Standard Chartered accused of over $250bn of illegal transactions to Iran

"You fucking Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians?"

Standard Chartered, the British bank, stands accused of having run a major operation to facilitate money transfers in and out of Iran, in violation of American sanctions against the company. The amount of money it is thought moved totals $250bn, and would have earned Standard Chartered millions in fees.

The New York department of financial services said in a statement that:

Motivated by greed, [Standard Chartered] acted for at least ten years without any regard for the legal, reputational, and national security consequences of its flagrantly deceptive actions.

The full complaint claims jaw-dropping levels of arrogance on the part of the bank. When London was informed of concerns by the head of American operations that US law was being systematically broken, the group director 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?

In order to facilitate the trades without being found out, the banks employees had to strip the information that the trades were coming from Iran out of the wire transfer. And when volume grew too high to manage, they automated the systems:

When SCB anticipated that its business with Iranian Clients would grow too large for SCB employees to “repair” manually the instructions for New York bound wire transfers, SCB automated the process by building an electronic repair system with “specific repair queues,” for each Iranian Client.

Once the bank realised that the heat was on, it started getting even more tricksy. It asked its auditor, Deloitte, to delete any mention of the activities from its report:

Having improperly gleaned insights into the regulators’ concerns and strategies for investigating U-Turn-related misconduct, SCB asked D&T to delete from its draft “independent” report any reference to certain types of payments that could ultimately reveal SCB’s Iranian U-Turn practices. In an email discussing D&T’s draft, a D&T partner admitted that “we agreed” to SCB’s request because “this is too much and too politically sensitive for both SCB and Deloitte. That is why I drafted the watered-down version.”

And eventually even moved their compliance department to India to forestall the regulators:

Outsourcing of the entire OFAC compliance process for the New York branch to Chennai, India, with no evidence of any oversight or communication between the Chennai and the New York offices.

What's really scary is that even the "good guys" - the people at Standard Chartered who were raising questions - reveal breathtaking attitudes towards breach of law. The head of American operations, who first told London of his concerns, is quoted as writing:

Firstly, 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. Secondly, 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.

Reread that first point. He is not saying "we have broken the law, and need to stop", but instead "we have broken the law, and need to review its returns and strategic benefits to make sure it's worth doing". That is evidence of internalised corruption to a worrying degree.

The bank itself rejects "the position and portrayal of facts made by the New York State Department of Financial Services", according to its statement. Its major position is that the vast majority of its transactions to Iran were legal, and the the DFS has misinterpreted a point of law. It claims just $14m worth of transactions broke the regulations, and that it brought those to the regulator's attention as soon as it knew.

Standard Chartered had been one of the banks which made it through the crisis relatively unchanged. That looks set to change now.

Standard Chartered faces severe allegations. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.