Treasury cuts Iran bank’s link to U.S.

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The Bush administration, stepping up pressure on Tehran, moved yesterday to sever a big Iranian state-owned bank from the U.S. financial system.

Stuart Levey, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the government’s action was taken against Bank Saderat, which the United States contends is used by Iran to transfer money to terrorist groups, including Hezbollah.

While Iranian financial institutions are barred from directly accessing the U.S. financial system, they are permitted to do so indirectly through banks in other countries. The U.S. is closing off that avenue for Bank Saderat. The action, which involved a change in regulations, doesn’t apply to other Iranian banks, another Treasury official said.

It marked the first time Treasury had resorted to a regulatory change of this kind to sever a bank, the official said.

“Today we have cut off one of the largest Iranian state-owned banks, Bank Saderat, from the U.S. financial system,” Mr. Levey said.

It was the administration’s latest effort against Iran.

The United States wants the United Nations to impose sanctions on Iran unless Tehran stops enriching uranium, a key step in making nuclear weapons.

Yesterday’s action is the latest step to financially clamp down as well on Hezbollah, which the United States says is bankrolled largely by Iran.

The Lebanon-based organization is a terrorist group suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks worldwide, and it triggered the 34-day battle between it and Israel.

Mr. Levey said that since 2001 a Hezbollah-controlled organization, which he did not identify, had received $50 million directly from Iran through Bank Saderat.

“Hezbollah has used Bank Saderat to transfer funds, sometimes in the millions of dollars, to support the activities of other terrorist organizations such as Hamas in Gaza,” Mr. Levey said. “We will no longer allow a bank like Saderat to do business in the American financial system, even indirectly.”

Mr. Levey is scheduled to travel to Europe, where he will talk to government officials and business people about persuading banks and other financial institutions to stop doing business with Iran. Some banks are already rethinking their relationships with the country, he said.

“Earlier this year, the Swiss bank UBS cut off all dealing with Iran,” Mr. Levey said. “HSBC and Credit Suisse have also limited their exposure to Iranian business.”

It is a difficult decision for banks to make given Iran’s standing in the global economy, including its position as a major oil supplier, Mr. Levey acknowledged in an interview last week.

“The next steps may involve sacrifice, but I think that people are beginning to recognize that the costs we face now pale in comparison to those we might face in the future if Iran does not change course,” he said yesterday.

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