamburg.

Even that linkage could break if Iran’s biggest business bank appears on a US list of barred businesses as it has before.

Meanwhile, among Germany’s roughly 390 Sparkasse savings banks, business with the regime is mostly limited to producing documents linked to export contracts.
“We will be looking even more closely at those” in the future, a person familiar with the trade told AFP.

Elsewhere in the German economy, the European-Iranian Trade Bank (EIH) founded in 1971 is another conduit to Tehran.

Also based in Hamburg, it for now remains “fully available to you with our products and services,” the bank assures clients on its website, although “business policy decisions by European banks may result in short term or medium term restrictions on payments.”

Neither does the Bundesbank (German central bank) believe that much has so far changed for business with Iran.

“Only the European Union’s sanctions regime will be decisive,” if and when it is changed, the institution told AFP.

Any payment involving an Iranian party would have to be approved by the Bundesbank if things return to their pre-January 2016 state.

German banking lobby group Kreditwirtschaft has called on Berlin and other EU nations to clarify their stance — and to make sure banks and their clients are “effectively protected against possible American sanctions.”

KCI’s Melfi said time is running out for EU governments to act.

“Many firms just want to stop anything with Iran, since they can’t calculate the risk of staying,” she noted.

On Friday for the first time since the Iran nuclear deal came into force in 2015, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany gathered in Vienna — at Iran’s request — without the US, to discuss how to save the agreement.

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‘Don’t be too optimistic’: Huawei employees fret at US ban

Updated 26 May 2019
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‘Don’t be too optimistic’: Huawei employees fret at US ban

  • This week Google, whose Android operating system powers most of the world’s smartphones, said it would cut ties with Huawei
  • Another critical partner, ARM Holdings, said it was complying with the US restrictions

BEIJING: While Huawei’s founder brushes aside a US ban against his company, the telecom giant’s employees have been less sanguine, confessing fears for their future in online chat rooms.
Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei declared this week the company has a hoard of microchips and the ability to make its own in order to withstand a potentially crippling US ban on using American components and software in its products.
“If you really want to know what’s going on with us, you can visit our Xinsheng Community,” Ren told Chinese media, alluding to Huawei’s internal forum partially open to viewers outside the company.
But a peek into Xinsheng shows his words have not reassured everyone within the Shenzhen-based company.
“During difficult times, what should we do as individuals?” posted an employee under the handle Xiao Feng on Thursday.
“At home reduce your debts and maintain enough cash,” Xiao Feng wrote.
“Make a plan for your financial assets and don’t be overly optimistic about your remuneration and income.”
This week Google, whose Android operating system powers most of the world’s smartphones, said it would cut ties with Huawei as a result of the ban.
Another critical partner, ARM Holdings — a British designer of semiconductors owned by Japanese group Softbank — said it was complying with the US restrictions.
“On its own Huawei can’t resolve this problem, we need to seek support from government policy,” one unnamed employee wrote last week, in a post that received dozens of likes and replies.
The employee outlined a plan for China to block off its smartphone market from all American components much in the same way Beijing fostered its Internet tech giants behind a “Great Firewall” that keeps out Google, Facebook, Twitter and dozens of other foreign companies.
“Our domestic market is big enough, we can use this opportunity to build up domestic suppliers and our ecosystem,” the employee wrote.
For his part, Ren advocated the opposite response in his interview with Chinese media.
“We should not promote populism; populism is detrimental to the country,” he said, noting that his family uses Apple products.
Other employees strategized ways to circumvent the US ban.
One advocated turning to Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Taobao to buy the needed components. Another dangled the prospect of setting up dozens of new companies to make purchases from US suppliers.
Many denounced the US and proposed China ban McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and all-American movies and TV shows.
“First time posting under my real name: we must do our jobs well, advance and retreat with our company,” said an employee named Xu Jin.
The tech ban caps months of US effort to isolate Huawei, whose equipment Washington fears could be used as a Trojan horse by Chinese intelligence services.
Still, last week Trump indicated he was willing to include a fix for Huawei in a trade deal that the two economic giants have struggled to seal and US officials issued a 90-day reprieve on the ban.
In Xinsheng, an employee with the handle Youxin lamented: “I want to advance and retreat alongside the company, but then my boss told me to pack up and go,” followed by two sad-face emoticons.