LONDON/ANKARA (Reuters) - It should have been a routine delivery of vegetable oil to Iran for making margarine; instead the tanker spent months in the Gulf as banks held up payment for the cargo, fearing they would run foul of international sanctions.
The sanctions regime, imposed by the United States and European Union over Tehran's nuclear program, permits trade in humanitarian goods such as food and pharmaceuticals.
Yet many banks are steering clear of financing any deals with Iran due to a series of fines handed out by U.S. authorities for dealing with sanctioned countries, including a recent $8.97 billion penalty for BNP Paribas of France.
So from January to March this year the Greek-run tanker lay at anchor before it was forced to head to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates to refuel - this also being difficult in Iran due to the sanctions. Eventually, a sale of goods bill for the transaction came through and the tanker discharged its cargo in Iran, but only after months of wasted time and mounting costs.
"This was meant to have been entirely uneventful business," the ship's manager told Reuters, requesting that the name of the vessel and his company be withheld - for fear of attracting negative publicity for a shipment that was entirely legal.
Iranians blame such disruption of trade for soaring food prices at home and shortages of medicines for the sick such as cancer patients.
Western shipping sources, Iranian officials, and suppliers of foods and medicines told Reuters that increasing numbers of shipments destined for Iran are being held up or stopped.
"The banking side is the core problem. We are seeing banks dropping out of providing this type of transaction or ceasing to process them. It is complicated and the costs are high for such trades. It looks like it will get harder to do this business," one U.S. exporter of humanitarian goods to Iran said.
U.S. officials said Washington was aware of the problems and taking steps to make humanitarian trade easier.
In May, trade sources and Iranian officials said hundreds of thousands of metric tons of grain and sugar were stuck in transit due to payment problems. The following month, Reuters reported that Iran was lobbying to get HSBC to process humanitarian trade transactions after Europe's biggest bank froze some financing because of concerns about potential breaches of international sanctions.
"International and even regional banks are hesitant to interact with Iran. We have been trying to find replacements for those banks but have not been very lucky," an official with Iran's central bank said.
Trade sources say at least 500,000 metric tons of wheat is currently held up due to payment problems. Iranian government officials separately confirmed there was a large backlog.
Despite diplomatic talks with world powers over Tehran's disputed nuclear program, banking problems continue, the official and other sources said.
The fines on banks in the past two years have made many fear U.S. regulators. Apart from the BNP Paribas penalty for breaches including trade with Iran, Germany's Commerzbank AG is expected to pay $600 million to $800 million to resolve investigations into its dealings with Iran and other countries under U.S. sanctions.
U.S. authorities are also investigating others including Italy's UniCredit and Germany's Deutsche Bank . In 2012, HSBC was fined $1.92 billion by U.S. regulators for various violations including doing business with Iran and money laundering in Mexico. Separately in 2012, New York regulators threatened to revoke Standard Chartered’s banking license after it broke sanctions on Iran.
Sanctions were first imposed in 2006 over the nuclear program which Tehran says is peaceful but the West fears could be used to make weapons.
"Humanitarian aid is not targeted, but the different aspects of sanctions have made it very difficult for Iran to import food and medicine," a senior Iranian government official said. "It allows smuggling networks to get rich."
A former U.S. official said: "Financial institutions are seeing the business, even though it is permissible, as too risky from an anti-money laundering perspective and not profitable enough to outweigh the potential penalties and the additional compliance costs."
A U.S. Treasury official, who declined to be named, said Washington had expanded general licenses issued for food, agricultural goods, medicine and medical devices to Iran.
"I acknowledge there are banks out there that are reluctant to facilitate these transfers for a variety of reasons - they are risk averse when it comes to dealing with Iran," the official said. "Iranians in the past have tried to evade sanctions, exploit or misuse what looks on the surface to be benign trade."
The official said Washington had set up two "humanitarian channels" in Europe and in Asia in recent months to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran. This followed an interim agreement in November known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) which provided some sanctions relief.
Several commercial banks and international companies were involved in the scheme, he said but declined to name them. "We see that both channels are being used quite a lot. The process has been going smoothly," the official said.
A separate U.S. official said Washington was able to get "a critical mass" of banks willing to do the trade.
"The idea here wasn't to create normalcy for Iranian banking, even in this area. The idea was (that) we need to be able to do a good faith effort to enable the movement of humanitarian goods to Iran," the second official said.
A spokeswoman for Archer Daniels Midland said the U.S. agribusiness giant was on approved lists for both the U.S. State Department and the government of Iran for this program. "The JPOA funding may resolve some of the problems that existed previously at the international banks on sales of food," the spokeswoman said.
Nevertheless, she added that many international banks simply "will not participate in the transactions for fear of being sanctioned or fined".
"This has been a problem even when suppliers have demonstrated to the banks that the transaction is validly licensed. The compliance departments of many international banks simply do not want to run the risk of involvement in Iranian transactions," she said.
Belgian financial group KBC said it had placed restrictions on its humanitarian trade including offering services just to well-established clients as well as working in currencies excluding U.S. dollars and only with buyers not blacklisted by the EU or United States.
Similarly, Dutch state-owned bank ABN Amro said it was involved in transactions only for existing clients and restricted to foodstuffs, healthcare, medical equipment or humanitarian purposes.
Some of the main Iranian banks still involved in transactions, including Bank Pasargad and Saman Bank declined to comment.
Ordinary Iranians say life is growing harder.
Babak Saremi, 43, a teacher who has leukemia, needs chemotherapy sessions once a month which cost 4.5 million rials($170) each. "My salary is $300 a month. I have sold my car, a few pieces of gold that my wife had to pay for the sessions but the price of medicine for the treatment goes higher and also it is becoming very difficult to find it," Saremi said.
"I wish we were not isolated and sanctioned. Then the price of such medicine would be cheaper. The price of my medicine has doubled in the past four months and it is becoming more difficult to find it even at the black market."
Hairdresser Faranak Mirzaie, 27, said that in the past seven months she had had to find black market dealers in Tehran to buy medicine for her mother who suffers from cancer. "Since (January) it has become almost impossible to find cancer-treatment medicine at state-run hospitals and pharmacies. And at the black market, you have to know a good dealer to find it for you."
"Even that takes days after ordering it until I can have it. Why should a cancer patient suffer because of not being able to find medicine due to sanctions? Sanctions make us suffer."
A manufacturer of cancer drugs in the city of Karaj said he was thinking about closing his factory due to the problems.
"Each time I have to fight to open letters of credit and so on. Restrictions on our banking system make it almost impossible to import raw materials for medicine," he said.
A U.S.-based supplier of medical devices to Iran said getting a deal done takes several months as very few banks were accepting Iranian letters of credit (L/Cs).
"Even if they do approve it, ... it takes two to three months of leg work before you can do anything," the supplier said. "Companies have received L/Cs from Iranian banks that were not sanctioned, yet the receiving bank of those L/Cs did not pass on that money to the owners. That is a huge fiasco especially when the product has been shipped."
Additional reporting by Anna Yukhananov in Washington, editing by Simon Robinson and David Stamp