A Swift Iran Decision

Iranian banks have to be expelled from the global financing network.

By The Editorial Board

Source: Wall Street Journal


Another trans-Atlantic showdown is looming as the Trump Administration prepares its next tranche of financial sanctions on Iran, and the puzzle is why Europe keeps backing itself into a corner. Brussels and European Union states seem ready to stage a battle with Washington over an obscure but important financial-service network—against Europe’s own interests.

The looming brouhaha concerns Swift, the Belgium-based cooperative that manages the global system that banks use to communicate with each other for cross-border transactions. The Trump Administration will soon lay out its plans for financial sanctions on Tehran to take effect in November, as Washington reintroduces sanctions lifted under the Obama Administration’s 2015 nuclear deal. One question is whether the new sanctions include Swift.

The logo of global secure financial messaging services cooperative Swift. PHOTO: CHRIS HELGREN/REUTERS

They will have to in order to be effective, because cutting Iran off from Swift’s services is one of the best ways to ensure that financial sanctions bite. Were Swift to sever ties with Iranian banks, Iranian companies and financial institutions would struggle to transfer money to and from the rest of the world.

Alternatives exist, but none offer Swift’s global reach or security. Europe’s much-vaunted “special-purpose vehicle” for trading around U.S. financial sanctions, announced last month, is expected to be little more than a glorified barter arrangement with limited scope.

Swift is particularly prone to U.S. pressure because the American financial system looms so large in the world. Swift’s board includes representatives of European and American banks, and many messages across its network travel to or from the U.S. Some Europeans believe Washington wields too much influence over a network they think should operate on a multilateral consensus like a financial EU.

Swift cooperated with the U.S. against Iran from 2012-2016 when the Obama Administration sought to pressure the mullahs. But Swift officials say Europe and the U.S. agreed on that policy. Now they say they’re being coerced by the U.S. without European assent.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recently floated the idea that Europe could develop its own messaging system as an alternative to Swift, in part to undermine Washington’s ability to impose financial sanctions. China and Russia would be delighted to have an alternative that let them avoid U.S. influence.

Swift officials say the U.S. should worry that an alternative would undermine Swift’s ability to help the U.S. and Europe monitor terror transactions. But terrorists already know to avoid Swift and use other ways to finance their operations. In any case, an alternative would be difficult to make work given the expansive reach of U.S. institutions and the dollar in global finance.

Brussels also has passed a “blocking statute” making it illegal for European companies to comply with U.S.-imposed sanctions. This could be used to lean on Swift to ignore a Washington ban on doing business with Iran. But most European companies have already made clear that they will choose doing business with the U.S. over Iran.

On Tuesday, 30 policy experts and former U.S. officials urged the Trump Administration to include Swift in sanctions. The statement’s signers include former Sen. Joe Lieberman and former national security advisers Richard Allen and Robert McFarlane.

Despite the discord over the nuclear deal, America and Europe share many common interests on Iran and global financial flows. Those include shared concerns over Iran’s ballistic-missile program, which isn’t covered by the 2015 deal, Tehran’s regional meddling, and sunset clauses in the Obama agreement.

European governments are also increasingly concerned about global money laundering and other illicit money flows. Preserving Swift as the main global financial-messaging system is as much in Europe’s interest as America’s. U.S. sanctions that bring Tehran back to the table to address the gaping holes in the 2015 deal are good for Europe and the U.S., and Swift can help toward that goal.