Concerns are growing over Washington’s apparently contradictory approach to sanctions on Iran.

The Obama administration is at once trying to persuade non-US banks to write trade finance and other banking business with Iran, but US banks remain barred from doing so because Washington has not repealed US legislation.

Mixed messages

A banker who once enforced US sanctions on entities dealing with Iran said the Obama administration is sending mixed messages on whether it will penalise those who do business with the Islamic Republic.

“Washington is pushing non-U.S. banks to do what it is still illegal for American banks to do,” Stuart Levey, who was the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the US Treasury from 2004 to 2011, wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

Deal jeopardised

An Obama appointment to that post, Levey is now chief legal officer for HSBC Holdings.

He was referring to a recent meeting in London during which US Secretary of State, John Kerry, sought to persuade European financial institutions to do business with Iran.

Sanctions on direct US business with Iran remain in place, raising fears that Iran will perceive the US is unwilling to fully readmit the Islamic Republic into global trade and Washington’s ambiguity over sanctions could precipitate the collapse of the deal.

Bank reluctance

Levey told the London meeting that HSBC had no intention of doing any new business with the Iranian regime. Several other major banks are also reportedly reluctant to do business with Iran.

The Obama administration meanwhile is under pressure to maintain US sanctions because some say that Iran, which is scaling down its nuclear programme, is still testing ballistic missiles and backing terrorism.