U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assured foreign banks and businesses that the United States will not block them from doing business with Iran under last year's historic nuclear accord.
"The United States is not standing in the way, and will not stand in the way, of business that is permitted in Iran since the [nuclear deal] took effect" in January, Kerry said on April 22 before meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York.
Kerry said he was trying to clear up uncertainty among businesses outside the United States about investing in Iran. The Iranian government has complained about not getting the full economic benefit of its July 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
"There are now opportunities for foreign banks to do business with Iran," Kerry said. "Unfortunately there seems to be some confusion among some foreign banks and we want to try and clarify that."
Banks that are now free to do business with Iran include those that are holding an estimated $55 billion in frozen Iranian assets, he said. Many of those banks have been nervous about returning the funds even since the deal went into effect.
Kerry recently estimated that Iran has received only $3 billion of that $55 billion in repatriated wealth it was expected to reap under the deal, at least in part because of overcautiousness among banks.
Kerry stressed that "among the nuclear-related sanctions that were lifted were those that prevented Iran from engaging with non-U.S. banks, including getting access to Iran's restricted funds."
The only exceptions, he said, would be engaging with banks and companies that are still blacklisted by the United States.
Kerry said it was understandable that some companies might need time to feel confident about doing business in Iran.
He said if banks continue to have questions about remaining U.S. sanctions targeting Iran's ballistic-missile program and sponsorship of militant groups, "they should just ask."
He noted that Tehran also needs to take more steps to welcome foreign businesses, such as by modernizing its banking system.
The nuclear agreement eased some sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union, and United Nations in return for Tehran curbing its nuclear program.
Zarif noted that "Iran has implemented its part of the bargain," including by disposing of some of its heavy water through an $8.6 million sale to the United States announced on April 22.
Tehran has called on the United States to do more to remove obstacles to the banking sector so that businesses feel comfortable with investing in Iran without penalties.
Current U.S. policy bars foreign banks from clearing dollar-based transactions with Iran through U.S. banks, and those restrictions will continue.
Despite Kerry's assurances, some Western firms say they remain wary of doing business in Iran because of the possibility that seemingly innocent Iranian companies might have links to entities blacklisted by the United States.
Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is still the target of U.S. sanctions, in particular has extensive business interests and ties in Iran which can be hard for foreigners to discern, so businesses must take pains to be sure they are not unwittingly violating sanctions by engaging with them.
Zarif said he hoped Kerry's clarification will help. "We hope that with this statement by Secretary Kerry...now we will see serious implementation of all...benefits that Iran should [derive] from this agreement," he said.
He added that Tehran hoped Kerry's words would "open the difficult path that has been closed because of concerns that banks have about the U.S. approach toward implementation of commitments" under the nuclear deal.
Kerry said there remained some "serious differences" with Iran on implementing the deal. "Those have to be the subject of future discussion, but its important for people to understand that an agreement is an agreement," he said.
It was the second meeting this week between Zarif and Kerry to discuss sanctions relief at the UN.