Friday, June 8, 2018

Evading the next Iranian monetary blockade

Network view of cross-border banking, IMF, Minoiu and Reyes (2011) PDF

I recently blogged at Bullionstar on the topic of the upcoming Iranian monetary blockade.

Many years ago when I was taking a political science class at university, I remember the professor teaching us two criticisms of sanctions. The first is that they don't really work—people can always get around them. And secondly, even if they are so tight that they can't be evaded, sanctions don't change the behaviour of the party being sanctioned.

The Iranian monetary blockade that ran from 2010-2015 seemed to contradict both of these claims. The sanctions were very difficult to evade. And they forced Iran to come to the bargaining table and agree to end their nuclear program in exchange for economic relief. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has complied with its promise.

The Trump administration has announced that it is reneging on the nuclear deal and re-imposing sanctions in order to force Iran to agree to a new and stricter terms. Most nations who were signatories remain comfortable with the existing deal. Will the next monetary blockade—the Trump blockade—be as effective as the last one? There's a good chance that it won't.

I refer to Iran sanctions as a monetary blockade because the U.S. banking system is being levered to extract concessions from the rest of the world. Think how large retailers like Walmart force suppliers to sign exclusivity agreements, or face the threat of being cutoff from store shelves. Do business with us, or them, but not both! Suppliers often accept these exclusivity agreements because large retailers like Walmart are too big to abandon.

The U.S.'s first monetary blockade, which ran from 2010-2015, worked along the same principles. Foreign banks in places like Europe were free to continue providing transactions services to Iran, but if they did so they would not be able to maintain correspondent accounts at U.S. banks. To ensure these rules were enforced, U.S. banks were to be fined and U.S. bank executives incarcerated if found guilty of providing accounts to offenders. Fearful bank executives were very quick to comply by carefully vetting those that they offered correspondent banking services to.

Having a U.S. correspondent account is very important to a non-US bank. If a European bank has a corporate customer who wants to make a U.S. dollar payment, the bank's correspondent relationship with a U.S. bank allows it to effect that payment. Since the revenues from U.S. dollar payments far exceeds revenues from providing Iranian agencies and corporations with payments services, a typical European bank would have had no choice but to abandon Iran in order to keep its U.S. correspondent account.

This was a very effective tool. With ever fewer foreign banks willing to facilitate Iranian trade, it became tougher for Iran to sell its lifeblood: crude oil. Lacking hard currency, Iran suffered from shortages of vital foreign products including medicine and refined oil products. After enduring much hardship, it finally gave in.     

So let's get to the fun bit: can Trump's monetary blockade be evaded?

That hinges on what happens in Europe. The euro, after all, is the world's second-most important medium of exchange. Let's say that Europe is committed to the existing Iran deal. Which means it will have to continue to facilitate Iranian trade in exchange for Iranian nuclear compliance. But how to facilitate this trade when no European bank wants to open accounts for Iranian businesses out of fear of losing access to the U.S. payments system?

One scheme would be to set up a single sanctions-remote bank that conducts all Iranian business. To defang the U.S. Treasury's threat "do business with us, or them, but not both!", this bank should not be dependent on U.S. dollar business. Without a U.S. correspondent, the Treasury's threat to disconnect it from the correspondent network packs no punch. A private European bank that already specializes in Iran business, say like  Hamburg-based Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank AG, could serve as the sanctions-remote bank. Alternatively, a newly-created government bank that focuses only on Iranian transactions might fill the role.

Let's assume Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank (EIH) is chosen. Iranian companies that sell crude could open accounts at EIH. How would they get paid? Like other European banks, EIH has a settlement account at the European Central Bank (ECB). Crude oil buyers from all over Europe could have their banks wire payments to EIH's account via the ECB's large value payments sytem, Target2. EIH could also open accounts for companies in India, China, and elsewhere who want to buy Iranian crude oil with euros. In this way, Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank could theoretically process payments for every drop of Iranian crude, via Target2, and the U.S. Treasury's banking dragnet could do nothing to stop this.

The U.S. could always impose travel bans on EIH bank officials and freeze their U.S. assets. That would surely be annoying, but it wouldn't be decisive. I remember the officials of Canadian-based Sherritt being subject to these sorts of bans many years ago because they did business in Cuba—yet Sherritt gamely trudged on.

Screenshot of Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank's website. "We are open for business."

There is also the extreme possibility that the U.S. would impose travel bans on the ECB itself, in an effort to force ECB officials to remove Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank from Target2. Here is one such threat: "Treasury this week designated the governor of Iran's central bank—does any European country think Treasury can't designate their own central bank governor too?" Look, the idea of preventing Mario Draghi from travelling to the U.S., or blocking his U.S. assets, sounds so unhinged that it's not even worth entertaining.

So why was Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank not used as a sanctions-remote bank during the last monetary blockade? In short, the EU wouldn't allow it. In 2011, it decided to impose its own sanctions on the bank that resulted in EIH's bank accounts being frozen, the banning of all new business, and its removal from the SWIFT and Target2 financial communications networks. According to this report, Chancellor Angela Merkel did so at the urging of Obama.

The key point here is that the U.S. was not itself capable of forcing a sanctions-remote EIH to comply—it had to ask European officials to do the dirty work. Back then, this would have been an easy sell. Obama was respected and had a good working relationship with European leaders. The sanctions had been a carefully negotiated effort that had United Nations support, and therefore broad buy-in, including that of the Russians and Chinese. Trump, on the other hand, has chosen to rudely upset the existing consensus rather than carefully gaining the tacit support of other nations. Unlike the last time around, Merkel can't be asked to take one for the team—there is no team. And as Steve Randy Waldman points out, this time Europe and others have a morally and politically defensible grounds for enabling a work-around.

So rather than shutting down its sanction-remote bank like it did last time, Europe may simply turn a blind eye and allow it to stay open, EIH (or some other government-anointed financial institution)  becoming the go-to bank for conducting Iran's worldwide crude oil business. And if Iran has a means for selling its oil, it may be able to ignore Trump. Thus, the success (or not) of Trump's sanctions is ultimately a European policy variable. 

Supposing that Europe caves into pressure from Trump, then India or China could also set-up their own sanctions-remote banks. But these would be in rupee or yuan, neither of which has the wide usefulness of the dollar or euro. Realistically, only Europe can engineer a credible resistance. Here's hoping it does.