The short story: The New York State Department of Financial Services released documents today alleging that Standard Chartered Bank conducted about $250 billion of business with Iranian banks between 2001 and
2010 2007, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in fees. In service of those ends, the bank routed thousands of Iranian payments through its New York branch, stripping data from the transactions to conceal the origins of the wire transfers, and despite U.S. sanctions that sought to prevent Iran from using its banks to finance the nation’s nuclear program.
In short, SCB operated as a rogue institution. By 2006, even the New York branch was acutely concerned about the bank’s Iran dollar-clearing program. In October 2006, SCB’s CEO for the Americas sent a panicked message to the Group Executive Director in London. “Firstly,” he wrote, “we believe [the Iranian business] needs urgent reviewing at the Group level to evaluate if its returns and strategic benefits are . . . still commensurate with the potential to cause very serious or even catastrophic reputational damage to the Group.” His plea to the home office continued: “[s]econdly, there is equally importantly potential of risk of subjecting management in US and London (e.g. you and I) and elsewhere to personal reputational damages and/or serious criminal liability.” (emphasis added)
Lest there be any doubt, SCB’s obvious contempt for U.S. banking regulations was succinctly and unambiguously communicated by SCB’s Group Executive Director in response. As quoted by an SCB New York branch officer, the Group Director caustically replied: “You f—ing Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians.”
According to the bank’s website, Standard Chartered was formed in 1969 by a merger of The Chartered Bank, which was doing business in Mumbai, Kolkata, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore by 1859, and the The Standard Bank, which was founded in South Africa in 1862. And which international reach and history might explain the cavalier attitude towards American banking regulations?
Update: A spokeswoman for Standard Bank reached out to The Observer to clarify that Standard Chartered sold its 39 percent stake in Standard Bank in 1987. “Standard Bank would like to point out that it has no links to Standard Chartered,” Standard Bank Chief Executive Officer Jacko Maree said in an emailed statement.
At any rate, DFS says Iran is just the start—the regulator said in a footnote to the order that it is investigating Standard Chartered’s business with the banks of other sanctioned countries, such as Sudan, Libya and Myanmar.