WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States slapped sanctions on three of Iran's largest state-owned banks Thursday, cranking up pressure on Tehran over its alleged nuclear weapons drive and terrorist financing.
"Iran exploits its global financial ties to pursue nuclear capabilities, develop ballistic missiles and fund terrorism," Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said.
"We are taking additional steps to combat Iran's dangerous conduct and to engage financial institutions worldwide to make the most informed decisions about those with whom they choose to do business," he said.
The sanctions announced by Paulson and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice targeted Bank Melli, Iran's largest bank, and Bank Mellat, for their alleged support of Iran's nuclear program.
A third bank, Bank Saderat, was designated "a terrorist financier." The US had imposed other sanctions against the bank in September 2006.
Iran's foreign ministry denounced the "hostile American policies" as "contrary to international law" and contended they were "doomed to failure."
The new sanctions also target the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which was accused of proliferating weapons of mass destruction, and the IRGC's elite Quds Force, which was designated as a supporter of terrorism.
The stepped-up pressure comes as the United States is pushing for a third United Nations resolution imposing wider economic sanctions against Tehran for failing to halt its nuclear program, which Washington alleges is aimed at making an atomic weapon but which Iran insists is peaceful.
"Iran's conduct is quickly turning it into a financial pariah," said Stuart Levey, Treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
The three targeted banks, together with Bank Sepah, which Washington had blacklisted in January, represent "well over a majority" of Iran's state-owned banks, he added.
The new sanctions forbid any financial transactions between a US citizen or private organization with the targets, and froze all the targets' assets under US jurisdiction.
The US move follows a call earlier this month from an international anti-money laundering watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force, for Iran to take steps to limit terrorist financing "on an urgent basis."
Bank Melli provides banking services to the government's nuclear and ballistic missile programs and entities controlled by the IRGC or the Quds force, the US government said.
Most active in the Gulf countries, it also has branches in Baghdad, Paris, Hong Kong and Hamburg, Germany.
Bank Melli has several subsidiaries: Bank Kargoshaee, in Tehran; Bank Melli Iran Zao, in Moscow; Melli Bank, in London; and Arian Bank, a joint venture with Bank Saderat in Kabul, Rice said.
Bank Mellat has branches in Armenia, Britain, South Korea and Turkey.
Bank Saderat, which allegedly finances US designated terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas, specializes in the financing of Iranian's foreign trade balance. Its international businesses are mainly concentrated in the Gulf countries and Lebanon, but it is also active in France, Germany and Greece.
The United States has pressured European banks to sever their ties with Iran. European giants HSBC, Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse have pulled out of Iran while BNP Paribas, Commerzbank and Dresdner Bank have severely curtailed their business with the Islamic republic.
"As awareness of Iran's deceptive behavior has grown, many banks around the world have decided as a matter of prudence and integrity that Iran's business is simply not worth the risk," Paulson said.
"It is plain and simple: reputable institutions do not want to be the bankers for this dangerous regime."
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